When it comes to loving food, Nina Ichikawa is far-gone. A peek at her CV and a visit to her website “Nina Eats,” decked with bright edibles, will reveal that mealtime is so much more than nutrition and necessity for her. Ichikawa’s ardor extends beyond the search for locavore joints or the best pork belly in town; Nina is interested in what food means and has historically meant for different people, and how governmental policies shape these meanings. A self-professed food policy nut, Ichikawa has shaped the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food initiatives, and has served as a food fellow for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Today, she is the food and agriculture editor at Hyphen magazine, a publication covering the arts, culture and politics of Asian America. International Examiner had a chance to speak with Ichikawa and hear her thoughts on Seattle cuisine, good reads and Asian America’s pivotal role in food politics.
What compelled your interest in food as a political issue?
I’ve been interested in both food and politics since I was young, and it was in college that I understood how they fit together. In college, I began to understand people’s links to food, and learned about the unjust forces that influence this link. I’m especially interested in looking at how the government spends money on food. As taxpayers, we all have a collective stake on government spending, so it’s something we should all pay attention to.
What are a few issues people should educate themselves about?
A few come to mind off the top of my head: consolidation in the food industry. Over the past few decades, fewer and fewer companies are controlling the food supply. Another issue is pesticide contamination in our food, and what that can do to human health. Marketing to children is pretty ferocious in this country.
You were able to name those issues pretty quickly. Do you ever feel defeated by the amount of problems in the food industry?
No, actually. Paul Greenberg, who wrote “Four Fish,” says that food is a political issue that goes in our mouth. Examining access to healthy fish in Alaska, he states that we’re literally eating regulations… if we don’t have oversight over industrial dumping, that’s what goes in our bodies. Secondly, I don’t get discouraged because there are so many people studying and producing great food who I learn from. I was also fortunate to be raised on really great food.
What kind of food did you eat growing up?
I call it Japanese soul food: low-cost, simple homemade ingredients; rice, fish, vegetables, seaweed, soybeans. The cuisine is about appreciating the inherent deliciousness of good ingredients. Good food takes ingenuity, skill and certain values. This philosophy is not only in Japanese cuisine, but in many Asian cuisines.
Your writing often connects Asian Americans and the food system. Where else do you see this connection?
We’re a rising political voice, and I don’t think that we’ve leveraged that voice in order to make the food system better. We’re strong on the consumption end, and need to be strong on the political end. We can’t just eat with our eyes closed.
A project that I’ve recently launched with other food justice advocates is AAPI Food Action (AAPIFoodAction.org) that focuses on educating Asian Americans about the Farm Bill and general food policy, as well as raising the voice of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) consumers and producers.
How did you become the food and agriculture editor at Hyphen?
In 2009, I proposed to Hyphen a new food and agriculture section, and they originally said no because they wanted to be a countercultural publication, and in mainstream media, food seemed to be the only thing that people talk about in regards to Asian Americans. They thought it was too type-casted. I convinced the editors that we would come from a political and historical angle, — the production of our food — and profile our producers so we aren’t just consumers, but learn more about the process.
You were in Seattle recently. What did you think?
I love Seattle. The legacy of fishermen, migrant workers, farmers and many other food producers in that area is really rich, and it makes people there sophisticated about food. And you all have access to great produce and seafood. Seattle is unique in its pan-Asian cuisine, too. You don’t get such a mixture of regions in other places.
You’ve inspired us to be food policy nuts, too. How can we become informed?
Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” is a good way to get started. David Masumoto writes about his experiences farming as an organic peach farmer. And Raj Patel writes about how our food system is linked with those of other countries’, and what responsibilities Americans have to fix the food system on a global scale.