Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Lisa Junkin - A question of the stomach: A museum contemplates its role within a movement

“It is a part of the new philanthropy to recognize that the social question is largely a question of the stomach.” – Jane Addams 

Five years ago, the Slow Food Movement was new to myself and my colleagues at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. We considered ourselves to be urban foodies in our own rights, but we were just catching wind of a broad movement that would soon sweep the nation and transform our museum. We wanted a place at the table, but we did not yet know where we belonged.

We read Carlo Petrini, Alice Waters, Raj Patel, Michael Pollan. We spoke with farmers, activists, chefs, economists, doctors and historians. We learned that while the Slow Food Movement has radical roots, in the United States it has been characterized by activists as elitist. Opponents argue that a movement dedicated to food shouldn’t be concerned with the pleasures of fine foods and preserving the "slow" traditions of the past, but rather should be committed to advocating for food justice and a better future for all.

Referring to The Jungle, a book that set off a food movement of its own, Upton Sinclair wrote: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” For the last five years, the Hull-House has aimed squarely at our audiences’ stomachs, developing a suite of food projects that includes a modern day soup kitchen, an urban farm, an artisan jam operation, an heirloom seed library, and an exhibit called 21st Century Home Economics. As a result of this work, we offer two responses to the divisions within the Slow Food Movement. The first has little to do with public history but everything to do with movement building, and that is that pleasure is not at odds with social justice. Alice Waters refers to the slow food movement as a delicious revolution, arguing that when pleasure and community-building are prioritized, ecologically and socially responsible systems will follow. This framework has transformed our understanding of what activism looks like. A hot bowl of soup, organic and made with care, serves as a reminder that we are fighting for all people to be nourished in body, mind and spirit. There is pleasure in justice, and in the ongoing struggle we do well to remember that medicine goes down easier with a spoon of honey.

Our second response has everything to do with public history, which is, the past is not at odds with the future. At Hull-House, our foray into the food movement is lens for investigating issues of social justice, past and present. Many of our food related programs reflect the fierce urgency of now, but they are grounded by a site-specific historical context that inspires and shapes our participation in the larger movement. (For an in-depth examination of how Hull-House’s food programs relate to our site’s history, see article by former director Lisa Yun Lee: “Hungry for Peace: Jane Addams and the Hull-House Museum’s Contemporary Struggle for Food Justice.”)

To be honest, we didn’t know much about how Hull-House residents engaged with food when we started this work. But as we learned more about the food movement, we began to ask new questions of the past. Who cooked at Hull-House? Where did immigrants purchase their food? Were there community gardens in the 1890s? What solutions to food insecurity were devised 100 years ago? Not surprisingly, our research yielded a bounty: the Progressive Era residents at Hull-House helped create the field of Home Economics and engaged in research on nutrition. They advocated to collectivize housework, to “light one fire instead of many.” They created a public kitchen that served affordable food to families, factory workers, and school children. They created the first pasteurized milk station in Chicago, helping to end a public health crisis that claimed the lives of hundreds of infants. And they formed urban farms alongside their immigrant neighbors in order to nourish and sustain their community.

When we examined our site’s history around food, suddenly the past no longer felt distant, nor did the movement feel quite as fraught. This historical content became the foundation of our food programming and contributes significantly our conversation on contemporary issues. For example, at a program about rapidly increasing desires for raw milk, small batch ice cream and other artisan-made foods, Hull-House staff offered insight about why Settlement residents advocated for the regulatory agencies that many foodies today reject as authorities on what foods are safe and edible. During a conversation about so-called food deserts-- neighborhoods lacking food security--we grappled with how the Hull-House Diet Kitchen failed due to the residents’ lack of knowledge and sensitivity about immigrants’ palates and inflexible notions of nutrition.

We now understand the museum’s role as such: to bring together doctors, farmers, chefs, students, economists, and artists in share meals and discuss the food movement today, and to share a broad historical narrative that offers critical insight and inspiration. Five years after we began our love affair with food and justice, we have found our place within the movement. It is in the dining room, on the farm, inside the archive and out in the streets.

- Lisa Junkin, Interim Director, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum

Photographs: Re-thinking Soup in the Residents’ Dining Hall, 2008; The Urban Heirloom Farm at the Hull-House Museum, 2011; Canning Labels, 2011; Seed Starting Workshop, 2012.


  1. Lisa, I'm so excited and thrilled by the ideas you present, which embody my hopes for the museum profession as a whole. You described beatifully how the process of questioning - what is the lived food history of this site? What are the sources and sets of evidence? - reveals previously undescribed networks, movements, and pragmatic approaches that have value for the present and future.

    I appreciate your discussion of the tensions within the Slow Food movement. As a member, I find that the tensions really exist more outside the movement than within it - in other words, the 'elitist' critique is normally an external one. The movement in the United States has taken a different shape than in Europe, and that seems to have foregrounded this discussion about privilege; in Europe, the idea of a democratic right to good food is less often challenged (as exampled in Linda's post below). Museums have a special role in emphasizing the local, particular, unique food histories of their own settings, which will begin to help bring down the fiction - which is what really seems strongly elitist to me - that only the wealthy deserve enjoyment and access to the best quality food.

  2. A related, but different split is the one between foodies and farmers:


  3. Thanks for this link, Will - it echoes something we've been talking about in my food activism seminar at Tufts this week. Anna Duhon came to visit along with a young farmer from Columbia County, and they talked about the way that many young/new farmers are struggling within the trendy image-making that's happening now around food and farming. Now that farming is suddenly hip, everybody wants a piece of it (without necessarily wanting the hard work and other realities that go with it!).

    I agree that what Hull-House is doing is deeply inspiring. I often feel that the current food movement echoes what was happening in the Progressive Era in many ways, including in its overlaps with other social and political and environmental movements. So a historic site that reflects so much that was central about Progressive Era reformism is bound to resonate richly with the food issues of the present. It's terrific that you've found your way to those resonances as an institution.

    Can you tell us something about who comes to the different food programs you're running? Who are the constituencies for these, and do they mirror or reach beyond the usual professional/educated/mostly-white audiences that tend to be drawn to historic sites?

  4. Lisa, your comment about Hull House members advocacy for government food regulation makes me think that you have a wonderful opening to promote better food policy. I thinkthe local food movement's concern with regulation has increased with the perception (true from my pov) that certifications like organic are being used by big ag to limit competition.

  5. Yes - and the whole history of food and farm policy is an area that most people know next to nothing about. I'm continually struck by how many well-intentioned policies have gotten twisted around as the market has continued to find ways to produce more and sell it more cheaply and profitably. Basically I think that unless you're willing to talk about the nature of capitalist production, you can't begin to understand the seeming craziness of a lot of ag policy (eg. paying farmers not to grow, or subsidizing wildly over-produced crops like industrial corn).