Wednesday, July 27, 2016

My Interview with Alex Barnard, Author of Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America

Alex Barnard
Earlier this year I wrote a review of Alex Barnard's new book, Freegans:  Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America. After I published the review, I asked Alex if he would be willing to answer some interview questions for the blog. He was kind enough to consent and the interview is below. It provides greater insight into his interest in freegans, his thoughts on food waste, and his writing process.

I really enjoyed your book and I felt like a bit of a voyeur as I entered a world that I found particularly fascinating. As an ethnographer, you give us tremendous insight into the freegan and anti-capitalist movement in New York City. You spent a considerable amount of time interviewing and getting to know activists. Your book provides a balanced look at the issue of freeganism and radical food activism in Manhattan. What was the response to the book of those who were profiled in the book and the food activism community in general?

It's a bit early to say what the response to the book is (or if there will be one!). I've been lucky enough to stay in contact with some of the freegans in New York and given those interested in it copies. But in many ways, the world has moved on from freeganism - and so have many of the freegans themselves. In that sense, it's been a bit of an uphill battle to convince people that, even if freeganism itself has dropped a bit off the food movement radar screen, the overall message of the movement - that we can't reduce food waste without rethinking the fundamental bases of a capitalist agricultural system - remains relevant.

You noted in the acknowledgements that your parents questioned your desire to study food issues. What was their reaction to the book?

I think that was slightly intended to be a joke, given that they were paying for me to go to Princeton and I wound up in a dumpster! They're both environmentalists so I think they very much appreciate the topic, even if they have a much more pragmatic approach. Someone who read about my senior thesis even sent my Dad a "My Son is a Friggin' Freegan" t-shirt, and he found it pretty amusing!

I was struck by the way you link food waste to neoliberal capitalism throughout the book. Few in the U.S. make this link. Given our current drive to enhance globalization through the Trans Pacific Partnership, what gives you hope that things will improve?

I think this link is absolutely essential! It's silly to think that we can explain the veritable explosion in food waste (a 50% increase per capita since the 1970s) without looking at the connections with the massive changes in capitalism taking place in that period: financialization, globalization, commoditization, privatization... My own politics have changed somewhat since when I was in the thick of, and so I'd say that my 'hope' for the future comes from mass movements like that behind Bernie Sanders or Black Lives Matter, with the hope that they will eventually turn into a genuine left party. What I do not think should give us hope - and which, paradoxically, movements like freeganism often put their hopes into - is that environmental degradation will somehow on its own force a change in how capitalism works.

Your book focuses largely on freegans in Manhattan, which is certainly a place vastly different from the rest of the United States. In some ways, some in the freegan movement in New York City became what I call sustainulebrities due to their highly visible presence in the media and in documentaries. How do you think the fame of freegans and feeganism impacted the food movement?

"Sustainulebrities" - I love the term! I'm very explicit in the book that I think that New York City was a uniquely favorable "ecosystem" for freeganism. The density of the city and its relatively rudimentary waste removal city (curbside pick up of trash bags) made it possible for to dumpster dive openly and publicly, with very little of the harassment from police or store owners that freegans encounter elsewhere. And of course, New York is large enough to have a thriving activist scene, even on the radical fringes, open to something like freeganism.

On the other hand, I'm not sure freeganism has had the impact on the food movement that I would have hoped it would. In particular, I think that food waste remains fairly siloed as an issue - you have people working on animal rights, local agricultural, and food justice, and they're increasingly collaborating with one another, while I'm afraid that the big food waste initiatives we're seeing are tainted by the fact that huge, very problematic companies like Wal-Mart or Whole Foods have jumped on board. I think that if you asked the average food movement activist what impact freeganism has had on them, I think the answer would be "very little" - except for a few who really did get their start diving in dumpsters.

I come from rural Wisconsin and I also work at a Long Island University (Hofstra University) which has a strong research focus on suburban issues. As I am sure you know, the suburbs are changing rapidly and are becoming more diverse with areas of extreme poverty. Some are also becoming centers of immigration, similar to what happened in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late 19th century. Even though they are less frequently studied, rural areas and the suburbs are more vulnerable to food insecurity than the cities because local smaller governments are unable to deal with complex issues such as poverty and food insecurity. In addition, there is not a strong tradition of non-profit services in these areas. Do you think that some of your conclusions would be different if you concentrated your work in these less cosmopolitan settings?

Absolutely! I talk about New York City as an "ecosystem" for freeganism for a reason! That said, there's plenty of food waste in suburban areas - I've recovered quite a bit of it myself - but it's harder to imagine doing a walking trash tour like freegans did in the 'burbs. It's also a long-established sociological finding that cities tend to attract and promote subcultures in a way that suburbs traditionally haven't. 

On the other hand, despite all of the attention to urban food deserts, the growing visibility of suburban poverty is going to make the question of food access ever more present. And while it might be harder to dumpster dive, other freegan activities - like abandoned-lot farming, wild food foraging, or squatting - might actually be much more practical in a suburban setting.

You mentioned the work of Food Not Bombs several times in your book. I am familiar with their efforts on Long Island where they do a tremendous amount of work on food issues. I wondered several times as I read your book whether there was any conflict between the folks involved with and the folks involved with Food Not Bombs. In some ways, Food Not Bombs is ultimately the more successful organization, but I wonder whether it is was seen in this way by the folks you worked with in developing your book. What are your thoughts on Food Not Bombs?

I think Food Not Bombs is great and the book actually originally had almost an entire chapter on Food Not Bombs in the East Bay in California, which I looked at as something of a "precursor" to I wouldn't say there was a great deal of conflict between and FNB during the time of my research, because in so many ways - in their commitment to egalitarian organizing, meetings peoples' needs outside of capitalism, or reducing waste - the two movements are incredibly close. On the other hand, I had the impression that the groups attracted different demographics: was more media savvy and had a greater age and gender diversity (both groups could be critiqued for often missing racial and class diversity).

The broader critique of Food Not Bombs is the same as for freegans, as for Occupy Wall Street, as for squats... how do we take these exciting initiatives happening at a local level and actually scale them up? In the end, this is where my thinking has changed the most, because I think that to really transform the food system, we will have to engage with the state and with policy in a much deeper way than most anarchist-inspired movements are prepared to.

We are often changed by the topics we study. In many ways, we open a Pandora’s Box when we tackle difficult subjects like food insecurity. How were you changed by conducting the research for this book?

I started my research as a "recently converted" vegan; my model of "activism" at the time was to convince people to buy soy steaks instead of beef steaks and that would pretty much solve things. was crawling with one-time vegans ready to disabuse me of my illusions about ethical consumption! I've never been so serious that I'd call myself a "freegan" - although, as I state many times in the book, there isn't really an official threshold at which you've earned the title - but waste recovery, mutual aid, and limited consumption are still a big part of my life nine years later. I even met my wife in a dumpster!

One of the amazing aspects about this book is that it started as an undergraduate project. I brought your book to my senior seminar class and told my students that they too could write and publish a book if they took the time to research and write. I commend you on the contribution you made not only on the topic but on your ability to publish such an important book so early in your career. Many writers have a process that they use to stay productive. In my case, I took a seminar many years ago with Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist’s Way, which helped me develop solid methods for increasing my writing output. What did you do to stay on track and keep writing and what recommendations would you give to young writers who are just starting a project?

The answer is that I didn't stay on track and was lucky to have people who guided me back to the project when I strayed from it! The idea that the project could be a book came from my undergraduate advisor; at the time, I didn't really believe him and the thesis remained untouched for two years as I moved on to other things. When I started at Berkeley, though, Professor Michael Burawoy read the bloated, unfocused opus that was my thesis and encouraged me to give it another go. There was then a series of starts and stops. In the end, though, once I really landed on the big idea of the book - "the ex commodity" - the (re)writing went extremely fast. The take away, for me, was that writing is going to be painfully slow until you figure out what you really want to say - but that there's no way to figure that out other than writing!

You are now working on your Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. Can you tell us about your current project?

I've now wandered off in a completely different direction, and passed the relay on food waste to the numerous researchers doing greater and scientifically very rigorous work on the topic. I'm following a different itch and looking at cross-national differences in health care for severe mental illness: why, for the same illnesses and increasingly similar medical practices, does this population have such different trajectories between the health, disability, and justice systems? The only connection with food waste, I suppose, is that studying both involves looking at a shameful underbelly of our society's functioning and finding value in things or people who are often, literally or figuratively, discarded...


To Purchase  Freegans:  Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America click here.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Hofstra University Is Looking for Student Volunteers for the Debate

For the third presidential election in a row, Hofstra University will host one of the main presidential debates. This time, it will be between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday, September 26th. If there are any Hofstra students out there looking for an opportunity to get involved with the events surrounding the debate, the university is looking for volunteers. Click here for more information

I was on campus for the last debate and it was a wonderful experience. While I didn't attend the actual debate, there were many events going on before, during, and after the debate on campus that provided terrific experiences for students, faculty, and staff. I posted here and here. about the experiences on campus four years ago. I had international election observers in my class, my students got to meet with many famous experts, and I got to meet students from around the country who came to campus to be present during the event.

I am sure that this year, if previous debates were any guide, we will have a very interesting few weeks before the election.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Caves, Pokémon Go, and Teenage Exploration

A monster showed up in my real world as I
was working on this blog post.
Last week, as the Pokémon Go craze started to accelerate, news came from England that four teenagers got lost in a cave trying to find Pokémon monsters. I think there is more to this story than meets the eye since one needs a GPS signal to play the game and GPS signals do not reach most subsurface caves. But the report highlights how the game is causing people to leave their homes in search of monsters. This story, among others such as this one about a shooting in Florida, highlights the spate of news stories about how Pokémon Go is causing havoc in society. But is it really havoc?

Perhaps we are just getting back to normal. 

For the last generation or two, youth were stuck in a virtual world that kept them tied to their computers, tablets, and cell phones. Many stopped venturing out into the real world with all of the consequences that brings. We stopped seeing youth on the streets and we became comfortable with urban and suburban spaces that were largely teenage free.

However, Pokémon Go is changing all of this. The game blurs the real world with a virtual world to create a unique space that encourages walking and exploration. Sure, there are problems that can emerge as we get used to seeing teenagers in groups in public again. Plus, many teenagers, with all of the scheduled pressures of oversight in this era's helicopter parenting are for the first time exploring their neighborhoods alone or in groups. It's an exciting time and youth culture is changing in interesting ways.

What is striking about Pokémon Go is how cleanly the virtual world merges into the natural world (note the image associated with this blog post). Poké stops were designed to educate players about cultural sites (monuments, museums, etc.) in their neighborhood. When I downloaded the game, I was amazed at the extensive real infrastructure present within the system. As one plays the game, one not only is encouraged to wander around, but one also is drawn to sites of interest, the Poké stops. As such, the game brings in interesting elements of geocaching while also providing opportunities for deeper understanding of one's local geography.

I think Pokémon Go is a watershed moment for today's youth and for society in general. The game encourages greater connection with the real world while also overlaying a fascinating virtual world that helps us better understand our neighborhoods, historical sites, and cultural landscapes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Economic Development and Pseudoscience in Kentucky

Click for photo credit.
The Los Angeles Times published an interesting article about the opening of the Noah's Ark attraction in Kentucky that was built with the help of local and state tax dollars and incentives. The project is getting quite a bit of criticism locally and nationally since the tourist attraction includes exhibits that disregard science, including a highly controversial exhibit showing dinosaurs in cages. The people who built the exhibit deny that the earth is billions of years old and that the dinosaurs went extinct millions of years before the evolution of humans.

Pseudoscience and economic development are leitmotifs of this blog, so when they come together, it is a special day. I've written about the dumbing down of American culture in regards to pseudoscience several times--particularly the role of cable science and education channels in creating junk culture. But, I have not explored the role of governments in advancing pseudoscience via economic development schemes.

Economic development is done at the national, state, and local levels by governments to promote particular goals (such as improving the lives of citizens), to promote general economic growth, or to advance particular industries that make sense for the region. Today, most economic development initiatives are associated with measurable targets and outcomes such as job creation or environmental improvements.

Two good examples of national economic development strategies that most are familiar with are the interstate highway system and the development of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Both of these initiatives had significant impacts on economic growth.

State and local initiatives vary significantly based on local and regional priorities. I have been working on economic development issues on Long Island for the last 5 years and the priorities of the region are very clearly spelled out in a variety of planning documents. Extensive discussion occurred (and continues to occur) with a variety of stakeholders who are striving to advance Long Island's economy in ways that improve the environment, provide equitable opportunities, and that build upon our region's strong history of technology and top-notch education. I cannot think of a single project that was funded that included any element of pseudoscience. Instead, investments were made in things like biotech, in renovating Tesla's Long Island laboratory, in educational initiatives, and infrastructure improvement (to name but a few types of projects).

There are, however, examples in other regions where pseudoscience is supported by tax payers.

In Wisconsin, for example, the City of Lake Mills uses pseudoscience to promote tourism. The town was the subject of a laughable History Channel show that tried to show how glacial landforms in the town's lake were ancient pyramids that were somehow associated with mounds built by native Americans that may or may not be linked with Aztecs or Egyptians at the nearby Mississippian archaeological site known as Aztalan. The racism of this assertion aside, the entire "legend" of the pyramids emerged when a University of Wisconsin engineering (note not history or archaeology) professor claimed that the landforms and Native American mounds were ancient pyramids associated with the Phoenicians. Why the Phoenicians would travel to the middle of North America to build pyramids in a lake in the middle of nowhere is beyond me, but the City of Lake Mills has been milking this notoriety for years by using the pseudoscience to promote tourism.

The master of using pseudoscience to promote tourism is arguably Roswell, New Mexico. The fame of the Area 51 events are widely known and serve as a focal point of the midcentury UFO cultural phenomenon. While Roswell is an important city for a number of reasons, most importantly as of late as one of the centers of the oil and gas renaissance in the state, it is internationally famous for UFO's and many visit it to visit the International UFO Museum and Research Center, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. The city holds UFO Festival Days and the museum has received grants in support of their initiatives.

To their credit, the UFO Museum does take their research role seriously. They have one of the largest (if not the largest) archives of midcentury (and later) UFO phenomena in the world. They also recognize UFO's as a cultural phenomenon and seek to advance scientific study of space. This is understandable given that NASA and other scientific organizations around the world are actively looking for life on other planets. Yet the plethora of tacky green aliens decorating the windows and sidewalks of downtown Roswell tells us that the city doesn't take the whole UFO thing too seriously. UFO's provide a reason for tourists to visit Roswell and spend money. Thus it makes sense for the community to invest in the UFO meme. But it is important to the community that the museum also encourages serious scientific inquiry and provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the UFO mania that swept the U.S. and much of the rest of the world in the midst of the Cold War. Thus while the UFO pseudoscience is present in Roswell, the entire UFO vibe in the community is not explicitly anti-science.

Which brings us to the Ark in Kentucky which was built with the support of millions of tax payer dollars in the form of grants and bonds. Many have written about the problems associated with this and other projects in terms of separation of church and state. I will leave that argument aside. My broader concern with this project is the explicitly anti-science message it sends to children. At the same time that tax payers in the state are supporting universities and cutting edge research, they are also supporting an exhibit that denies some pretty basic science. In fact, it seems that the organizers are flaunting and celebrating this break with mainstream science as a way to gain attention and distinguish themselves. While other states around the country are focusing on biotech, engineering, and health sciences, Kentucky is building an ark that shows dinosaurs in cages. If you were looking for an educated talent pool in order to locate a new business would you move to Kentucky knowing that this is the state of education and the way that the state invests in science? This is not to say that Kentucky doesn't invest in science and technology. But it is the mixed message that is the problem. Unlike the pro-science and somewhat tongue in cheek UFO initiative in Roswell, the anti-science ark initiative in Kentucky is polarizing. It is unlikely to help the state move forward in advancing its science and technology agenda.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Best Thing You Will See Online July 3, 2016

In follow up to today's earlier post....

Browns Canyon National Monument

Today I continue my series on all 122 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will highlight open access images all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured monument is Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado. This is one of our nation's newest monuments. It was dedicated in 2015. Following the photos is a list of U.S. National Monuments previously featured on this blog.

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Admiralty Island National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Agua Fria National Monument
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Aniakchak National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
Basin and Range National Monument
Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Booker T. Washington National Monument