Introduction: Food and the Body Politic

Introduction: Food and the Body Politic

Americans are in the midst of a food-consciousness revival: on television, in the mouth of the First Lady, in endless articles celebrating urban agriculture can be found a sudden enthusiasm for the politically and, perhaps, spiritually curated dinner table. In this special section, writers explore the perilous state of food and food politics in America and a wide range of responses on the Left. Marion Nestle, in her essay on the farm bill, finds the roots of the existing policy disaster in Reagan-era deregulation. Mark Engler describes strands of left-wing response—buying organic, eating local, and agitating for fair trade—and the ways in which they have succeeded as well as been co-opted, asking, “What’s a radical to eat?” Laurie Woolever uncovers the kind of labor exploitation endemic to the elite dining experience. Karen Bakker Le Billon compares American to French school lunches, unpacking the relationship between food and citizenship. Juliana DeVries explores vegetarianism and the generational politics of everyday life.

Americans are learning (again) to read crisis in the incomprehensible ingredients on packaged food and to see politics in vegetable gardens from the White House to city rooftops. From obesity to diabetes to a depleted landscape, we are reaping the whirlwind after decades in which corporations sold cheap but unhealthy food and passed along the health costs to the bodies of the taxpayers who subsidized them.

In the interview published here, Wendell Berry—writer, prophet, and cultivator of the small farm—says, “The discussion about food doesn’t make any sense without discussion at the same time of land, land use, land policy, fertility maintenance, and farm infrastructure maintenance.” The problem extends deep beneath the over-farmed soil and up through the hierarchy of bought-and-paid-for policy makers. We hope this special section, which is extended online at, begins to address food as bound up with this issue’s other focus: the future of the Left.

-Sarah Leonard