Food Riots (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
FOOD RIOTS. A food riot can be defined as any gathering, whether planned or spontaneous, that may begin peacefully (a "food protest") but evolves into disorder, leading to loss of control, violence, bodily harm, or damage to property. "Food riot" and "food protest" can be understood and discussed together as "food disturbances" (Gilje, p. 4). Food disturbances occur and have occurred for obvious reasons: When people feel their sense of entitlement to an adequate supply of food is being breached by those controlling the food supply, they will go to extreme measures to get the kind, quantity, and quality of food they feel they need for themselves and their families.
Historical and archaeological evidence documents the existence of food riots for several thousands of years and in all parts of the world, with periods of greater and lesser activity (Newman). Food riots occurred most frequently in the modern era (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries), declined through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and increased again toward the end of the twentieth century, primarily in developing countries.
Types of Food Riots
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A major subfield in social history, a rich body of scholarly work both documents and theorizes about food disturbances. European social historians especially have set the standard for scholarship in the field. While no two riots are ever exactly the same, and each contains a multiplicity of circumstances, historians have generalized that in the past food riots have fallen into three main categories: First, a blockage or entrave, where protesters blocked shipments of grain or other foodstuffs shipped from one region to another; second, the price riot or taxation populaire, where peasants seized the goods from a retail shop whose prices were deemed too high, which would then be sold for a "just price," and often the money paid to the merchant. The final form of food riots, the market riot, was simply looting stores and supply depots to protest high prices or the lack of goods (Thompson; Gilje; Walton and Seddon).
Modern-day riots tend to conform to the latter category of market riots, as looting and destroying property are common factors. In addition are the more calculated, less volatile, demonstrations where the food at issue is ceremoniously dumped on the grounds of, for example, the local government headquarters. The boycotting of food, also a common means of protest in the twentieth century, can be effective, especially when centered on one item such as milk, beer, bread, or grapes, or on a single manufacturer (Linden). Boycotts, however, can evolve into full-fledged food riots if participants harass or violently attack those choosing to purchase a targeted item or frequent a targeted store.
Theories of Food Rioting
Why do people riot over food? The obvious answer, that they riot because they are hungry, does not begin to answer the question since most who are poor and hungry do not riot. What intervening variables determine who eventually riots over which foods? Historians have analyzed and explained food riots in a variety of ways, including as collective action representing the "moral economy" of an era, as part of a so-called "female consciousness," and as an exhibition of nationalism/patriotism. In his 1971 article, "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," eminent British historian E. P. Thompson sets about to provide a "thick description" of food rioters' motives in preindustrial England, an era when subsistence riots happened with great frequency. Thompson argues that English peasant bread riots were symptomatic of a society caught between changing economic and political forces, of an England in the midst of moving from a looser collection of landed gentry to a stronger state, and from a mercantilist, feudal economic system to one of laissez-faire market capitalism. Peasants under the feudal system were used to bread sold at "just prices"n amount reduced for the poor as part of the communal moral ethos. In the shift to an emerging market economy that abandoned the notion of the just price, peasants understandably clung to the older "moral economy." Viewing inexpensive bread prices as an entitlement, when peasants felt the long-held social pact was not being honored under the new system, they rioted in response. People, argues Thompson, were thus not just rioting because they were hungry, but also out of a sense of injustice. As the peasantry evolved into the industrialized working class, conflicts over food were absorbed into and displaced by organized labor strikes. This explains why the number of food riots diminished considerably in the nineteenth century and beyond. Scholars have taken issue with Thompson's moral economy theory, but few if any reject his theory outright.
Since women as well as men participated in food riots, often in unique ways, in recent years historians have employed gender as a category of analysis. While not disagreeing with the moral economists, historians such as Temma Kaplan point out that, although the number of food riots decreased in the nineteenth century, food disturbances nevertheless continued. Moreover, they argue, food rioting took on a noticeably female persona, in part because labor unions, the new locus of collective action, largely excluded women. Studying early-twentieth-century food riots in Barcelona, Kaplan argues that women participated in food riots as an extension of their role in the sexual division of labor: caring for home and family, which included food procurement and preparation. Women who accepted the traditional division of labor, argues Kaplan, could be radicalized to action in the public sphere if they were prevented from fulfilling their obligation, especially the feeding and care of their families.
Food riots can also be examined in light of cultural meanings of consumption and their connection to nationalism. Historian Timothy Breen explores the relation between the growth of national consciousness and the American colonial rejection of British manufactured goods, including foodstuffs. Manufactured goods imported from Britain, readily available to so many people, Breen argues, resulted in a standardization of taste that transcended (to some extent) class boundaries. Consumer goods became politicized in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, providing a "shared language of consumption" that colonists of all regions and classes could understand and identify with, hence providing a common experience and knowledge base that united them enough to wage war against the mother country. While Breen does not limit his analysis to food but explores the meaning of consumer goods of all kinds, he focuses on the struggle over tea and its culminating food protest, the Boston Tea Party.
Modern-Day Food Rioting
While food riots and protests have occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the recent wave of food riots and protests are directly tied to strict economic austerity plans forced on developing countries by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international banks. Governments attempting to repay bank loans must enact draconian measures, including abandoning the long tradition of subsidizing staple foods such as bread, rice, and cooking oil. The resulting high prices, deflated wages, scarce resources, shrinking food supplies, and empty bellies has led to a series of food riots, including the looting and pillaging of stores, fast-food restaurants, and supply depots, the blockading of farm and supply trucks, and protests in town squares that have erupted into mayhem and violence. Often the protests and riots have centered on one food item, usually a staple or key ingredient (often with a tradition of subsidization by the government) integral to the culture's cuisine and consumed by rich and poor alike: rice, tortillas, onions, bread. The item, so central to their food habits, has functioned as a symbol of people's intense frustration and anger at being trapped in a global economic web in which they seem to have no agency. Social scientists John Walton and David Seddon note similarities between these recent austerity riots and those of the preindustrial European peasantry. Each era of food rioting, they argue, includes a context of burgeoning urban metropolises, severe economic hardship, and populations with a strong sense of moral economy that regards subsidized food prices as a government obligation.
See also Consumer Protests; Food as a Weapon of War;Food Supply, Food Shortages; Hunger, Physiology of; Hunger Strikes; Malnutrition; Political Economy.
Breen, T. H. "Baubles of Britain: The American and Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century." Past and Present 119 (1988): 7304.
Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Kaplan, Temma. "Female Consciousness and Collective Action: The Case of Barcelona, 1910918." Signs 7 (1982): 54566.
Linden, Marcel van der. "Working-Class Consumer Power." International Labor and Working-Class History 46 (1994): 10921.
Newman, Lucile F., Alan Boegehold, David Herlihy, Robert W. Kates, and Kurt Raaflaub. "Agricultural Intensification, Urbanization, and Hierarchy." Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation, edited by L. Newman et al. Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1990.
Thompson, E. P. "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century." Past and Present 50 (1971): 7636.
Walton, John, and David Seddon. Free Markets and Food Riots: The Politics of Global Adjustment. Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.