In the dominant American discourse, alternative practices of consuming ethical foods are often positioned against cheap, highly processed, freely traded, and poor-quality industrially produced foods. This article discusses the different forms and meanings of “alternative” food practices and asks whether consuming organically and locally produced, or fairly traded, foods are the only “alternative” food practices that can claim moral authority and assert one’s ethical adherence. By examining the discourses and practices of everyday food provisioning among resource-constrained consumers in postsocialist Bulgaria and postindustrial Detroit, the article explores the meanings of “good” food, and suggests that “alternatives” do not always translate as foods that are exceptionally moral and pure owing to intrinsic superior values. These comparative case studies complicate a familiar, stereotypical dichotomy between a morally compromised global industrialized food system and an ethical alternative to the status quo that presumes moral purity. The meanings of “good” foods vary in different social and economic contexts, and “alternative” foods therefore can be those that have the power, or promise, to (re)establish a sense of “normal” provisioning opportunities. Recognizing these different forms and meanings of “alternatives” will allow us to envision future food production and consumption practices in more nuanced ways so that an industrialized food system and “alternative” food systems are not cast in mutually exclusive terms.
Detroit has long been noted for the difficulties its residents face with basic food provisioning, but after an extended absence, national chain grocery stores are now returning to the city. Whole Foods Market is the first major national corporate grocer to reopen in the city following a period of disinvestment by the sector as a whole going back to the mid-2000s. As the city moves through a series of dramatic political and economic upheavals defined by fiscal crisis, emergency manager control, and the largest municipal Chapter 9 bankruptcy in U.S. history, food has become a focal point for debates over economic and racial inequalities, and contrasting ideals of urban governance in the city. In this research brief, we describe an ethnographic project that examines how concepts of food justice and ethical food relate to urban governance in Detroit. We seek to explore how Whole Foods Market and Detroiters engaged in shopping and activism articulate “just,” “good,” and “quality” food in ways that imply varying visions of governance for the city, community, and self. We suggest that Detroit's moral economy of food could offer a particularly fruitful venue for understanding divergent visions of the city's future and the relationship between food and politics.