CityFood Symposium: Street Food Around the World

Last week, I was granted an incredible opportunity to ditch three days of school to go to New York and talk about food. More specifically, I listened to a group of incredible food studies academics present their research related to street food and engaged in (well, mostly still listened to) conversation and budding collaboration regarding topics of food consumption and provision in cities around the world.

While the CityFood Symposium’s specific topic, street food, is not the exact focus of my upcoming research, it was an incredibly informative and fun opportunity to glimpse into the advanced academic world of food studies. Furthermore, key, underlying questions posed at the Symposium, like the following, are indeed integral to my research: How are urban residents fed and cared for? How do they craft their livelihoods from that?

The conference attendees presented on topics ranging from mapping street food vendors on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, NYC, to the performative and theatrical aspects of food trucks, to the spitting of paan (otherwise known as betel quid) in London. Below, I’ve listed some of my greatest takeaways of the conference:

1) The social sciences may not be emotive or sensory-based enough to accurately depict street food (or any food) research.

  • In the final round-table discussion of the conference, numerous academics mentioned how the social sciences fail to capture certain emotional and sensory-based elements of street food. I found this (repeated) comment especially interesting given my own background in Environment Sciences and Economics (arguably, the “hardest” social science). I already thought I was making significant strides towards understanding the more personal, emotional, and sensual part of food studies by taking anthropology courses and approaching my economics-based research… very carefully….


  • I’m currently enrolled in an independent study course through the Northwestern’s Economics Department to help prepare for my summer research. While I understand conducting research on local food systems and food security will demand research methods that span beyond classical economics, I thought I was approaching my Econ Independent Study mindfully enough—particularly given my enrollment in a humanities course last quarter that was all about the importance cross-disciplinary interactions between economics and the humanities. However, I now realize there is always something I’m going to be leaving out.

2) People are one of the most essential components of a “food system.”*

  • After a recent conversation with an analyst at the International Review Board (IRB) office at Northwestern, I determined that my upcoming research is likely not human subjects research because my research objectives are related to understanding food systems rather than individuals involved in the food systems. (For reference, if my research were to be designated at human subjects research, I’d have to undergo a very thorough review process to ensure that it  would not threaten the rights or welfare of any subjects whom I conducted research on. I’d also be subject to a number of restrictions throughout the duration of the research.)


  • After attending the CityFood Symposium, I became a bit more dubious about the fact that I my research is not human-subjects based. Many conference presentations emphasized the importance of understanding individual experiences to fully understand the broader cultural and economic implications of street food. Numerous researchers, for example, presented their in-depth ethnographic studies specific street food vendors. Then, in the last roundtable discussion, somebody stated something to the nature ofis co, “a food system is composed of people.” So, maybe I will be able to surpass the need for IRB review but still give appropriate regard to the individuals involved in the local food networks I will study?… (although I definitely need to spend some more time thinking about this).

3) Interviewing vendors at night markets (or people are involved in other means of distributing locally-source food) is legitimate, valuable research.

  • As I’ve been planning my own research agenda in more detail, I been having much more success getting in touch with food systems entrepreneurs and local food distributors than academics and government officials interested/involved in topics of local food systems and food security. Numerous presentations throughout the conference, such as Lynne Milgram’s presentation on her paper, What happens when we take the “street” out of “street food”?: refashioning Philippine street foods and vending, demonstrated to me particular social science research methods that seems very similar to what I like to do in my free time—talk to people who produce and consume food in various locations around the world. While I don’t mean to discredit or degrade Milgram’s or any other conference attendee’s research, I am excited to learn about the many possible paths my upcoming research can take that will be both well founded and fun.

Finally, a huge thanks to Professor Hil-lei Hobart and Dr. Krishnendu Ray for inviting me to the conference, with particular gratitude to Professor Hobart for letting me skip her class to attend. Also, thank you to my parents for housing me and to Six Blocks Bakery for providing me with a great makeshift standing desk in the LaGuardia Airport as I wait for my 4-hour delayed flight back to Chicago.

**I’ve recently learned that many academics do not like the term “food system,” but for the time being, I will use it and defined it as “an interconnected web of activities, resources and people that extends across all domains involved in providing human nourishment and sustaining health, including production, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, consumption and disposal of food. The organization of food systems reflects and responds to social, cultural, political, economic, health and environmental conditions and can be identified at multiple scales, from a household kitchen to a city, county, state or nation.

Source: Grubinger, Vern, Linda Berlin, Elizabeth Berman, Naomi Fukagawa, Jane Kolodinsky, Deborah Neher, Bob Parsons, Amy Trubek, and Kimberly Wallin. University of Vermont Transdisciplinary Research Initiative Spire of Excellence Proposal: Food Systems. Proposal, Burlington: University of Vermont, 2010.

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