Around the world, social movements are attempting to improve well-being in the food system. The local food movement, for example, asserts that well-being can be improved for people and the environment if individuals participate in certain food behaviors, like shopping at a farmers’ market, gardening, eating in-season and using fresh, unprocessed foods. However, research suggests that while the local food movement can do a lot to improve environmental, social and human health well-being, some people – including women participants in these food movements – are not receiving these benefits.

In the United States, despite progress towards gender equality, women still remain overwhelmingly responsible for providing food for their families. As DeVault (1991) articulated in her hallmark book Feeding the Family, the labor of food provisioning has multiple dimensions, as it involves mental, emotional and physical exertion. Food provisioning includes planning meals, procuring food (e.g. shopping, growing food or receiving food via trade), cooking and cleaning up.

Men have increased the amount of housework they do in recent years (Sayer 2005). However, this trend has largely not influenced the most labor intensive or time inflexible housework, like childcare and food provisioning (Hook 2010). These tasks continue to be the purview of women.


More TBR 6
1. Som Castellano’s intro to TBR 6
2. Constance on economic concentration in ag
3. Deemer on social class and animal welfare
4. Saxton on farmworker injustice and health
5. Meiretto on immigration policy and food security
6. Wuerzer, Fry & Anderson on food access in Ada County
7.  Bruce on producing food for alternative food networks
8. Som Castellano on gender inequality in the local food movement

When it comes to the gendered division of labor in food provisioning, there are a few important things to consider. First, men tend to help out with food provisioning, but they are rarely responsible for it. For example, men may help out by doing some grocery shopping. However, women generally remain responsible for ensuring that it is completed. Why does this matter? Because being responsible involves a level of physical, mental and emotional labor that can be associated with poorer mental and physical health and less economic power (Coltrane 2000). Second, when men do food provisioning, it is often for special occasions, like Sunday breakfast. Or they may fire up the barbeque. But this is very different than being responsible for the everyday, mundane work of ensuring that people are fed.

Thus, it appears that in some ways the food system is perpetuating gender inequality. This is particularly true for low income women, women with children and women who are employed, as they may lack resources like money, time and transportation that are needed to act as food provisioners.

This knowledge provokes an important question: does the local food movement help improve this aspect of inequality in the food system?

I recently conducted research examining gender and food provisioning in, among other things, the local food movement. What I found is that rather than improving gender inequality in the food system, local food movement participation actually exacerbates gender inequality in the household. Participating in the local food movement can be more labor intensive overall, and this labor still falls predominantly to women.

According to quantitative and qualitative data I collected, among those engaged in local food systems, a greater proportion of women were responsible for planning meals, shopping for food and cooking. For example, while 59 percent of women were responsible for planning meals in the entire population, 63 percent of women were responsible for planning meals in the subpopulation of those engaged in local food systems. And while 17 percent of men were responsible for cooking in the entire population, only 14 percent of men were responsible for cooking in households engaged in local food systems.

Given the range of activities associated with the local food movement, like shopping at farmers’ markets, home gardening, cooking with fresh and in season food and food preservation activities like canning or drying, it is not surprising that women engaged in the local food movement do a lot more food work, compared to women who are not engaged in this movement. Women engaged in the local food movement spend more time planning meals, procuring food, preparing food and cleaning up after meals.

Local food and emotional, physical labor

Survey data demonstrated that women who are very active in local food systems on average spend an additional 40 minutes per day in food provisioning. When I talked to women, they spoke about how much work engaging in the local food movement was. For example, one woman stated that:

I spend a lot of time running 10 different places to get food – so you have your raw milk share, you have your meat share, you have your CSA [Community Supported Agriculture], you have your farmers’ market, you have your coop, and then whatever you can’t get those you get at the grocery store, or you go to the grocery store to get the cleaning product you need. Or whatever – but, it’s on the list, and then the amount of time and planning and organization it takes to like do all of that, and then making compromises. It is a lot of work.

Women involved in the local food movement also appear to exert more emotional labor. Women often participate in the local food movement because they have concerns with the food system, and they care about how their food practices impact the health of their families. They also tend to care about how their food practices impact the physical environment, farm workers, their local economy, animals and more. As one woman stated, “To me, [cooking is] one of the ways I can show my love for my friends and family. It is also a way to show love for the earth, which I feel really strongly about.” This heightened level of concern and care adds up to significant emotional labor.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Allen, P. 2004. Together at the table: Sustainability and sustenance in the American agrifood system. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania University Press.

Allen, P., and C. Sachs. 2007. Women and food chains: the gendered politics of food. International Journal of Sociology of Food and Agriculture 15 (1): 1-23.

DeVault, Marjorie. 1991. Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring Work. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Hinrichs, C. Clare. 2003. “The practice and politics of food system localization.” Journal of Rural Studies 19: 33-45.

DuPuis, E. Melanie and Goodman, David. 2005. “Should we go “home” to eat?: toward a reflexive politics of localism.” Journal of Rural Studies 21(3): 359-371.

However, despite the fact that engaging in the local food movement is often emotionally and physically laborious, most women also report that this work is rewarding. The work was rewarding because women felt like they were accomplishing something and living their values. As one woman stated, “I guess I really find it rewarding when I know that my money is supporting practices that I agree with.”

Women do not have a uniform experience with food provisioning in the local food movement. My qualitative data suggests that higher income women can purchase their way out of some of the labor of food provisioning by doing things like purchasing bread at the farmers’ market, as opposed to making their own bread from scratch, or they can hire people to help them with their food provisioning. Thus, they experience less physical labor, but still reap the emotional rewards of engaging in the local food movement.

Low income women, on the other hand, are more likely to experience physical and financial barriers to engaging in the local food movement, which may impact both the physical and emotional labor of food provisioning. At times these barriers increase the physical labor of food provisioning, because they have to utilize greater effort to engage in the local food movement. For example, low income women often have to travel longer to get to food outlets that carry local foods, and that accept SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps). On the other hand, some low income women, particularly those who live in so called food deserts, actually engage in less physical labor because the physical and financial barriers are too great to overcome. When women desire to engage in the local food movement, but can’t, the emotional labor often increases, as feelings of guilt and distress become heightened.


Social critics like Michael Pollan want us to be cooking more. They think that by cooking more we can improve social and environmental well-being. But what critics like Pollan at times overlook is that the work of cooking is often mundane labor that is not equally shared by all members of society. Rather, this is work that women do. Women have been socialized to do this work throughout history. This doesn’t appear to be changing, and it isn’t changing in the movements that are trying to create change in the food system.

However, I believe that food movements could help improve gender inequality in the food system. How? Recreating the gendered division of labor is obviously a project that extends beyond the reach of the local food movement. However, the local food movement does offer important critiques of the industrialized food system and imagines that food needs could be met without the environmental harm or social injustice the current system causes. Therefore, the local food movement, as well as other food movements like the organic food movement or the community food security movement, offer opportunities for creating change.

For instance, local food movement leaders can place gender inequality at the center of food system critiques and highlight gender inequality in the food system as a problem that must be solved. Local food movement policies and programs can be aimed at both men and women, and at both boys and girls. Gender socialization begins at an early age, and the local food movement increasingly targets young people through programs like farm-to-school. It is imperative that programs like farm-to-school target food based educational programming at both boys and girls and include food provisioning skills in their curriculum. Such policy changes can do a small part in shifting the gender inequality that is so prevalent in the local food movement, and beyond, and may also help to scale up alternative food movements and their attendant ecological and social benefits.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Daniel Heckler

    I know the farmers growing the food spend a lot more time on “mundane labor” then the folks eating it. Let’s get equality through fair pricing for the farmers time and labor that’s the real issue.