The women at the core of Megan Carney’s ethnography share with many other migrants from Mexico and Central America the direct experience of two political–economic paradoxes. Neoliberal trade agreements encourage the untrammeled flow of commodities across national borders, while within the United States these same policies have contributed to a xenophobic atmosphere in which the flow of people is ever more aggressively policed.
Intensifying this contradiction is the well-noted irony that NAFTA and other trade deals have engendered many of the economic hardships and social dislocations that compel northward migration. The second paradox, that of poverty in the midst of plenty, takes on particularly grotesque dimensions in southern California in the wake of the Great Recession and soaring levels of inequality. Carney carries out her fieldwork in Santa Barbara County, redoubt of celebrities, vineyard tourism, and a highly profitable agricultural industry, where in 2011 a quarter of the residents were forced to turn to private food aid (p. 21).
These contradictions, Carney cogently argues, affect women in especially insidious and brutal ways, manifest in their efforts to nourish themselves and their families: Food insecurity is intertwined with the structural violence of the immigration system. Her research, conducted between 2008 and 2011, centers on the words and experiences of 25 women from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. Using semi-structured interviews, participant-observation, and focus groups, Carney learns about their lives in their home countries and in the United States as they confront the challenges of procuring food and preparing ample, satisfying snacks and meals.
Food, of course, is always about more than just food—dishes ramify health, commensality, memory, love, and, in this study, notably, motherhood. As the women’s stories reveal, unemployment, long hours and poor wages, insecure housing, and uncooperative or abusive husbands constrain their efforts in the caring labor of social reproduction. Their sense of inability to care adequately for their children, especially the anguish of those with children remaining in their home countries, is poignant. The stresses of food insecurity are compounded by the myriad vulnerabilities of a racialized social, and often unauthorized legal, status with significant repercussions for physical and psychological well-being. Carney frames the women’s accounts using Singer’s (2009) theory of syndemics (p. 103) to conceptualize the ways biomedical and social problems interact to exacerbate injury and suffering. Women describe loneliness, depression, and continual anxieties that sometimes lead to weight gain and diabetes or fear of diabetes. These vignettes illuminate the individual and household dynamics behind the often-cited statistics on migrant health disparities.
The volume is well grounded in the literature; insights and formulations from, among other areas, feminist theory, migration studies, medical anthropology, and food and agrarian studies regularly inform the author’s exposition. Indeed, there are moments when one wishes for a less theoretically nuanced discussion that leaves more room for the ethnographic description. That said, Carney’s central theoretical project—to analyze the biopolitics of food security—is fascinating. It is in the last third of the book that she delves into this theme, in the aptly titled chapter “Disciplining Caring Subjects.” Here, she expands her ethnographic scope to the “emergency” food assistance institutions, personnel, and programs of Santa Barbara County. This section will resonate with readers familiar with the tropes and practices of anti-hunger work or community food-security activism, particularly in the widespread tendencies to essentialize and educate the unhealthy other. In this case, it is “an apparently ‘homogeneous Latino Community’” that requires instruction in nutrition (p. 142).
Pervasive among the various dietary health interventions that Carney observes is the neoliberal ideology that assigns the causes and cures for ailments to individual behavior. In the programs, women and kids learn to be self-reliant citizens by becoming savvy and responsible consumers. Carney deftly depicts the emergency food scene with detail of the classes and events, for example, Rethink Your Drink and Kid’s Farmer’s Market, and attention to the social agendas of major foundation funders as well as appreciation of the individual service providers. She intersperses these descriptions with the responses of the women in her study to the various programs and reflects on the ways they absorb or criticize the messages and activities.
For instance, despite their own culinary expertise, the women seem eager for more nutrition education. Carney, pondering this, suggests that the prospect of promoting family health through diet, of extending the familiar practice of “caring through food,” held a strong appeal given the difficulties and expense of accessing other sorts of health care. Similarly, she recounts the women’s attitudes toward public entitlement programs (e.g., SNAP), finding that those eligible to apply (with U.S.-born children) often eschew enrollment for reasons congruent with neoliberal subjectivities, to assert autonomy or to avoid the stigma of dependence, but most important, to avoid state surveillance and attendant consequences for their legal status. The contradictions and injuries of the immigration system are never far from view.
With its focus on the consumption (or lack thereof) side of the food system, this book is a useful complement to studies of Latino migrants working in fields and restaurants. I suspect it will also appeal to anthropologists and health professionals working with migrant communities. More generally, it offers a welcome addition to the literature on hunger in our midst. However, readers looking for simple solutions to improving service provision to marginalized populations will be disappointed; instead, Carney’s analysis compels reflection on the complex intersections among food insecurity, legal precarity, and social and economic inequalities.
2009 Introduction to Syndemics: A Systems Approach to Public and Community Health. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.