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Reimagining: Food as a Human Right

Imagine: the year is 2253 and the invention of the 1997 film The Fifth Element is here. Leeloo learned about modern life, language, and love while popping pellets into the microwave, pressing a button, and receiving a fully cooked meal within moments. With this technology, there’d be no more cooking the same twelve recipes on repeat month after month, utterly sick of them but with no brain-space to try anything new. We’d be done with the hours of stirring pots and cleaning dishes; gendered domestic servitude disproportionately weighing women down. Just the food we want, whenever we want it, at our fingertips.


Alternatively: the year is 1993, as envisioned by suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease in her 1893 essay, and women have already been freed from the burden of frilly aprons by the meal-in-a-pill. All our nutritional and caloric needs are met with a single swallow. No more shoving food into our mouths, chewing, swallowing. Gone is the drudgery of eating multiple times a day, every day, until we die.


I can feel these science-fiction imaginings on the tip of my tongue. I can almost taste the sweet simplicity of not having to think about food every few hours, the threat of relapsing into disordered eating unyielding. It’s been years since I’ve cried in aisle three of my local grocery store, but sometimes I still feel hot prickling behind my eyelids. My ravenous fantasies revolve around these inventions becoming reality; I wish I had hope that scientists around the world in 2024 could manufacture a solution to our various food crises, but instead I have pessimism. Because these kinds of innovations will never be pursued under our current forms of capitalism and patriarchy.


Women are commodities under both hegemonies. And by women, I acknowledge that not all women have vulvas and not all vulva-owners are women. I am a gender-fluid non-binary person who was raised and socialised as a woman, and have experienced compounding pressures of the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy under the food system. The culture of thinness is a lucrative one, covering advertising, celebrity culture, diet foods, fitness, cosmetic surgery, and more. These industries have a ‘nexus of influence’ hold over the development of eating disorders in women. It’s a vicious cycle. First, blast advertising at us so we buy and consume the food marketed. Then, shame our bodies with such comprehensive intensity that we buy the weight loss shakes, branded protein bars, and gym memberships next. And always be small, fragile, and at the mercy of men.


Combined with the need to control women’s bodies is the requirement to control women’s time and financial independence. There is a plethora of evidence showing that women consistently contribute more to unpaid household labour and care work than men, even when they work the same or similar hours outside the home. Domestic labour including kitchen duties (traditionally deemed ‘women’s work’) has been devalued over the centuries to the point of abuse of power imbalances in heteronormative subordination. This has contributed to trapping women in cycles of poverty, increasing the gender pay gap, reducing women’s superannuation balances, and greater dependence on men financially (propping up power imbalances). Imagine if we had a scientific solution that freed hours of women’s time each week from the kitchen instead.


The production of our food is also rife with worker exploitation in the global south and closer to home, here in so-called Australia. Migrant women are abused, harassed, and assaulted while doing back-breaking physical labour on farms for visa requirements and far too little remuneration. Food production workers are paid peanuts under horrific working conditions while the price of groceries just keeps rising. This is exacerbated further in food deserts, places where people have limited access to healthy and affordable food. They disproportionately impact those who are already subjected to food system oppression, such as women, First Nations people, people of colour, and people experiencing economic injustice. Rural Aboriginal communities around so-called Australia are continually hit by food insecurity and price gouging amidst large swathes of food deserts. For instance, in December 2022, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation reported that in the Northern Territory, healthy food costs 52% more in remote locations than in urban areas.


Then there’s mass famine and malnutrition in parts of the world, billions of animals slaughtered every year for consumption, grotesque wastage, land clearing, fossil fuel emissions, the list goes on and on. Animal agriculture under our current capitalist system contributes the same amount of global emissions as the transportation sector. It fuels the climate crisis, soil infertility, worsening harvests, worker exploitation, price rises, and spiralling food insecurity. I’ve seen article after article suggesting that the big agriculture and supermarket corporations change their practices to adapt to these emerging challenges. But when have the people behind the frosted glass door at large corporations ever cared about starving millions or murdered animals? There’s too much profit in big ag to just hope the food crisis will be fixed by leaving the solution in the hands of the ones with power. Woolworths and Coles are making record profits while the price of bread and vegetables keep going up. Mountains of food ends up in landfill spewing out methane, while they keep their bins out the back chained up to stop people liberating perfectly good food that’s been thrown out. By its very nature, capitalism prioritises profits over people and planet.


Food, like housing and physical safety, is a human right. But under capitalism we allow the profit motive to reign supreme. Globally and here in so-called Australia we have the financial means and systems to realise potential solutions. And I’m not just talking about magical microwavable food-creating pellets. We could wrestle back control from agriculture, supermarket, and restaurant chain monopolies by democratising food production and distribution systems. There are myriad means by which we can do this, from sustainable farming techniques, to shifting to a more plant-based diet (and tackling speciesism at the same time), enabling green energy transportation and community-run food banks, to public ownership of a national food service.


There’s egregious profit for the few under capitalism in keeping the many hungry, and there’s extreme benefit for the patriarchy in keeping women small. My recovery from disordered eating will likely be a lifelong journey when the societal forces at play never seem to let up. Anxieties, food intolerances, ethical choices, beauty standards, fear of food waste, financial limitations, and time scarcity are just a few of the roadblocks to non-disordered eating. And this is but one of many negative byproducts of our current food production and distribution system. Though the meal-in-a-pill or microwavable meal pellets probably won’t be for sale at my local organic grocery store anytime soon, I don’t need to wait until some perfect imagined future to change the way I engage with food. I’m choosing to claw my way out of pessimism, and no longer accept that this version of reality is how things must be forever. I’ve got a fire in my belly to fight for a radical reimagining of our global food system and everyone oppressed under it. I’m hungry for change and ready for what’s next.


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Liz Sutherland (they/them) lives on unceded Wurundjeri country, is studying a Master of Arts (Writing and Literature), is the COO of a nonprofit organisation, and recently joined the Overland Board. Their writing appears in various anthologies and across the internet.

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