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The Struggle for a Decent Meal: Household Food Consumption in Santiago de Cuba


As the welfare state disintegrates in the post-Cold War era, through the changing practices of everyday life, there are also shifts in community interactions, family dynamics, and individual subjectivities. Drawing on 16 months of ethnographic research in 22 households in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second largest city, I reveal that recent changes in food consumption practices are the grounds for reworking longstanding parameters for ethical conduct at the household and community level, which, in turn, influence how individuals see themselves. While in capitalist settings, states have been weakened as corporations have gained immense power, in Cuba there are no non-state-based intermediaries, and the state still has the ultimate power. Increasingly the work necessary to maintain households and keep food on the table is shifting away from state responsibility onto individuals and families.

I analyze study participants' longing for a "decent" meal as a highly emotional means of clinging to the social ideal of well rounded, culturally appropriate, and calorically adequate meals. However, given that the late-socialist state can no longer provide basic necessities free of cost, those who adhere to this standard are challenged to find new ways to access food. Most of my research participants do not fully achieve this ideal; rather they endure a less than decent standard of living and a great deal of stress. Some families engage in practices that may not meet local standards for ethical behavior in order to acquire food they deem appropriate for consumption. The struggle to acquire food is compounded as solutions to practical barriers are met with moral dilemmas. As people reflect on their shifting ethical standards for interaction with family, friends, and community in the face of food scarcity, they begin rethink who they are as people. This represents a shift in the community relations surrounding consumption leading to a transformation in subjectivity. I analyze this struggle and transformation to offer critical insights into the social implications of shifting consumption patterns during the decline of the welfare state. I also reveal the ways in which social relationships and subjectivities are reconfigured as political economic systems change.

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