Marylynn Steckley was a Policy Analyst and Advocacy Coordinator in Haiti for over five years and is now a faculty member at Carleton University. Marylynn investigates the relationships between of class, food, and environmental health, she is intrigued by how food meanings, expectations, and symbols impact diets, relationships, and politics. Food is power but eating can also be emancipatory! Marylynn loves vegan fare, but peanut butter stuffed pretzels and chocolate cheesecake from time to time too.
After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Identify connections between food choices and food meanings, identities, and statuses.
- Demonstrate how food choices are constrained by food meanings, social structures and ideologies.
- Explain how food meanings, and food hierarchies are central to debates about food sovereignty.
Introduction: Foodie or Fraud? Identity, Class, and Food Meanings
What do I eat? I’m a white, female professor in food systems. I know what you’re thinking: Whole Foods, fair trade, organic. Foodie and scholar, Julie Guthman calls this “yuppie food”. You have never seen me eat, but my job, my gender, and my skin colour tell a story about me. The inverse is also true. The foods I eat also tell a story about my identity. Here’s an example.
I was out for an interview lunch for an academic job, and I needed to make a good impression. This was a foodie bunch. I ordered the “Zen Crunch,” which included grilled bok choy, cashews, bean sprouts, shredded kale, and sesame-ginger vinaigrette. Why that dish? Certainly, taste played a role (it sounded delicious), but it also gave just the right impression—upwardly mobile, “woke” or enlightened, food conscious and appreciating, healthy, perhaps vegan or vegetarian (diets that have their own connotations of environmentalism, animal welfare, and beyond). Each of these are valued in foodie culture. But these foods don’t reflect my roots.
I grew up in rural Ontario, and money was tight because I’m from a single-parent home. My mother worked in a factory (she was the only woman), and my sisters and I also helped her clean houses. My mum’s food ethic was healthy and low cost; porridge was the breakfast of choice. But when she wasn’t around, my sisters and I loved Kraft Dinner, Swedish Berries, and Cap’n Crunch. We would often grab these at the convenience store up the street when home alone.
My class background, and current class position are paradoxical, and my food preferences mirror this disjuncture. When I need to invoke my foodie identity, I know what choices will give the impression that I am educated and of a certain class: farmers markets, heirloom tomatoes, goji berries. But I also have a sort of “coming out” fantasy, in which I escape the pressure of performing a class that I don’t feel I belong to. It goes like this: I walk into my food studies class with a covered tray of something tasty to share with my students. “Close your eyes, I have brought a treat.” I imagine their thoughts: Vegan tahini chocolate chunk cookies? Himalayan kale chips with lime zest? “Open your eyes.” In front of each student is a paper cup full of Kraft Dinner (KD), with a squirt of ketchup. My fantasy ends when the students look up at me, surprised and unsure. Just what I was hoping for!
Disrupting identity and food meanings makes me almost gleeful. It’s like throwing off the shackles of social hierarchies. I do my best to make environmentally sound and socially just dietary choices, but I also grew up connecting with my sisters over fast food and sugary cereals. I’m careful not to order the Happy Meal equivalent during a lunch interview, but I’m sure my sister would make fun of me if I brought a vegan quinoa Buddha Bowl to a potluck. There are the foods I’m proud to eat in the company of foodies, and there are foods I would eat at home, but not in public. The symbolic significance of food—food meaning—is powerful.
On the surface, enjoying both Zen Crunch and KD might seem innocent, but our food choices have hefty environmental, social, and health consequences. Food shapes landscapes, community health, and bodies. Power really is in every bite. Organic foods are more environmentally friendly, fair trade foods are more socially justice, plant-based diets are more nutritionally sound. Maybe you see no problem with the disdain for the junk foods that I grew up on, especially when they include Kraft Dinner and Happy Meals. But what happens when people disdain other kinds of family or traditional foods—those with specific cultural significance? What happens if I turn my nose up at my aunt’s Christmas pudding, or my mum’s lasagna? That kind of disdain has a different feel: it leans towards food stigma. Familial and culturally significant foods harness emotions and relationships. Beyond cultural value, food meanings can also reflect hierarchies and social stratification. So what happens when the food of one group is considered more valuable than that of another?
In what follows, I explore food hierarchies in Haiti, where peasant farmers often disdain the very foods that they produce; where many black, Haitian, rural dwellers value imported “white foods” over local, nationally produced ones; and where food hierarchies often mirror social hierarchies.
Historicizing Food, Race, and Identity in Haiti
Haiti—the pearl of the Antilles—is perhaps most famous for two things: it is the world’s first Black republic, and it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. For 300 years, kidnapped Africans were shipped across the Atlantic to the island of Hispaniola, where they laboured on sugar plantations. Alongside the physical brutality of the plantation system, enslaved people were psychologically oppressed. Colonizers violently imposed race-based social hierarchies that cemented a perceived relationship between skin colour and status, entrenched ideas of Black inferiority, and fostered desires to assimilate to the white colonial culture.
In the late 18th century, the enslaved people of Hispaniola rose up, defeated Napoleon’s army and declared independence. But Haiti’s physical liberation from plantation agriculture did not mark the end of racial hierarchies. In Haiti, the biological fallibility of “race” continues to be overshadowed by pervasive perceptions that link race to social status.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that history and memory have lasting impacts on ideologies, which, in turn, guide and constrain behaviour. In the case of Haiti, histories of colonialism, violence and racism locked-in racist ideologies, which have become hegemonic. Caribbean scholar Franz Fanon tells us that many formerly colonized people experience the “epidermalization of inferiority”, which is when racist ideologies are internalized, and people of colour start to believe that that they are worth less because of their skin colour. The result is that individual choices and preferences uphold elite values, and habits. In the colonial period, for example, those perceived as “milat” often mimicked white habits and styles to improve their social standing. Today in Haiti, rural, Kreyòl- speaking peasants are often described using derogatory terms, and people with lighter skin are often more likely to have professional jobs, speak French, and tend to be prioritized in hospitals, banks, and government offices. So, what does this have to do with food?
Exploring Food Meanings and Hierarchies in Port-au-Prince, and Dezam
When I first set out to research the struggles of the Haitian peasantry, I had just completed a three-year term as a Food Advocacy Coordinator in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. I was privileged to have been in a position where I learned from leaders of organizations who were deeply engaged in food justice and food sovereignty movements. That learning led me to a pursue nearly three years of critical ethnographic research in Dezam, Haiti in the Artibonite valley. During this time, I conducted over 300 qualitative food frequency, dietary recall, and food and agricultural behaviour surveys with peasant farmers, and over 40 key informant interviews with government officials, and leaders of peasant organizations.
Some of the those I interviewed became mentors, and taught me about how the colonial plantation economy, recurrent foreign interventions in Haitian politics, and the country’s parasitic merchant elite and predatory state have together impoverished the masses, undermined democracy, and denied the rural citizenry access to most basic services, from potable water to electricity to decent education and healthcare. One of my most important mentors was Ari Nikola, the director of Kore Pwodiksyon Lokal (Support Local Production). Ari said:
To understand Haiti, you first must recognize that for 300 years we were forced to believe that we were inferior, and these ideas have not gone away. Although we haven’t been physically enslaved for over 300 years, these ideas persist—the reference point of what is good is what is white, what is Western. The enduring mentality of enslaved people today is the consequence of slavery. To understand Haiti, you need to understand this history.
Ari and I often shared meals—pitimi (sorghum/millet), mayi moulen (cornmeal), patat (sweet potato), joumou (pumpkin)—foods rarely served at roadside restaurants, or at the office of non-governmental organizations, which unfailingly served white rice. In my effort to learn, I asked the office kitchen cook if we could prepare pitimi together. She laughed, “No!” she told me, “pitimi is peasant food.” Similarly, a friend told me a story about his partner and her love for joumou, another “peasant” food. One day he came home to find her in the backroom eating joumou; she was hiding, and embarrassed to have him find her.
Over time, I learned that many “peasant” foods are viewed with disdain, and that prestigious foods are often associated with foreigners and the elite. I started to log these and got a sense of Haiti’s food hierarchies. Prestigious foods are refined, packaged, and “foreign.” For example, white beans, white sugar, and white crackers are considered superior to black beans, brown sugar, and dark molasses buns (bon bon siwo, which are an alternative snack to white crackers, or bon bon sèl). Similarly, pitimi, joumou, and patat are disparaged and associated with the poor, Black peasantry. One interviewee called these manje mizerab (“miserable food”). My surveys also showed that spaghetti, meat, and rice are associated with white people, the urban elite, and the wealthy. To illustrate the centrality of rice in Haitian dietary aspirations, one community organization leader described a local study that he conducted to a get a sense of the significance of local desires to eat rice, and the prestige that rice carries. Researchers went to the mountain tops (mountain people are notoriously looked down on in Dezam) and conducted dietary surveys. They found that people were eating yams, even though they said that they didn’t, and that they only eat rice.” In other words, these survey participants wanted to claim a higher status by saying that they ate rice.
In Haiti, food meanings and hierarchies are influenced by racist ideologies. But equally importantly is the historical fortitude of social movements and the long legacy of peasant resistance. While my research indicates that dietary aspirations tend to be geared towards the consumption practices of the elite, some countervailing food values do exist. For example, many Haitians believe local chicken is more nutritious and tastes better than imported chicken, that local rice is superior to diri miyami (imported rice), and that local fresh juice is more prestigious that imported soft drinks or sweetie (which is like Kool-Aid). And although pumpkin is disparaged, soup joumou (pumpkin soup), which in the colonial era was reserved only for blan colonizers, is an important symbol of Haitian pride and independence. It is said that following the revolution and the advent of Haitian independence, Haitians of all class groups came to celebrate emancipation by feasting with soup joumou every Independence Day. These examples speak to a countermovement in food, a food justice sentiment that challenges the status quo. Indeed, pro-peasant food values exist in Haiti, and are gaining strength.
Ari Nikola continues to lead a food justice movement. He promotes local food across the country at festivals, and community gatherings, and has local food advocacy commercials, like this one, “Manman Doudou” on national television.
Implicationsand Future Pathways: Prospects for Food Sovereignty in Haiti
While it would be impossible to quantify the influence of food meaning on total food consumption (or to calculate the threat that aspiration for elite foods poses to peasant producers), there is striking symbolic alignment between peasant and elite values with respect to food preferences. Prestigious foods continue to be associated with white, elite, and foreign groups, and ‘Black’, peasant food continues to be met with disdain. This indicates an enduring ideological control that the Haitian elite and foreigners exert over the Haitian peasantry, and presents an important obstacle to food sovereignty. Food sovereignty emphasizes that power relations are embedded in food systems and conceptualizes overcoming food system inequality by supporting democratic decision-making over food, ecologically integrated agricultural systems, and local food-provisioning networks. The vision is to create food systems that are ecologically, nutritionally, and culturally enriching.
Negative attitudes towards the peasantry and towards peasant foods raise serious questions about the role of food meanings in limiting the pro-peasant goals associated with food sovereignty. Historically rooted race-based social hierarchies influence food meanings and preferences. It is not a stretch to imagine that ensuing food choices affect the land, create demand for imported food, and limit support for local food, peasant farmers, and food justice. At the same time, Ari Nikola’s messages—value local food, support the peasantry, have pride in what you produce—is a core mantra among peasant leaders, who agree that food is fundamental to Haiti’s development prospects, and that any meaningful pro-peasant change to Haiti’s food systems must involve the re-valorization of traditional diets.
Conclusion: Food Meanings Matter
In Haiti and beyond, social hierarchies affect food meanings, and in turn food meanings affect food preferences and choices. Our food choices have real impacts on the ground, environmentally and socially. My hope is that the case of Haiti sheds light on how ideas of food—food meaning—can impede healthy, ecologically rooted food systems. As Ari says, food justice initiatives must address systemic inequality, including race-based social hierarchies, and the “epidermalization of inferiority.”
Beyond Haiti, the truth is that I love a good vegan Buddha Bowl. The environmental burden of foods pulls at my heart strings (and my pocketbook). But I also love chips. Mostly, I try to do right by my health and the environment, but sometimes I don’t. Regardless, shaming and exclusion do not move us toward food sovereignty, in Haiti, Canada, or elsewhere.
Mind Mapping Personal Food Choices
List five foods that you would be proud to share with a new acquaintance or colleague, and five foods that you would be embarrassed or hesitant to share. Reflect on your personal history with these foods. Then, in a mind-map diagram, write the characteristics, qualities, or social perceptions that you associate with these foods.
Scenario—What does this food say about me?
You’re a first-year university student and you have just arrived on campus. The first person you meet is really nice, has many friends, and seems effortlessly cool. They ask you to join them for lunch at a craft beer pub a block away. On the walk over, they tell you about the activities they enjoy. You sit down to your table. You like them—and you’re more and more interested in them liking you. What do you order? You find yourself wondering: What will a bacon cheeseburger say about me? What will a “Vegan Aztec Grain Bowl” say? Write a description of the food that you order and explain in a paragraph why you made this choice.
Reflecting on Racism, Food Preference, and Meaning
Listen to the podcast “Erasing Black Barbecue” and, reflecting on what you heard in the podcast and what you read in this chapter, consider the following:
- Franz Fanon argues that the “epidermalization of inferiority” happens when people of colour come to believe, or internalize, racist myths that associate skin colour with worth. In Haiti, ideologies of racism have become hegemonic, influencing food meanings and food preferences. How does racism influence food meanings and food hierarchies in the North American context?
Podcast: The Racist Sandwich. E 58, “Erasing Black Barbecue.”
Kore Pwodiksyon Lokal (“Support Local Production”) TV commercial #1
Kore Pwodiksyon Lokal (“Support Local Production”)TV commercial, “Manman Doudou”
Bourdieu, P. 1980. The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Stanford University Press.
Fanon, F. 1952. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
Fanon, F. 1967. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Guthman, J. 2003. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow.’” Social & Cultural Geography4 (1): 45–58. https://doi.org/10.1080/1464936032000049306.
- Guthman 2010. ↵
- Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is known as “Kraft Dinner” in Canada. ↵
- Bourdieu 1980, 1984. ↵
- Fanon 1963, 1967. ↵
- It is important to note that while the Kreyòl word milat translates directly to the English “mulatto,” the word carries a different meaning in Haiti than in North America. In Haiti, it is a historically rooted term used to describe either a person born with one “Black” and one “white” parent (the latter usually being a colonizer) or a person born of two “mulatto” parents. It is also used to signify a person of lighter complexion and is generally associated with the urban bourgeoisie class. This is illustrated by the Haitian proverb: “Nèg rich se milat, milat pòv se nèg,” which means “A rich negro is a mulatto, a poor mulatto is a negro.” This suggests that skin colour and class are not only intricately connected, they are also malleable. In Haiti, lighter skin can signify a higher class, and lighter phenotypes may make people overlook other attributes that signify poverty. At the same time, when one has wealth and dark skin, one might be labelled “blan.” I remember a day in Dezam, when a dark-skinned Haitian pulled up to a street vendor near me in a fancy SUV, and an onlooker said, “Gade yon blan,” or “Look at the white guy.” In Haiti, colour and class are connected in complex ways. ↵
- Manman Doudou is a term of endearment, which literally translates as “sweet/kind mother.” ↵
- Bernstein 2014. ↵
- Patel 2009; Walford & McCarthy 2016; Wittman 2015. ↵