Food Studies for Hungry Cities

In 1996, the World Health Organization first articulated a definition of “food security,” an idea that has deeply influenced not only a generation of food activists but also the goals of urban food policies. ( The WHO defined food security in an age of globalization around three “pillars” – access, availability, and use – with each evaluated in terms of nutrition, health, and safety. Such a framework misses the importance of culture. As some studies show, food security also rests on the acknowledgment of social, cultural and ecological diversity (Baker 2004; Friedman and Lenters 2013; Koc et al. 1999). We approach food security as a malleable value that means different things to different people at different times.


This recognition highlights the importance of humanities and social science methods and insights for contemporary food politics and the inadequacy of current policies that provide little heed to the place of food in the enduring habits, rituals, creativity, and everyday practices that are collectively used to sustain shared senses of cultural identity and economic livelihoods (Marcus 1995). Food is on scholars’ minds. In the last decade, scholars across the humanities and social sciences have increasingly engaged with food for its economic, symbolic, and cultural significance. At a time when social observers decry a world of feast and famine in which global inequality is manifested in starkly different caloric intake, our collaboration has identified in our strategic plan key areas of research:



  1. Culinary Cultures and Diaspora: Our project examines the place of food in the habits, rituals, and everyday practices that are used to produce and sustain a shared sense of diasporic cultural identity. Food is a key means of cultural expression, especially in migrant communities.
  2. Economy, Diaspora, and Production: Global diasporas send foods into new parts of the city, with immediate economic and environmental results that are further complicated by the competing demands of food producing/trading multinational businesses on one hand and local food movements on the other.
  3. Foodways and Identity: In different ways in divergent urban and historical contexts, diasporic groups often make food a central part of reproducing an 'essential' identity and, in the process, help constitute transnational cultural economies. Yet as food travels through time and space, it is transformed. Diasporic communities, given economic and environmental realities, cannot maintain an ideological and material consistency. Foodways change with the mobility of foods and peoples.
  4. Food, Governance, and Citizenship: Insights about the cultural significance of food, its mobility, and its place in diasporic communities are often left out in the formation of social policy and urban governance around food production, regulation, safety, and consumption. The scholarship of food studies deserves a central place in social and political conversation around civic equity.

Our methods are comparative, synaptic, and synthetic, engaging the expertise of urban stakeholders and academics of diverse academic background, including: food studies scholars, urban studies scholars, museum studies scholars, geographers, historians, and sociologists. Our research brings together oral/ethnographic histories, archival analysis, GIS mapping, spatial analysis, gender studies, social policy analysis, and sensory studies in order to link the study of the physical and cultural needs of urban residents to their economic dreams and the everyday practice of governance and planning. We produce the synthetic idea of ‘city food’ to encapsulate our methodological innovations. We define ‘city food’ as:

  • Commodities produced for and consumed by urban populations and food layered with distinctive nutritional, economic, and symbolic values, largely because of the meanings they agglomerate in diaspora and urban settlements.
  • Food whose production, consumption, and retail is regulated by government and civic entities.
  • Production and consumption that not only reshapes the economic life of the city, particularly in certain enclave areas, but also provides a real experience of diversity.
  • A process of dynamic and creative adaptation in which consumers, tourists, workers, activists and entrepreneurs each change to meet new laws, ingredients, and desires.
  • Foodstuffs that are both scarce -- in quantity and, sometimes, nutrition -- and cornucopic -- in the diversity and breadth of available cuisines.

Close examination of some of the most precarious and popular types of food business, notably street vending, problematizes the eagerness for exotic goods in different multicultural cities – of which our five targets are prototypical. Moreover, our selection of these five cities de-stabilizes the hegemony of Western notions of urbanity; not all big cities have developed like European or American metropolises and diversity is found in multiple global contexts. (Roy and Ong 2011; Sassen 2005). While the idea of ‘city food’ acknowledges the centrality of cafes and restaurants to urban experience, it conceives of food vending more globally. Beyond Western-derived forms of public edibility, our research examines food carts and curbside cookshops, informal eateries and cafeterias, tiffin delivery services, domestic catering organizations, temple kitchens, gurdwara canteens, and food banks, as well as how they are translated from Asia to Toronto. The association of diversity with food tourism and limitless pleasure crystallizes in ‘foodie’ culture, a form of omnivorousness that is predicated on a contradiction between inclusivity and social hierarchy (Johnston and Baumann 2010). By attending to class cosmopolitanism and the pursuit of cultural authenticity, this project extends scholarship on culinary tourism (Buettner 2008; Heldke 2003; Henderson 2012; Highmore 2008 and 2009; hooks 1992; Long 2004; Mannur 2005; Said 1979; Srinivas 2007) so as to understand how a multicultural cornucopia can distract from goals of food security and render invisible the challenges of food production.

Within migrant communities, given the centrality of food as edible connections to a diasporic home, food production and consumption reshapes domestic and public space, transforms gender relations, and introduces new measures and means of economic well-being (Datta 2009; Duruz 2009; Marte 2007; Sen 2012; Wise and Velayutham 2009). With passing generations, tandoori stalls become restaurants. Family groceries selling home foods become chains, competing with mainstream supermarkets, while also spurring existing markets to enrich their offerings with new flavors and ingredients. ‘City food’ changes as subsequent generations creatively adapt to the changing city and develop a mixed sense of belonging. These adaptations are also powerfully shaped by consumerist pressures of advertising and assimilation. ‘City food’ acknowledges the changing dietary knowledge and practices resulting from rural-urban migrations and spreading global consumerism as well as from diasporic encounters (Jun 2000).

City food’ is intrinsically linked to movement – of people, ingredients, recipes and capital. The same airplane that now carries migrants from Delhi to Toronto also imports mangoes and spices for sale in the niche grocery. The poorly-capitalized street vendor not only serves the physical and psychic needs of migrant populations seeking specialized foods but also can realize – or dash – individual dreams of social advance. At the same time, food tourists, seeking out unique meals, mark their cultural advance through cosmopolitan pleasure. Despite mobility, the imagined bonds between food and place are difficult to break. Diasporic communities continue to seek out familiar ingredients, specialties, or cookware needed to make authentic dishes. Yet in new locations and economies, ‘authenticity’ is performed anew using what is available or what can assume value within new contexts of production, regulation, and consumption (Cook and Crang 1996; Cook and Harrison 2007; Maroney 2011; Renne 2007).

Cities are constantly learning to eat. Our goal is to help them learn to eat better. By engaging with historical and contemporary fascination with food cultures, we suggest how the pleasures of food can be used to address the economic, social, and dietary inequities that have historically constituted ‘city food’. Through these insights, we contribute vital information to develop the policy frameworks that can sustain economically viable, socially vibrant and equitable ways of feeding diverse urban populations.