The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders

Megan A. Carney

Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015, 253 pp.

Reviewed by Megan B. Hinrichsen

Megan A. Carney’s The Unending Hunger directly confronts the current lack of formal research into the lived experience of food insecurity in the United States while simultaneously answering a call from feminist scholars to capture the lives of women migrants with more nuance. Carney conveys the collision of structures and individual agency as she explains the role of food insecurity in shaping the experiences of migrant women from Mexico and Central America. The book is a study of complexity and contradiction throughout its seven chapters. The setting of the book itself is seemingly a contradiction as it reveals the challenges of food insecurity in one of the most productive agricultural regions of California. Carney highlights the complexities and contradictions of our global food system in areas where want and plenty coexist, emphasizing the experiences of women who have experienced food insecurity in different parts of their lives and across international borders.

Women are disproportionately affected by food insecurity while also holding responsibilities that require them to do the most work to ensure food security in their households. The Unending Hunger calls attention to the issues of migration and food insecurity without lessening the impact of Carney’s exploration of the other forms of marginalization and inequality that shape the experiences of the migrant women she interviews. In fact, Carney demonstrates that the food and welfare systems in the United States are themselves systems of gendered marginalization. The strength of the book is Carney’s ability to break down the structures that limit opportunities in the lives of migrant women while also emphasizing the capacity that women have to challenge these very structures.

This book is an important contribution to our need to understand food insecurity within the borders of the United States using Carney’s concepts of the biopolitics of food insecurity and the biopolitcal project of food insecurity. The former concept reflects how the uneven distribution of resources, namely food, have partially driven women’s migration from Mexico and Central America to the United States in search of a better life only to encounter similar structural constraints in the United States. Carney then describes the the U.S. response to food insecurity as the biopolitical project of food security. Recipients of nutritional “handouts” are cast as “beneficiaries” rather than as citizens with the basic human right to food. This approach contributes to much of the stigma associated with nutrition assistance and welfare in the United States. Complex social problems are distilled into individual failings that should be overcome by the individuals themselves.

Carney argues that when states give individuals the responsibility for redressing the problems of food insecurity, they rely on a gendered division of labor. Women shoulder a disproportionate burden increased responsibility for providing food, receive less support for childcare and work, and often sacrifice their own health and nutrition in order to provide for others. However, according to the biopolitical project of food insecurity, not being able to provide enough food for the household is the fault of individuals (especially women). Even when women can provide more affordable, but also calorie-dense and nutrient poor diets, the resulting health disparities also become their personal failing. Carney shows how the migrant women become members of a homogenous “Latino community” that lacks “appropriate” knowledge to have a healthy diet (142). Carney’s own informants have also internalized this narrative. In conversations about improving the health of the community, they rarely mention structural changes and instead focus on individual responsibility. The biopolitical project of food insecurity is a powerful concept to explain how women come to embody poverty.

The Unending Hunger also underscores women’s “strategies for resistance and healing” (164). Women balance scarce resources and make personal sacrifices to protect their families. Despite the structural inequality and the messages of individual responsibility contained within the biopolitical project of food insecurity, Carney finds that women reject the notion of victimhood. Women plan their meals and stretch their resources to make food last, cooperate with networks of other women, and calling for social change through community-based activism.

The Unending Hunger has a particular strength in its compelling and accessible application of theory and its analytical clarity. Carney’s arguments are strong and concise. Ultimately, this book would be an ideal reference source for advanced undergraduate students exploring anthropological theory, particularly on the concepts of structure and agency, habitus, biopolitics, intersectionality, and multiple forms of marginalization. Practitioners and feminist scholars interested in migration, food insecurity, and public policy would also find this book an insightful and uncompromising portrayal of contemporary social issues and grassroots efforts to challenge them.

Megan B. Hinrichsen is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and a member of the Global Food Security Initiative at Monmouth College. She is a medical anthropologist who researches issues of nutrition, food security, and gender in economic development. She earned her Ph.D. at Southern Methodist University in 2015.

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