Webinar Highlight: Exploring Critical Food Studies with the Canadian Association for Food Studies By: Madeleine Frechette

In its simplest form, the field of critical food studies examines where food comes from and how people relate to the food that they eat. However, to confine critical food studies to such simplistic terms would be a significant disservice to the ever-evolving field. The systems through which food is produced, distributed, and consumed are subject to constant change, as they intersect with the formal and informal social, cultural, and political actors which shape societal relations. Understanding this, scholars operating in this field approach food studies from an increasingly critical, intersectional perspective. Among said scholars are those at the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS), a group of academics, professionals, and community members promoting critical, interdisciplinary scholarship in the area of food studies. On November 19, CAFS promoted such scholarship at the webinar Everything you always wanted to know about critical agri-food studies (but were too afraid to ask).  

This CAFS webinar featured two leading scholars in the field of critical food studies: Dr. Michael Carolan and Dr. Kelly Bronson. Michael Carolan is a Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, who brought his external expertise as an American scholar to the conversation. He is also a published author and researcher, with a particular focus on issues pertaining to food, sustainability, and agriculture. Kelly Bronson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies and a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Science and Society at the University of Ottawa. She is also a published author and researcher, with a particular focus on the technologies and methods of governance that generate tension between science and society. Carolan is currently a Fulbright visitor at the University of Ottawa, where he is working with Bronson on a cross-national comparative research project on digital agriculture for small, sustainable food producers in the United States and Canada. In this webinar, Bronson and Carolan engaged in active discussion on various topics related to critical food studies, including assumptions regarding critical food scholars, research methods, and scholar activism as a means of representation. 

Throughout the webinar, extensive discussion was generated regarding the assumptions associated with the title of “critical food scholar.” Carolan explained that in his own experience, the intersectional nature of food studies has challenged his identity as a scholar in the field. He explained that it is difficult to assume one singular scholarly identity, such as “rural sociologist,” as doing so would seemingly confine his identity as a researcher and academic to one singular field. It is through the intersectional nature of the field that critical food studies challenges such narrow identities, and instead uplifts scholars operating in the field to engage with a wide variety of factors that influence the production and consumption of food. Carolan and Bronson pointed to the specific example of the “critical agri-food scholar.” They explained that such an identity moves beyond the materiality of food, and instead acknowledges agriculture as an intrinsically distinguished factor in the production of food.  

In their discussion, the speakers specifically alerted to the increasingly “critical” nature of critical food studies. It remains true that the challenges which are most pervasive in the food system are systemically maintained by the various social and political actors that intersect and influence the production and consumption of food. The gravity of such systemic challenges has resulted in the emergence of food scholarship that Carolan and Bronson explained to be increasingly negative. Carolan described such negative scholarship as enabling feelings of powerlessness and dread, as resistance to the systemic insufficiencies in the food system is often deemed to be futile.  

However, rather than solely acknowledge the negative narratives that emerge from food studies scholarship, Carolan and Bronson consistently reiterated that such narratives can increase representation for those who have been silenced in the food system. According to Bronson, the approach taken in critical food studies enables researchers to make visible those who are seemingly unrepresentable in the food system. Carolan referred to this approach to representing those who have been invisibilized as the “bright- and blind-spots” of research. Critical food research allows for concepts related to the production and consumption of food to be recentered on those of have been silenced in the food system, hence the notion of the bright-spot. By illuminating those individuals, it is inevitable that others in the food system will be decentered in the presented narrative, hence the notion of the blind-spot. Still, Carolan asserted that being cognisant of those who have been silenced in the food system, and using scholarly investigation to illuminate their experiences, is the duty of the critical food scholar.  

To close the webinar, Carolan and Bronson examined critical food representation as a method of scholar activism. Carolan asserted that critical food scholars engage in scholar activism by telling the stories of those who have been silenced in the food system. By telling these localized stories, critical food scholars may produce narratives regarding food equity, justice, and sovereignty that reveal the social, political, and economic structures that maintain and exacerbate systemic insufficiencies. Bronson explained that this approach to research challenges the traditional, non-interventionist perspective employed by food scholars in the past. In doing so, critical food scholars actively engage in scholar activism, challenge systemic barriers, and meaningfully engage in the food system in a way that can illuminate solutions for lasting change.   

Over the past several months, Feeding the City has engaged in these critical approaches to scholar activism by highlighting the experiences of those who have been silenced within the Canadian food system in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an attempt to spotlight various long-standing vulnerabilities in the food system, the team has highlighted the experiences of the small-scale, ecological farmers who have been left relatively unsupported during the pandemic, as well as the experiences of migrant agricultural workers who have been exploited within the Canadian agricultural sector. Team members have also highlighted the innovative work of community food banks and urban growers in maintaining service to the individuals and families facing food insecurity in Toronto during the pandemic. Such innovation has also been witnessed in the responses of local markets and grocery stores to the COVID-19 pandemic, which have been spotlighted in the most recent installment of the Feeding the City webinar series. Through this work, the Feeding the City team has been able to amplify the voices of those who are most often underrepresented in the Canadian food system on a local, provincial, and national level. While we will continually consider ‘blind-spots’ that we may have missed in our research, by amplifying the voices and experiences that we have, the Feeding the City team has been able to illuminate the incredible work of many individuals and communities operating across Canada. At the same time, the team has been striving to exemplify both the potential for community-based resilience on a localized level within the food system, and the kinds of initiatives that are worthy of increased support from government and other institutions and actors.  

Additional Resources 

To watch the webinar with Dr. Michael Carolan and Dr. Kelly Bronson, access the recording here: Everything you always wanted to know about critical agri-food studies (but were too afraid to ask). 

To learn more from Dr. Michael Carolan, consult his many books and academic publications for further reading: 

Books by Carolan: 

Academic publications by Carolan: 

To learn more from Dr. Kelly Bronson, please consult her books and academic publications for further reading: 

Book by Bronson: 

Academic publications by Bronson: 

To learn more from the Canadian Association for Food Studies, here are various, open-access resources: 

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