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FOOD AND IMMIGRANT LIFE / Vol. 81, No. 2 (Summer 2014)

Arien Mack, Editor

This issue is based on conference presentations given at our twenty-ninth Social Research conference which addressed the complex relationships between food, migration, and immigration.


For centuries and in all regions of the world, food scarcity has been an important driver of migration. Yet the relationship between food scarcity and migration is complex and often indirect. Understanding food scarcity as a driver of migration must therefore focus on the questions of when and how—rather than whether—households move in search of greater food security. The papers presented in this section provide important insights into how diverse social, economic, and political conditions shape hunger-induced population movements and their consequences.

Population migration is a form of response - at society and household levels – either to crisis-like situations say food scarcity, drought and other climatic upheavals, civil war in sending areas, or to the opportunities (perceived and real) for material gain in receiving regions. Food shortage and associated distress have historically induced migration towards regions with better food availability. In case of acute starvation and famine, migration takes the form of sheer wondering – instinctive, desperate, and indecisive movements/roaming in search of food. Even in less acute situations, people often, though not always, evince a tendency for migration to regions of better food security. Thus, migrations, depending upon degrees of scarcity, relief, and other circumstances, could be seasonal, relatively short-lived and in nearby or local areas, but they could also be of inter-country or long-distance and of more permanent nature. This paper presents an overview of the major issues – demographic, economic, social - both in historical and contemporary contexts, and thus delineates temporal changes in the nature/pattern of migration response to food scarcity.

Enhancing adaptation options & managing human mobility in the context of climate change: Role of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change This paper presents new evidence from a study on the relationship between rainfall variability, food and livelihood insecurity, and human migration in 8 countries. The findings illustrate the importance of understanding how households use migration as a risk management strategy when faced with climatic stressors like changes in rainfall. The findings further point out four household profiles that help address the debate of the role that migration does or does not play in adaptation to climate change. The main findings show that while all communities surveyed use migration when faced with climatic stressors, those with “resilient” characteristics were able to benefit from the strategy. In contrast, those households which lacked such characteristics (such as access to land, education, social networks, formal and informal institutions) had migration outcomes that slowly deteriorated their development base and can be considered as “erosive coping strategies”. These insights raise issues about anticipatory movements (some beneficial and others problematic) as well as trapped populations. The paper concludes with a few reflections for adaptation and development policy.

It is commonplace to speak of those in flight from famine, or otherwise migrating in search of food, as “refugees.” Over the past decade alone, millions of persons have abandoned their homes in North Korea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, and Somalia, hoping that by moving they could find the nourishment needed to survive. In a colloquial sense, these people are refugees: they are on the move not by choice but rather because their own desperation compels them to pursue a survival strategy away from the desperation confronting their home communities. In legal terms, however, refugee status is defined in a significantly more constrained way. The question addressed here is whether persons in flight from famine or otherwise migrating in search of food may claim the benefit of this more constrained but dramatically more empowering legal form of refugee status. Or are they outside that definition, such that they must simply hope that others will come to their aid?


The papers in this section invite us to think about our relationship to food, to those who make food—their working conditions, their aspirations—and the multiple meanings and knowledge enveloped in food making. The processes through which migrants create and share their recipes, and the way in which immigrant restaurant owners or mobile food vendors conceive of and experience the process of producing food, are sites where questions about authenticity, integration, empowerment, and identity, as well as labor rights and sustainability, are productively engaged.

The restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing segments of the US economy. At the same time, it is also one of the lowest-quality employers in terms of wages and benefits in the United States, which disproportionately affect immigrants and people of color. This is in part due to policy passed in Congress lobbied for by the National Restaurant Association, which primarily represents the nation’s Fortune 500 restaurant corporations. To address the needs of restaurant workers, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United developed a multi-pronged strategy involving multiple stakeholder groups within the industry: workers, employers, and consumers.

Drawing on key themes emerging from an earlier empirical interview study with working mothers who were U.S. migrant farm workers, this paper presents a current literature review identifying migrant workers’ work and family policy opportunities and challenges with future research directions. The themes are: acculturative stress, occupational and family resilience, and employer power and control. We discuss how these themes reflect opportunities, demands and constraints related to the unique work and family experiences of migrant workers. We show that migrant workers are often quite resilient, despite difficult working conditions that may result in health problems, limited family time, disruptions in children’s education, separation from family, and less than satisfactory housing options. Future research is needed on how to develop resources to countervail acculturative stress, and develop occupational and family resilience. Such an approach will shift research and policy away from an individual deficit and toward a systems based resource policy perspective on migrant labor workers and families.

I invert the dominant perspective of the consumer in academic work on ethnic food by inserting the habits, memories, work and dreams of immigrant entrepreneurs in an examination of taste in an American city. Although such a perspective has been ignored in most theoretical discussions, taste has for long been co-produced by immigrants and natives in American cities. Taste is transactional in a number of ways, minimally between producers, consumers and commentators, but also between domains of value--economic, aesthetic, and ethical.

Street food vending has always been closely linked with New York City’s status as a hub for immigrants. As early as 1641, fur pelts and fish were traded outdoors to the first residents of New Amsterdam. In the 1800’s, before the Civil War, Irish women known as “Apple Marys” vended apples, while German women, including many political refugees who fled after the Revolution of 1848, were known for selling pretzels out of baskets. The famous “hot corn girls” tempted customers with their food and songs.


The four papers in this section, Yong Chen’s “Recreating the Chinese-American Home through Cookbook Writing,” Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s “‘Old-Stock’ Tamales and Migrant Tacos,” Fabio Parasecoli’s “Food, Identity, and Cultural Reproduction in Immigrant Communities,” and Dwaine Plaza’s “Roti and Doubles as Comfort Foods for the Trinidadian Diaspora in Canada, the United States, and Britain” all focus on the inextricable bond between the histories of migration and the histories of food. Whether written from the perspective of historical research or that of ethnography, studies of food and immigration make clear that while the details vary from group to group, from time to time, and place to place, a kind of universal story emerges as we look at the ways in which people who have migrated out of their familiar homes negotiate with the food realities in their new unfamiliar ones.

Immigrants cope with the dislocation and disorientation they experience in their new environment by re-creating a sense of place in their domestic environment around food production, preparation, and consumption. Cooking and other food-related practices play a crucial role as they negotiate their presence in post-industrial societies where individuals and groups define their identities around lifestyles and consumer goods. The exploration of personal, communal, collective, and institutional experiences will highlight the dynamics that underlie the development of culinary traditions among immigrants, and the role they play in the formation of their sense of community in specific places that are also integrated in transnational networks.

This article uses food to examine the process of immigrant naturalization in the United States. It compares the experiences of Hispanic residents of the Southwest during the nineteenth century with that of Mexican migrants to the New York City in the late twentieth century. It shows how successive generations of new immigrants have used food to think in new ways about what it means to be legitimately American. It concludes that foods do not simply reflect legal and racial categorizations of citizenship but also they can contribute actively to migrants’ inclusion or exclusion.

Using data collected from a non-random electronic survey of (N=116) Trinidadian origin men and women and data gleaned from a content analysis of roti shop websites on the Internet (n=80). This paper examines how the Trinidadian diaspora currently residing in places like New York, Toronto or London’s are influenced by their early food socialization which produces a long lasting memory for roti and doubles. Roti and doubles often becomes a linking object associated with significant memories and events that are positive from back “home.”Regular consumption of a store bought or homemade roti and doubles in diaspora locations, often gives Trinidadian migrants a temporary good feeling of all that they are mourning from back “home.” Roti and doubles have also become cultural objects that satisfy a “hunger” and yearning Trinidadians have for a temporary gastronomic passage to back ”home.”

Cookbooks are valuable historical sources, offering fascinating insights into both the private and public spheres and help us understand the connection between them. During the first eight decades of the twentieth century, more than 280 cookbooks on Chinese food were published in the Untied States. Chinese Americans, especially Chinese American women, used cookbook writing as a vehicle to search for and create a place--in both the American economy and culture--that they could call home. For them, the writing of cookbooks represented not just a gastronomical activity but also a cultural and social endeavor. It helped them to construct, express, and reaffirm their identity as Chinese American.


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