It is a common norm that food security and sovereignty require that societies are able to reduce dependence on one type of food, or shift from a global food system to local food provision. But have you ever asked why various government programs to diversify food through non-rice sources of carbohydrates have allegedly failed miserably? Or why the movement to build local food in various parts of the world – although thriving – does not really attract enough masses to make meaningful changes[1]? And why are most people still trapped in an unhealthy, instant, packaged diet that is not clear what it is made of, and has a high ecological footprint?

For activists, it’s easy to blame corporations and the free market. Big corporations offer easy and cheap access to processed food, pressure farmers to buy cheap food that can be found anywhere, and feed the masses with instant food that is low in nutrients and not necessarily safe. Indeed, we must admit that we live in a global food regime that is drowning out local food systems in many corners. However, this is only one side of the coin of our global food domination. The other side, in my view, lies within ourselves, as consumers and members of society.

The history of food consumption cannot be separated from what Michael Carolan, a sociologist from the United States, calls the embodied politics of food[2]. Friends may immediately squint their eyes when they hear the word politics. The politics that we often see is generally referred to as practical politics, politics practiced by party cadres, legislative candidates, and candidates for regional leaders to gain seats of power. Politics in a broader sense relates to the behavior of rulers in extending their influence and power to a wide audience. Other essays in this volume (refer to Piki’s link) sharply capture how food has been closely intertwined with politics and power, even since the days of the Hindu kingdoms in the archipelago – and how the choice of commodities often relates to how the government ensures its patronizing relationship with the common people. This politics of food, however, doesn’t quite explain why certain patterns of human interaction with food (say, wheat or rice, or any form of fast food) can dominate our lives more than others.

About appetite and embodied politics

This is where food as embodied politics comes in. To be impactful, politics must permeate the body of every citizen, and what could permeate the body better than food? We know that food is inherent to human beings through its basic necessity and the nutritional value it contains. However, what is even more important is that food is attached through taste and appetite. Government efforts to encourage citizens to read books or implement family planning, for example, cannot be as effective as encouragement to eat rice, because, even if it starts from force, the conception of rice is able to seep into each citizen through experience and the process of internalizing rice as a ‘good’ food. This is why rice was eventually accepted in Papua and the eastern islands even though it is not the staple food. But taste and appetite don’t stop here – appetite, furthermore, is a product of social class.

It was Pierre Bourdieu, a French philosopher and sociologist, who put forward the theory that taste reflects and symbolizes a certain class or group of people. In his book, La Distinction [3], Bourdieu argues that taste is not created by individuals, but is built from the values that a class of society wants to maintain, to distinguish between its class and other lower classes. We grow to like one thing or another through our exposure to the social environment around us. Individuals have a tendency to align with the social class to which they belong (or to which they want to belong). The ruling class can then dictate which tastes are good, and which are not. The commoner class, in turn, accepts this as something that sets them apart, and encourages individuals to move into the perceived better class through trying to imbibe those tastes.

Let’s take coffee as an example. For a long time in Java (during the Dutch colonial era in the 18th century to be precise), coffee has been the drink of the noble elite and landlords. Farm laborers were not even allowed to carry coffee beans out of the plantation area. Not everyone likes coffee perhaps, but the fact that coffee conjures up class has created a new taste for people within the ruling class. The commoners also imitated what the class above imitated, of course in their own way and capacity. What was called kopi kampung (village coffee) was developed, complex enough to become a package of coffee culture. Three centuries later, a new wave of world coffee entered Indonesia and again dictated tastes. Now, some of the country’s upper-middle class people find expresso or cappuccino more appealing than kopi tubruk – coffee, and the particular way it is drunk, has again become a symbol of class in society. It’s worth asking what whets our appetite for coffee: its inherent flavor or the fact that we’re in a coffee-loving neighborhood? The same story applies to other high-value commodities such as tea, tobacco and cocoa that have a dark history of colonialism behind them.

Building a good food politics

Stories of food transformation around the world and in every era have always involved resistance and habituation of bodies, as well as coercion, imitation, rejection and acceptance. In eastern Indonesia, people perceive the taste and flavor of rice as better (read: classier) than sago (see Piki’s article), and this process starts from the perception of the elite class which is imitated by the lower social classes. The consumption of packaged instant products is portrayed in advertising through upper-middle class families enjoying quality time with their families while eating at fast food restaurants, or young slobs sipping on fizzy drinks with relish. Or if we return to the case of coffee, the growth of middle-class cafés that bring a new style of coffee consumption has increased coffee consumption among the working class[4], even though the coffee they drink (instant coffee with high sugar content) is different from that of the upper middle class.

So, back to the first question, if the influence of modern food consumption, which is not considered good, can be that great, why can’t the consumption (and production) of good and healthy food? As I stated in the earlier paragraphs, food politics boils down to the politics embodied in our bodies. Imagine your body as an arena of political resistance: on the one hand, you are faced with the urge to consume fast food, on the other hand you are encouraged to internalize organic values into your lifestyle – which food do you choose? To the extent that you make choices, that’s how food politics manifests.

But as Bourdieu points out, the politics of taste and appetite does not stop at the individual; it is a social class phenomenon. We can look at it from two directions. First, we know that organic lifestyles and local food will be more easily disseminated if it becomes a taste developed by the elite social class in society.  Famous figures, celebrities and state leaders in this case play an important role in constructing new tastes in society, which are eventually adopted by the commoners. The government should abandon the old approach (as a foster father who provides assistance to his children) and shift to a new cultural way of working. In this context, the political battle extends to various media (mass and social). In Indonesia, celebrity-activists such as Nugie and Nadine Chandrawinata have a voice in promoting environmentally friendly lifestyles. Global celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall have also penetrated the Indonesian market to introduce healthy food preparation. However, they may be less popular than other celebrities who are more famous and become ambassadors of consumerism in their position as publicity stars.

The second perspective is that of Bourdieu – seeing this phenomenon as a social critique. It is unethical for us activists to spoon-feed the value of organic and local food to ordinary people using a lifestyle that indulges in class differentiation. Instead of growing romaine lettuce, kale or iceberg lettuce in our organic gardens or turning local food into burgers or pizzas – types of food and cuisine that, we must admit, reflect class -, we can grow kale, genjer or jaat that reflect a different social class. However, the commoners at some point will have resistance to something foreign to them; instead of imitating, they will build their own identity wall.

As a class-conscious society, we can reverse the way the world works, or at least not let class differences scramble the identities of the weaker social classes. Take a look at these examples: (1) the strengthening of traditional market identities in marginalized areas, which extends into campaigns to defend traditional markets amidst the pressures of supermarkets and modern markets; (2) the kampung coffee movement as a counterhegemony to the growth of western-style specialty coffee in big cities in Indonesia, or (3) local food systems that develop as a reaction of marginalized communities to the pressures of urban growth and agrarian issues. All three suggest that the struggle for a better food system does not have to start from the top (I will try to unpack all three in future posts).

There are many ways to build a good, healthy and sustainable local food system. In the end, though, it all comes down to the politics of our bodies. Food is personal, but also collective. The struggle to build a better food system must go beyond logic, but through a process that evokes and internalizes visceral feelings and tastes. Realizing the struggle of food politics in ourselves and in the class society will lead us to act more wisely in advocating for something good for the whole society.


[1] Based on data from FiBL, the Swiss organic research agency (2017), although the growth rate of organic agriculture in the world is faster than the growth of conventional agriculture, overall organic farmland only contributes to 1% of the total agricultural land; FiBL. (2017). The World of Organic Agriculture 2017.

[2] Carolan, M. (2011). Embodied Food Politics. Ashgate Publishing. ‘Embodied’ in Bahasa Indonesia is defined as manifesting, but in this case ’embodied’ is associated with the materialization of politics in the body, for which the word embodied is more appropriate.

[3] Bourdieu, P. (1979). La Distinction: a social critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge.

[4] Based on data from the Ministry of Industry, coffee consumption per capita in Indonesia reached 1.7 kg/capita/year in 2017, increasing by 7% per year ( From interviews with AEKI, the increasing consumption of packaged coffee is a ripple effect of the growth of cafés and the consumption of fresh coffee in the middle and upper economic classes.

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