An amazing moment of synergy happened in class today as we were setting up for a discussion about women’s health and activism, one of my students was complaining about soggy tuna sandwiches at the student grocery store and another launched into a discussion of mercury poisoning from certain fish, including tuna.
“Mock Tuna Melt”/L. Nixon/Happy Herbivore
What does this have to do with vegans and twitter you ask?
Well, the other day on Twitter, I had asked if anyone had a good recipe for an alternative to tuna or crab meat because I honestly have not found any I really like in the last 20 years (yep I’ve been looking that long) and Alicia Sanchez, one of the people in my stream, gave me an amazing chickpea and seaweed recipe which I tried and loved. (I’ve decided the issue was my long held hatred of veganaise & the absence of seaweed in any of the other options I’ve tried, but that is a different story.) So today when my students launched into their sandwich discussion it seemed like the most amazing synergy ever because the simple act of being dissatisfied with a sandwich touched on animal rights, environmentalism, women’s rights, and classism on a day we were talking about women’s health.
I am going to try and recreate the way our opening conversation went, tho obviously it was not this linear and on a dry erase board it is a little more dynamic, but here goes:
- classism – my student bought the tuna at the student store because the only $ for food she has is part of her tuition, she buys small items using the revolving charge system we have here and pays for it with financial aid. The student store is one of the only places you can charge food to your student account and some students in financial stress have been known to charge up huge loan bills at the FAO just based on trying to feed themselves and their children with the over-priced “convenient” food offered there. The Tuna sandwich is one of the cheapest things in the store (cheaper than a kids size single serving of cereal before you add the milk). If my student was middle class, she could have paid for food outright and frequented any of the restaurants or coffee shops surrounding campus, including the vegetarian cafe (with mostly vegan options) that is moderately expensive but filling. Even if she had a little bit more income, she could even go to the heinously bad (your college is in a bad neighborhood) grocery store and buy something much cheaper there with cash. But she does not have any money to spare, so she goes further in debt than she should have to in order to take out the maximum financial aid, so she can feed herself and her family (and pay for printing, email, books, etc.) This debt to live phenomena is one that BFP discussed quite poignantly about a year ago in her blog post “Student Loans and Bankruptcy.”
- Animal Rights – One of my student’s major complaints about her sandwich was the lack of “healthy options” at the student store. They very seldom have fruit and no vegetables and most of what they do offer is empty calorie “snack food.” My other student, challenged the idea that tuna is healthy by pointing to all the mercury in tuna and other bottom feeding fish. Which in turn led to a discussion about pollution in the oceans and its impact on sea life and the inhumane alternative of “fish farms.” I added to this discussion in the course of the lecture-discussion that ensued, details about the environmental impact and mass killing of “unwanted” fish caused by commercial farming, while others in the discussion talked about how these issues bleed out into other issues that might be more recognizable for people in the class who do not yet see fish as worthy of their concern.
- Environmentalism – The environmental impact of commercial fishing and fish farming includes toxins in the water that pollutes the water, the sea life, and human beings and can permanently destroy small ecosystems, leading to large ecology issues. The oceans now include “dead areas” where nothing living exists anymore and these areas are spreading.
- Women’s Rights – part of the pollution issue, is the Mercury ingested by the fish and then by the people who eat it. At least 10 years ago, the EPA and the FDA agreed that pregnant women were being adversely effected by high mercury in the fish. The FDA released a food warning, telling people to limit their consumption of fish and asking that pregnant women and women who were considering pregnancy stop eating tuna. While that report got initial buzz, several fishing companies worked to suppress the information and even succeeded in getting the FDA to amend their report to a suggestion rather than a general rule. The result was that not all pregnant women were informed about the risk to fetal development. Environmental feminists who see the intersection of women’s rights and ecology as critical, advocated for better and more diffuse information about mercury in the food, while single issue activists did not.
- Back to Classism – the women least likely to get the information about mercury in tuna were working class or subsistence level. Many of them had tuna among the staples in their diets because cans of tuna are so cheap. The quality of the tuna they eat was also the lower or lowest grade tuna which can include other high mercury fish normally sorted out with higher grade.
- Back to Animal Right’s – since the demand for low grade tuna remains, the desire to amend big net fishing is limited, so more “unwanted fish” lose their lives for tuna fishing (as of course, do the tuna).
So what started out as a day in which I was dreading discussing health care reform and what it means for the women in my classes, some of whom are excluded from participation and coverage in the current bill, and all of whom must be concerned about reproductive options, turned into a fascinating discussion of intersectionality. Using the tuna sandwich as our start point, we were able to discuss reproductive rights, women’s health, and health care reform within a matrix of larger intersecting oppressions like animal rights, classism, and racism. The soggy sandwich became a symbol for what the women in the class wanted from their health care and their world, so that we were able to outline what women’s health care looks like for them and for the authors we read (which included both cis, trans, white and woc, and straight and lesbian and bi, women talking about health services and disparities) in the very specific and in the larger decolonized feminist social justice way, ie the big picture. (I’ll spare you the attempt to tie all that part of the discussion together here on the blog)
The blessing was not only raising the bar on intersectional analysis while avoiding hateraid for the President, but also, thanks to twitter, I was able to end class with the simple and yummy chickpea and seaweed recipe as an alternative. Even better, two of the students in my class are married to food service workers on campus and plan to take the discussion further with the people who actually are in charge of the ordering on campus.
When I think about the difference between working here, where everything is owned and run by big business and students struggle just to eat and I think about what it was like to teach at a place with its own top rated chef, an endless supply of veg and vegan options, and food flown in from all over the world (literally), I can’t help but think about disparity and what it means to any kind of social justice. While more veg and vegan options were available at Snooty Poo U, many of them took their choices for granted and saw it as “lifestyle” or “comfort activism”, ie things that don’t push you out of your comfort zone or challenge you to think beyond yourself and people like you, which is ultimately how movements become bogged down in identity politics and the universalizing of middle class experience. The students of Pov U on the other hand, often get stuck at the point of discrimination. Since so many of them are struggling and so few of them are taken seriously by any social movement, many of them take each individual moment in which they are disempowered as a knife to the heart and learn to be silent or invisible. How can you stand up for anything when you feel like you cannot stand up for yourself even when you know what is at stake for both? The sad thing is that it is often the disconnect between these two groups of women, equally concerned about their food, the environment (plants and animals), and their families that keeps them from learning from one another and changing the world. And yet, having taught them both and moved in both worlds, my experience is that when these large issues are framed in terms of simple, basic, desires for equality, and the dailiness of our experiences difference, much like intersectionality, is no more difficult to address than a soggy sandwich. (Which means, at least at Pov U, aka Bureaucracy U, very difficult and yet both imaginable and manageable.)
(By the way, that vegan recipe came from an Afra-Latina activist who wrote a compelling piece about identity and vegetarianism on her blog, “But You Don’t Look Like a Vegetarian” complete with links to blogs by vegans of color: Sistah Vegan – who also writes for Vegans of Color Blog, and The Black Vegan, and vegetarians of color: Black Vegetarians; and if you are wondering why vegans of color sites that discuss class and race exist, try this post by Happie Cow Veggie Blog “Is Veganism Another White Privilege” and note the date b/c when we don’t learn history keeps repeating. Happy reading!)