Caring at mealtimes: a micro-revolutionary activity

By Matt Ensor

This blog is an attempt to demonstrate how the current injustices present in the global food system can be addressed by re-centring the notion of care within the way we eat. The current food system is flawed not only from an environmental perspective but also through the implications it has on culture and society. Positioning care as an underlying aim for food can expose and address some of the issues faced at several different scales, including what individuals may eat at mealtimes.

We all need food, not only from an objective stance that we need calories but also through the social and cultural relations that it produces. The nature of food production, preparation and consumption are tied together by the broad notion of care. Care is important as it highlights our dependency on food for physical, mental and social wellbeing. Yet despite being so integral to life, we seem to have neglected our relationship to food; where it comes from, how it’s made, how quickly we eat it and the price we are willing to pay. These factors are both symptomatic and a cause for some of the problems within our food system. I believe that these problems are a result of a lack of care within the food system. Consequently, I would like to propose the concept of caring at mealtimes as a radical opposition to the dominant food regime. This will be done by highlighting a few of the many broken parts of the food system before framing care as a radical alternative through some contextual examples.

Problems with the food system

Globally over 820 million people are undernourished, classified as facing chronic food deprivation, meanwhile approximately 1 billion people are overweight or obese (FAO et al., 2018). In some cases, malnutrition and obesity can exist within the same person, a phenomenon known as hidden hunger. This is a result of high-calorie, low nutrition foods replacing traditional staples as people have become richer, coupled with increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

Issues of hunger and malnutrition are often framed as problems of production, however, it is well established that we produce enough food per year to feed 10 billion people (Holt-Giménez et al., 2012). It is inequitable distribution and adequacy, rather than production, which is the cause of hunger. This is highlighted by the fact that roughly a third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste, an estimated $1 trillion USD (FAO et al., 2018).

Industrialised agriculture has a significant impact on climate change and ecosystem degradation. It is estimated that over a third of global CO2 emissions are produced by the agricultural sector, making it one of the most polluting sectors. One of the causes of this is increasing demand for meat, which requires more land, water and energy to produce protein than that required by plants. The use of petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides, mono-cropping methods, lack of fallow land and over-grazing, all have severe ecological impacts including biodiversity loss, water eutrophication and soil degradation. Marine biodiversity is also at threat from overfishing and increasing levels of pollutants in our oceans and rivers (Lebreton et al., 2018).

06. Matt imageImage: Ocean dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico created by nutrient run-off from industrial farming. (Source:, accessed 4 July 2019)

The industrialisation of farming has also had significant cultural implications. Many farmers have been incentivised to grow cash-crops such as coffee or cocoa rather than food. This has decreased access to traditional food and caused higher levels of food insecurity for already poor farmers. The replacement of traditional foods with western grains and processed foods is an example of cultural violence that is damaging to social ways of life.

Care theory

Care for humans, animals and the environment are not the primary focus of our current food system. In order to understand how caring might address some of these issues, it is important to first understand what care is. Before going on to discuss some of the key elements of care theory it seems important to highlight that care and caring practices precede their acknowledgement in Western scholarship. Care is one of the fundamental building blocks of many societies in many parts of the world. The practices of care and caring for are both fundamental to our lived experience of the world. Despite being part of our daily lives, care is notoriously difficult to define. What constitutes care is dependent on numerous contextual factors which shape what we understand as care.

Care theory categorizes care according to some broad characteristics. Firstly, care requires an awareness of need and consideration of others. These points are subtly different as care is not solely an outward action, it also includes notions of ‘self-care’. However, consideration of others remains important as it involves a recognition of need beyond the self. Secondly, care involves the willingness to take responsibility for the needs of others if that ability exists. This highlights the moral dimension of care giving as not only a recognition of dependence but the moral imperative to act if you have the means (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017). This challenges the enlightenment assumption that individuals are autonomous and self-supporting and is an active acknowledgement that people are not all equal in society, and we must therefore collaborate in order to collectively succeed.

Care theory also extends to the non-human world, which by extension can often improve human conditions too. This shows care is a multidimensional process that has knock-on effects beyond the activity of direct care. However, caring can also be the practice of doing nothing, recognising that non-interference may be the best way to care. Moreover, caring requires an active acknowledgement of the negative outcomes that attempting to give care may produce – for example, the creation of conservation zones that excludes indigenous communities who have been caring for the area for centuries. This highlights that care is a highly contextualised concept.

Caring at mealtimes

Care theory is positioned perfectly to help us analyse problems with our food system and how best we might respond in different contexts. Understanding care within the food system can be achieved by examining something as simple as mealtimes.

Providing food for a family is by nature a caring activity, however, care is not an absolute concept. Just because a relation is caring does not mean it is without issues. For instance, cooking a family meal is caring, but the meal may be unhealthy, highly processed and shipped thousands of miles. Caring involves understanding the networks of connections that constitute relations. Eating an unhealthy meal may still be caring based on the capacity of the family, considering social pressures, time constraints and wealth, along with a myriad of other factors.

Despite these societal pressures and constraints, individuals can go beyond their supposed capacity to act. Making more conscious decisions about what to buy and consume can have knock-on implications for caring in the food system. Vegetarian diets are good example of this. The omission of meat, dairy and eggs in a meal or diet extends care to non-human others, not only to the animals not consumed but also to the environment, due to the ecological cost of industrial meat production and fishing. However, for communities that do not rely on industrial farming vegetarian diets may not be appropriate or the best way to care for each other or the environment, due to availability and access to those foods.

For the Karuk tribe of Northern California, catching and eating fish is included in understandings of care. The Karuk place great spiritual importance on catching fish, as a way of providing for families and elders within the community. Fishing is enacted on a small scale, with ecological balance being prioritised. Moreover, as a financially poor community, fishing rather than buying food from supermarkets means that the food consumed is likely to be much healthier (Norgaard, 2005). What is evident in this example is that universal logics cannot be applied to the notion of caring. Understanding care involves acknowledging the different contexts and lived realities of people all over the world.

This discussion has also hopefully demonstrated how although care can be enacted at the individual level it is very complex as individuals must acknowledge awareness of need and have the ability and willingness to respond. Care is perhaps best suited to larger-scale systems of governance, such as communities, national governments and international organisations. Collective capacity and ability to care is far greater than individual level, so the impacts of caring have the potential to be more widespread. Underpinning our food system with the concept of care would target the injustices that are currently present in our global food system.

This does not make caring as individuals redundant, as collective individual caring has the capacity to enact similar change. Implementing caring at mealtimes and asking the question, “How can I care better”, can transform a family meal into a micro-revolutionary activity.


Reference List

FAO et al. (2018) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018. Rome: FAO.

Holt-Giménez, E. et al. (2012) ‘We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People … and Still Can’t End Hunger’, Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, 36(6), pp. 595–598.

Lebreton, L. et al. (2018) ‘Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic’, Scientific Reports, 8(1), p. 4666.

Norgaard, K. M. (2005) The Effects of Altered Diet on the Health of the Karuk People on Behalf of the Karuk Tribe of California. Available at: (Accessed: 6 January 2019).

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017) Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

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