From Seed to Table[t]: Can Foodie-Tech Startups Change a Neoliberal, Racist, and Capitalist [Food] S

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I wrote this article back in May of 2015. Have things gotten better, stayed the same, or regressed in terms of answers to the question, From Seed to Table[t]: Can Foodie-Tech Startups Change a Neoliberal, Racist, and Capitalist [Food] System?

May 26, 2015

By Dr. A. Breeze Harper

On CNN.com, I watched this video: Will Blue Apron Kill your Grocery Store?.

Since watching it, so many questions and comments have popped into my head. Basically, what is up with this boom in the food-techie startup world and the lack of critical race and critical whiteness scholarship around it within the mainstream media and academic publications? Actually, I have been thinking about writing about food-tech businesses for the last few years. It’s kind of hard not to, living in the San Francisco Bay area and living less than 90 minutes away from Silicon Valley. We are the foodie and techie capitals of the USA. As a food justice, racial justice, and environmental justice scholar and activist, I have been overwhelmed by the amazing surge in ‘foodie’ culture in the Bay area that continues to function as a microcosm of the USA.

And by microcosm, I mean that foodie-tech culture represents how resources as well as systems of power and privilege are organized along racial, class, and gender lines in a current era of neoliberal capitalism.

Food and technology, of course, are not untouched by these. I’m not just interested in foodie-tech businesses… I’m interested in how ‘foodie’ culture meets tech companies that are creating social media apps and other smartphone and tablet technology for a’foodie’ culture that loves ‘healthy’, ‘local’, ‘organic’, and/or ‘good’ food.

So, here are my thoughts as a critical race feminist researcher within the disciplines of critical food studies and critical pedagogies of consumption… who is living in the SF Bay area.

…What role do foodie-tech app companies worth tens of millions of dollars have in dismantling (or colluding with) a neoliberal racist capitalist [food] system? Like all these foodie-tech startups, yes, foodie-tech startups like Blue Apron and similarly highly successful foodie-tech start-ups will change the way of eating and ‘your’ relationship to your grocery store-

-But wait, who is ‘you’ and ‘your’?

Unpacking ‘You’ and ‘Your’ in a Neoliberal Era

What is neoliberalism and how do racism and other forms of oppression operate within its logic?

Neoliberal practices pull into its orbit a market of ideas about a lot of things including the family, gender, and racial ideology. It is, as Lisa Duggan (2003) notes, “saturated with race” (xvi) using capitalism to hide racial (and other) inequalities by relocating racially coded economic disadvantage and reassigning identity-based biases to the private and personal spheres…
Specifically, it has meant the establishment of a market orientation to this relationship. Ideally, within a neoliberal theorization of society, the success of the individual is directly related to his/her work output. Modalities of difference, such as race, do not predetermine one’s success as each individual is evaluated solely in terms of his or her economic contribution to society.What becomes clear is that this ideal relationship is not equally realized by all members in society. (Source: David J. Roberts and Minelle Mahtani of “Neoliberalizing Race, Racing Neoliberalism: Placing ‘Race’ in Neoliberal Discourse.” Antipode Vol 42 No. 2. Pp 248-257. Pages 252-253.)

Within the context of neoliberalism, I’d like to know who ‘you’ and ‘your’ are when so many foodie-tech startups promote their products and services to you.

Does ‘you’ and ‘your’ include those living in spaces of environmental racism? Are we talking about the nearly enslaved and abused mostly Latino migrant workers who pick the very produce they are paid too low to have easy access to make the items on online menu and delivery services available for the privileged who can afford your services??

True to ‘foodie’ culture, Blue Apron company is focused on ‘locally’ sourced ingredients. However, I would like to know what hands have made these ingredients possible. On their website, there is no transparency about this, other than the fact that we are shown the partners they have (small family farms); however small family farms don’t mean that those working there are treated ethically. Blue Apron answers the question about food being organic or not. I know this is not necessarily their goal, but it is interesting to note that I do not see an open commitment or dialogue about farm-worker rights; nor do I see a commitment to making sure racial-sexual-class hierarchies of power are not maintained through how their supply chain is made possible.

I often wonder what foodie-tech startups would look like (or how profitable they could be) if not just ‘organic’ and ‘local’ were central, but also if the ideologies of folks like Dolores Huerta and Cezar Chavez were central. Once again, I know it is not Blue Apron’s goal, but the absence is quite telling and also has me thinking about the limits to what one can ask for, from venture capitalists that don’t seem ‘too political’. Concerns about farmworker rights and exploitation, restaurant worker rights, racial or sexual abuse of workers, etc., would most likely not be mentioned in the business plans of foodie-tech startups searching for funding.

Most people who are into mainstream ‘foodie’ culture care more about their food being ‘local’, ‘fresh’, and ‘organic’ than if the food came to them through the abuse and exploitation of farm workers and other marginalized human workers in the food system.

This makes sense because that is what is marketed to and narrated to the general foodie population. Many foodies actually think organic and sustainable mean the treatment of human beings and non-human animals is ‘humane,’ which is false. What would be great to have from Blue Apron is a statement that acknowledges the need to be more critical about horrible treatment of human workers. So far, such statements are no where on their site, however, once again, it could very well be that investors do not want to appear to be ‘too political’ and prefer to be ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-class’. Yes, their focus is not farm-workers or other food industry workers’ rights. However, the silence around this is quite compelling because the fact is, foodie-tech start-ups could not exist without the human laborers in the food system.

What could all this mean?

Let’s face it: Foodie+Tech start-up folk live in an isolated utopian world in which their technology will only ‘solve’ the problems of the privileged neoliberal [white] socio-economically stable demographic. Notable in the video link above from the CNN interview with Blue Apron, is that theco-founder Salzberg states that their model isn’t for the entire world’s population, just a specific demographics [who seem to find going to a grocery story to get local and organic fresh foods a ‘burden’ (?)]. He does say that there is a place for the grocery store and doesn’t think that the companies like Blue Apron will ‘kill’ the grocery store. However….

…analyze websites such as Blue Apron, Plated, Instacart that are THRIVING and you’ll find their rhetoric to be the following: food+tech+’post-racial’+buying power with our dollars will ‘change the world’+ being socio-economically privileged is the optimal approach to creating a ‘better’ food system (Well, maybe just a better ‘foodie’ experience). I will give the benefit of the doubt that the founders aren’t directly conscious about their approach or the consequences….I will just assume that they really had ‘good intentions’ (though often, the road to hell is paved that way, no?). However, I’m still always fascinated by the fact that millions of dollars can be poured into foodie-tech apps by venture capitalists when food justice activists working in/for the poor and communities of color, with hardly any resources, struggle like hell to create food security and/or sovereignty for themselves.

Would venture capitalists for foodie+tech startups ever consider investing in structural and systemic change to dismantle not just an unequal food system, but the entire corrupt neoliberal racist capitalist system itself? You know, a system that makes food insecurity and the loss of land a reality for most of the world’s people? Let’s remember that most of the people of the world do not include the Silicon Valley elite and alike. Let’s remember that Santa Clara region, where Silicon Valley is born out of, feeds the tech elite in a disturbing way: