How Focusing on Care Can Change Our Relationship to Food | Civil Eats

How Focusing on Care Can Change Our Relationship to Food

Robert Gottlieb, author of “Care-Centered Politics: From the Home to the Planet,” discusses how the care economy has the potential to create critical food systems change and mitigate the climate crisis.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, I spent a lot of time making the case that by reimagining and recreating the food system, we could meet many other societal, community-building, political, and economic goals toward a more sustainable and equitable world.

As the food movement has matured over the past decade, however, I’ve come to think the opposite: If we are going to create a more just and sustainable food system, we’ll need to go upstream to address the manifest inequities in our economic and political systems. To help us get there, we’re going to need imagination, analysis, and connections across progressive movements toward a common vision.

In his new book, Care-Centered Politics: From the Home to the Planet, Bob Gottlieb—the co-founder of the Community Food Security Coalition and the co-author of the seminal 2010 book Food Justice—has made important inroads in helping to frame these connections. In it, he argues for a care-based economy wherein politics are powerful forces for connecting human services such as health care, child care, and elder care with care for the Earth.

“Producing and utilizing pesticides is not care—it’s anti-care.”

Gottlieb, who is also a professor emeritus of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College, argues that we need to rethink the nature of work and take into consideration the enormous amounts of unpaid labor that people—mostly women—do every day, as the “infrastructure of daily life.” The food movement would be both an important beneficiary of this approach, as well as a key repository of wisdom for bringing this vision into reality.

Gottlieb argues that we must move the food system away from the violence it causes to the natural and human worlds as an essential element of this care agenda. That means prioritizing health promotion, fair treatment of workers, and climate crisis mitigation in the way the food system operates.

I spoke with Gottlieb recently about his book, the scope of the care economy, and how the food movement can embrace a care-centered agenda.

How did you come to write a book on care-centered politics?

For a number of years, I had been hearing from friends and colleagues about the care economy and care politics related to feminist arguments about restructuring work and economies but hadn’t yet focused on how it directly applied to my own work. I began to ask myself, “What is the glue in all this history?” The idea of care, it became apparent to me, was really central to those connections and that history. I then began to expand my own research and writing along those lines. Then the events of 2020—the pandemic, the climate events, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations—became central to helping further shape the book and my political thinking about care politics and social movements.

In your book, you talk about an informal care economy, such as people doing housework and taking care of kids or grandparents. But there’s also a formal paid sector, such as child care, senior citizen homes, and other services. What is the care economy and what is its scope?

A good place to start is with unpaid labor. There’s a terrific economist from the University of Massachusetts, Nancy Folbre, who has identified that as much as 50 percent of the economy can be seen through unpaid labor. On the other hand, in relation to paid labor, during the pandemic we categorized some people as essential workers for keeping daily life going. A huge part of this essential workforce is people directly engaged in care work. You can think about the care economy also in terms of the health economy. You have a vast economy associated with care; it is everywhere. Everybody at some point in their life is cared for, provides care, knows someone providing care, or knows someone who requires care. Bureau of Labor statistics figures show that the fastest growth in the labor sector is in care work, like the home health care sector. And it’s also primarily very low paid work. It’s immigrant based, it’s largely a female work force—globally as well as in the U.S. And then you add that to the unpaid care sector and you’re talking about the infrastructure of daily life.

That the informal care economy is 50 percent of the total economy reminds me of the statistic that the dollar value of produce from home gardens is the same as the value of the corn crop in America. It’s the vast scope of things that we don’t count in our economy, and that are basic to our livelihoods.

That’s a really important point. One of the things that was remarkable during the pandemic was the explosion of backyard gardening. The line from the children’s song, “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow,” is a care mantra. One of the projects we worked on early on when I was with the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute were gardens for battered women’s shelters. It was not just about the food, but the actual gardening itself was healing. Often the [violence] that took place in people’s homes was over food issues. A number of women were attacked and abused, which in turn led to eating disorders because of their association with the violence. So being able to grow food was healing.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

In the book, you expand the concept of care to situate it in an environmental context. You write about it as mitigating the climate crisis, creating food systems change, and even link it to anti-militarization and police reform. Can you say more?

Planetary health is a central care concern, and violence is endemic to a colonial history and a capitalist history, and it continues in horrific forms in the 20th and 21st centuries. This has created a concern both for the planet as well as for how people survive on this planet. During the Black Lives Matters demonstrations, one of the pivotal slogans was “Care Not Cops.” Care does mean thinking about the toxicity of violence in people’s daily lives. And it also has this very powerful relationship to both racial histories and gender histories. Violence against women, violence against people of color, against Black people globally, is really a critical area that needs a transformative politics. A care politics leads in that direction.

“The food sovereignty folks were some of the first to say, ‘You’ve got to deal with not only how food is grown and the impact of the industrial food system, but also care for the earth through a regenerative approach.’”

You write that caring for the land, producing food, health care, and caretaking are part and parcel of the same thing. I’d add in pesticides as a form of structural violence on the land and on workers’ and consumers’ health. Can you say more about food and agriculture fit into this framework of care?

Producing and utilizing pesticides is not care—it’s anti-care. A care framework is central to how we grow and access food, and all the things that people in the food movement are identifying as central to not just care for the Earth, but care for the people who provide through the earth the food we eat and grow.

Food as nourishment has long been framed as a maternal care of the people you love. But I think there’s also a bigger context. Can you speak to those deeper connections between how we produce food, how we care for the Earth, and how we care for individual health?

The development of the food sovereignty movement has been central to the development of those type of care politics in relation to food. The food sovereignty folks were some of the first to say, “You’ve got to deal with not only how food is grown and the impact of the industrial food system, but also care for the earth through a regenerative approach.” Food sovereignty in turn needs to be incorporated into any kind of climate agenda.

What are some steps the food movement could take to embrace the care agenda better?

I think part of it is changing some of the language of why we’re in this. For example, starting back in the late ‘90s, with our work in starting farm to school, it was critical to see that this was not just about supporting local farmers. This was not just about getting healthy food in school cafeterias or developing school gardens so that children had a different way of connecting to the food they eat the land around them. It wasn’t just about creating more green space. It was about creating an integrated framework for dealing with all these issues and connecting it with farm labor and pesticide use and the food system. And then broadening that framework to include schools, health, gender relations, and the role of the [school food professionals] in the cafeteria in helping to bring about the needed transformation.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

Where do you have hope?

Hope is about gardening and growing our food. But I also produced this book as an act of hope, the hope of creating a language for people to identify with and utilize that allows us to change the political discourse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Andy Fisher has been a leading force for social justice in the anti-hunger and food movements in the US since the mid 1990s. He co-founded and led the primary American food systems alliance, the Community Food Security Coalition for 17 years. He has played a key role in the growth of farm to school, local food policy, and community food assessments. In 2017, MIT Press published his first book, Big Hunger, which exposed the unholy alliance between corporate America and anti-hunger groups. He has Masters degrees in Environmental Policy and Latin American Studies from UCLA. He is currently the executive director of Eco-Farm. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from

Food Policy



Are Companies Using Carbon Markets to Sell More Pesticides?

a tractor sprays pesticides on a field while hazard symbols fade into the distance. (Civil Eats illustration)

In Brazil, a Powerful Law Protects Biodiversity and Blocks Corporate Piracy

An overhead shot of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil. (Photo credit: FG Trade, Getty Images)

Bringing Back Local Milk, Ice Cream, and Cheese

Foggy Bottoms Boys co-owner Cody Nicholson-Stratton pictured with his son. (Photo courtesy of Foggy Bottoms Boys)

Can Cooking in Community Slow Dementia and Diabetes?