From The Body To The City The Urbanisation Of Hunger Under Capitalism

Humans, like all mammals, live intensely at high metabolic rates and thus consume and metabolize food more quickly than cold-blooded animals. These metabolic processes are primarily related to the physiological temperature regulation system our bodies maintain through sweating, shivering, etc. While the need for food at any given point presents the most central physiological challenge to avoiding hunger, there is also a fundamental ecological problem that results from how humans deal with future uncertainties of their food supply. According to Levins and Lewontin (1985), this presents an ongoing struggle to secure the necessary daily amounts of food, and makes humans more vulnerable to environmental viabilities. Like other mammals, humans can store extra energy through bodily fat, but because of our cultural adaptation do not tend to function this way. Instead, according to Levins and Lewontin, humans have adapted to store food physically, unlike other mammals, outside of our bodies. While arguments about the proliferation of obesity could be mounted to complicate this issue, I will leave this to Marvin and Medd's next chapter dealing with 'obe-city'.

External storage of food led to accumulation by those with the means to produce surplus foodstuffs. As such, the commodification of food, under capitalism, extends and complicates human vulnerability in two ways. First, as world markets expanded and merged into a global market, access to food became contemporarily based on what happens with food production elsewhere. As a result, a complex infrastructure of networks to get food from there to here now defines the commodification process. Furthermore, the commodification of food under capitalism, coupled with the extreme inequality it has produced, has meant that many people have increasingly less direct access to food. Marx (1867) commented on the early history of this process, by looking specifically at how capital investment into agricultural production led to sweeping peasants off the land they worked and cut off their direct access to grow and harvest foodstuffs. Here, Marx also discussed that once swept from their land, and direct access to food via agriculture, they moved to urban(izing) areas. This set of relations, that have tended to be discussed as primarily a political economic process, has profound political ecological ramifications for the urbanization of hunger. We can partially trace the contemporary lack of access to food in cities to the processes through which the commodification of food occurred, which also contributed to human alienation from nature. Ultimately, the processes of capitalism further exacerbated the environmental vulnerabilities humans face in meeting our daily food intake. To this end, Engels suggested (1880:45):

The new mode of production was, as yet, only at the beginning of its period of ascent; as yet it was the normal, regular method of production— the only one possible under existing conditions. Nevertheless, even then it was producing crying social abuses—the herding together of a homeless population in the worst quarters of the large towns; the loosening of all traditional moral bonds, of patriarchal subordination, of family relations; overwork, especially of women and children, to a frightful extent; complete demoralization of the working-class, suddenly flung into altogether new conditions, from the country into the town, from agriculture into modern industry, from stable conditions of existence into insecure ones that change from day to day.

Levins and Lewontin (1985:260) capture the political ecological complexity of hunger created through the commodification of food by suggesting, "[e]ating is obviously related to nutrition, but in humans this physiological necessity is imbedded in a complex matrix:

within which what is eaten, whom you eat with, how often you eat, who prepares the food, which foods are necessary for a sense of well-being, who goes hungry and who overeats have all been torn loose from the requirements of nutrition and the availability of food." Just as Marx pointed out that humans must meet their material needs to make history, Levins and Lewontin (1985:262) go on to suggest that throughout human history, the quantity, quality, and variety of food people have eaten has been determined by their place in their economy and the institutional structures in place within those economies to produce and distribute food.

Related to the power relations as embedded within urban food systems, Engels (1881) suggested: "[t]he Capitalist, if he cannot agree with the Labourer, can afford to wait, and live upon his capital. The workman cannot. He has but wages to live upon, and must therefore take work when, where, and at what terms he can get it. The workman has no fair start. He is fearfully handicapped by hunger. Yet, according to the political economy of the Capitalist class, that is the very pink of fairness." The imposition of these capitalist relations according to Engels is why (1958:32) "[p]ower lies in the hands of those who own, directly or indirectly, foodstuffs and the means of production".

Since the Reagan administrations during the 1980s, the unevenness inherent in US urban food systems has increased. Substantial barriers to consuming food were one of many inequities resulting from the administration's social and economic policies (see Dirks 2003; Kahn and McAlister 1997; Levenstein 1988; 1993; Root and De Rochemont 1995). Specifically, certain urban communities lacking access to viable food sources became "food deserts" (Wrigley 2002). This inherently spatial metaphor demonstrates the problematic dilemma facing many inner-city communities seeking to meet their basic physiological needs.

The spatial restructuring of urban foodscapes has resulted in urban built environments once comprised of chain supermarkets, independent supermarkets, grocery stores, convenience stores and sit-down/specialty restaurants, now increasingly dominated by fast food restaurants, emergency food outlets, food pantries and soup kitchens (Ashman et al. 1993; Eisenhauer 2001). The departure of supermarkets from within inner cities, coupled with the proliferation of fast food restaurants, has produced an unaffordable, unhealthy and untenable urban foodscape (see Schlosser 2002). The inability to buy food due to lack of financial resources and spatial isolation is often times a direct cause of hunger. As such, the ways in which capitalism has led to a fundamental physical reconfiguration of urban communities is a significant factor that produces urban hunger.

While seemingly contradictory, the political ecologies of urban hunger and obesity are intimately tied to the production of a "fast-food nation" and an overall decreased quality of life within the US. This point will also be discussed in more detail by Marvin and Medd in the next chapter.

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