A Recipe for Activism: The Politics and Joy of Cooking

What do you get when you mix equal parts of social activism and a love of food within a group of older adults? We recently caught up with Myriam Durocher to discuss a collaborative project between ACT and RECAA (Respecting Elders, Communities Against Abuse) that uses food as a medium. Myriam Durocher, an ACT research assistant,  and Phd candidate at the Université de Montréal, has spent the last year working with RECAA to develop and help coordinate a food blog called Food Talks, À table with RECAA and friends. As an activist organization that works to raise awareness of issues that older adults face, from elder abuse to problems with accessibility, RECAA has been organizing events for a number of years, and food has been part their meetings. Myriam recounts the origins of the project: “RECAA has always had potluck style lunches every Thursday, and during this time they realized that they were speaking about themselves and the issues that concerned them. They thought about how to use food as a medium to speak about these issues, how to create a space so that they could gain visibility for themselves and their concerns. ACT was already helping them with developing digital skills, so the idea of a food blog seemed perfect.”

For nearly a year the group has been working on the food blog, sharing recipes and personal stories online. These stories offer both contextualization for their recipes and what they signify for RECAA members, as well as a means of raising awareness around the issues older adults encounter in daily life. The project received funding from a New Horizons for Seniors grant from the Canadian Government, and ACT, as a collaborator, also provided funds and support through workshops that focused on developing digital skills. RECAA members have developed and practiced photography, filming, and blog writing skills through the experience of cooking and sharing food. Myriam points out that gaining visibility in an increasingly digitalized society becomes easier for older adults when they have the skills needed to engage with the world digitally. Blog posts are not just about recipes, but include observations and thoughts on a variety of social issues. A recent entry recounts RECAA member, Marguerite’s experience working at a food bank in France. After having read an article on the CBC website, the group discussed concerns around food accessibility, in particular those of older adults. While the number of people who visit food banks is rising across age groups, ethnicities, and classes, older adults are the most vulnerable. Not only do they experience increased chances of poverty, but often lack the infrastructure to access healthy and affordable food. Whether poor public transportation systems or an absence of ramps, older adults face a host of challenges and obstacles to achieving food security.

It is here that Myriam found one of the most interesting developments: “As a group of primarily older women, they are changing their relationship with food from one that is based on caring for others, one of nourishing children and family to one that is empowering.” Their connection to food is being reconfigured from one that represents familial life to one that performs social and political activism using a digital platform.

The blog not only gives voice to the group and allows for self-representation, but it is also making a commentary on contemporary food culture. Discourses around diet and healthy eating habits position the individual as solely responsible for her or his health, thus shifting focus away from issues around food security, accessibility, and safety. They are also discourses that have permeated the notion of “successful aging” through the prescription of eating a certain way to maintain a “healthy lifestyle”. Eating becomes about caloric calculations and fat intake, rather than a more holistic understanding of the body and processes of aging. Contemporary discourses around food have, as Myriam notes, created normativities about how one should or should not eat and age: “This kind of discourse doesn’t take into account cultural backgrounds or individual bodies. It does not acknowledge singularities, but rather produces the effect ‘you should eat that’ even if it does not fit into your traditional diet or lifestyle.”

The shared lunches and food blog have also been a means for members of RECAA to engage in a cultural exchange of sorts. The group is ethnically diverse and everyone brings their own recipes, relationships, and access to different foods. Myriam relates the frustration some of the women feel when they cannot find the ingredients they want to make recipes from their home countries, as well as food often tastes different in North America from other parts of the world. She tells a story of one woman who grew up in the Caribbean and whose family raised chickens as well as grew vegetables and limes, and finds the chicken available in Montreal largely tasteless, that it doesn’t have the flavours of a chicken raised at home. The Food Talks bloggers have modified their recipes over the years to accommodate ingredient availability and different foods in their everyday cooking, and more recently how to adapt to the food blog culture. “One of the first challenges we had was that most of the women don’t use recipes when they cook. They don’t measure amounts or proceed by steps, but tend to improvise. We had to spend time to deconstruct their recipes so that we could create something accessible to blog readers.”

To record recipes RECAA members have cooking sessions facilitated by Myriam and ACT research assistants, Antonia Hernández and Magdalena Olszanowski, where they practice their photography and filming skills while recording measurements and steps of the recipe being featured that week. They also interview the person in charge of the recipe, so that when they meet next they have the material to produce a blog post. They have visuals as well as stories and thoughts about the recipe. These cooking events have begun to extend out into different communities as well. In February, in honour of Black History Month, RECAA shared a lunch with community members of Union United Church, Canada’s oldest black congregation. It was an opportunity to share experiences of living in the city, as well as learn about racism in Montreal. The lunch created a space for RECAA and the congregation to exchange and share, and become community partners.

Myriam’s Ph.D. research is engaged in thinking about the ways in which discourses on food and diet engender practices and conceptions of the body. With the emergence of a biomedicalized food culture, she examines the ways in which the contemporary body becomes a semiotic body and a medium for connecting a multiplicity of discursive, material, disciplinary, and institutional elements.

When asked what she has learned in the project, Myriam said that the group has offered her the means to develop a critical eye for the knowledge produced about food through various discourses. She says that the joy of cooking and eating the members of RECAA share is far more important than having recipes that calculate protein or fat. That the ways in which the the group relates to food is more embodied, it is about pleasure and the experience of eating together. It is about responding to a discourse that does not acknowledge the political, cultural, and social dimensions of food. It is about discovering the potential food has for activism and learning.

To learn more about Food Talks and RECAA visit their website at: http://foodtalks.recaa.ca/

If you would like to get in touch with Myriam: myriam.durocher (at)umontreal(dot)ca


Stereotypes Contested: A Case Study on Older People’s Political Activism, ICT Usage, and Intergenerational Solidarity

By Daniel Blanche

The Iaioflautas in a demonstration on January 2013 (photo by Fotomovimiento under a CC BY-NC-ND license).

With this text I intend to share some reflections regarding the perception of stereotypes of older people, and how these are confronted by older adults who are highly active in political protests, in adopting information and communication technologies (ICT), and in continuous  collaboration with younger generations. These reflections come from a broader case study about a social movement led by older people that emerged in Barcelona in late 2011 called “Iaioflautas,” which in English can be roughly translated as “flute grannies,” in solidarity with the defamatory appellation against young hippie squatters, “Perroflautas” (“flute dogs”).

It has become common to think about older people as engaged voters and thus more politically involved than younger people. Studies have suggested that in some European countries older people seem to participate more than younger people in elections (Goerres, 2007; Quintelier, 2007). However, not many people envision older people’s political participation within social movements, in the form of protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, blockades, and other non-institutionalized ways of participating in the political sphere. Scholarship has mirrored this trend as there has been limited research conducted on older people’s involvement in political activism and protest activities (Adler, Schwartz, & Kuskowski, 2007), with some notable exceptions (Sawchuk, 2009; Narushima, 2006).

Portrayals of older adults as unskilled and as problematic ICT users are also widespread and common (Loos, Haddon & Mante-Meijer, 2012; Fernández-Ardèvol, & Ivan, 2015). Fortunately, research has challenged this perception demonstrating that age per se is not the decisive factor for ICT dexterity, but rather, it acts in conjunction with several other factors (e.g., ICT experience, socioeconomic status).

The appearance of “Iaioflautas” as a new social movement is characterized not only by being composed largely by older people, but also by their active use of ICTs for organizational and communicational purposes. Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol and I decided to examine this group in the hopes of contributing to knowledge about older adults’ participation in what has been termed “networked social movements” (Castells, 2012). The participants’ perceptions of ageist stereotypes and their use of ICTs within the movement were two of the aspects our study examined.

Through a series of 15 semi-structured interviews with politically active participants, we found that most of the interviewees shared negative stereotypes of older adults held by younger people. Some of the most common perceptions cited in the interviews were that older adults are regarded as a burden, stubborn, aloof, selfish, or unproductive. The last notion, that older adults are unproductive, was most notable, as society seems to value older adults only as long as they remain active, autonomous, productive, and engaged in society. This belief seems to be implicitly supported by some participants, who were critical of their age-peers not protesting in the streets with them. The majority also reported feeling praised and encouraged by others when engaging actively in protests. Yet, even when they do so, they are scrutinized and questioned. One participant remarked: “When you go out, ‘disguise’ yourself, and do what we do…you’re a freak! They don’t understand. ‘What is that person thinking?’ ‘But Sir, at your age?’” So, on the one hand, older people are valued only if they participate actively in society, and on the other, are judged as acting inappropriately for their age.

All participants in the study have a mobile telephone and nearly all of them communicate regularly and consistently through Internet via emails, social media, and apps. The data collected from a non-representative online survey that we codesigned with colleagues (Tecnopolítica, 2014) indicates that of a subsample of self-reported participants in Iaioflautas aged 60 and over (n=13), 9 participants (69%) used a computer (desktop, laptop) and 11 (85%) used social network sites to access and share information about the protest movement. Facebook (85%) and WhatsApp (54%) were the most common digital technologies used during their participation. Moreover, 73% of these Facebook users and 71% of these WhatsApp users reported having used these technologies for the first time during their participation in the movement. In other words, their involvement in the movement also meant an introduction to new digital technologies. Our interviews revealed that participants learned to use these technologies through two distinct pathways: either forced by their daily commitments – work, family life, social participation – or facilitated by courses organized by the movement itself. The latter was particularly relevant for blue-collar workers, either working or retired. A participant explains: “We organized a couple of short courses on computing because they had no idea what Facebook or an email were. Now, they are loving it. They are with their email, Facebook, Twitter all day long, which is great! But they had no clue, 80% of them.” Although not representative of the older population in Spain, the data assisted in debunking the notion that older people are unable to learn and master new technologies as a consequence of their age.

While many participants believe that they are influencing change in regards to the prejudices and stereotypes older adults face, they do so with caution. Their participation in Iaioflautas generally inspires admiration and respect, in part, because older people are not expected to engage in protest activities, and also because this group is committed to intergenerational activities (Villar, 2012). They have been engaged in constant and relatively demanding activities that work towards creating solidarity across generations. Although most often regarded as an older adult’s movement, people of all ages participate in the group, either sporadically, or on a regular basis: younger people help older adult’s learn ICTs; younger people learn from the older adult’s organizational and tactical ideas; and Iaioflautas usually supports other associations and social movements that champion intergenerational interests. Many participants expressed a wish for greater media coverage so their work can be both locally and internationally recognized, and to demonstrate to the world that older adults can be politically active. Others expressed a wish for more equitable treatment in the media. One participant expresses this concern: “A few months ago there was a newspaper article that said ‘Iaioflautas with iPhones’…So what? That because we are older we can’t know how to use telephones and new techniques? It said something like we were Superman, or the like, because we even had iPhones!”

While this study addresses what might be understood as a minority within a population, it is important to remember that only a relative minority of people, young or old, becomes involved in social movements activities. Our findings challenged the social perception of older adults as problematic in the adoption of new ICTs. We found that as long as older adults understood the adoption of new technologies as beneficial, their interest in learning increases, and they can become as intensive users as younger people. Iaioflautas offer us a good example of how ageist stereotypes can be combated: via greater intergenerational interaction and collaboration, wider training opportunities on ICTs, and fairer portrayals of older people in the media and popular culture. This might not be enough, but it helps in building greater social cohesion between older and younger people, a relationship that at times appears to be under stress.


Bibliography on request: dblanchet (at) uoc (dot) edu

Daniel Blanche is a PhD student at University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and a Research Assistant for ACT, involved in coordinating the Telecommunication Technology research stream of the project.