Food, death & obligation

Food, death & obligation

Shared by Lisa-Marie Gagliardi


Curious about the more-than-human relations in pedagogical spaces, I paused with a group of children and looked at a collection of decomposing apples in a plastic milk crate. Together we noticed the life crawling around, between, through, on and in the apples – we notice insects crawling, mold flourishing, spiderwebs tangling, eggs incubating and maggots squirming. There were a few yelps of “ew!” and one surprised shout: “It’s alive!”

After moments of spending time with the apples one child asks, “what are we going to do with them?”

“I’m not sure. Look at all this life the apples are holding. What could we do?” I ask.

“No, they’re dead,” one child replies.

“Put them over there,” one child suggests, motioning toward the large garbage bin. “Throw them in the garbage. They’re yucky.”

“They’re garbage? What will happen to all the life?”

“The man will come get them and take them away.”

“They go to heaven. God will take care of them.”


The children’s attention to the apples shift from a gustatory curiousity to a desire to keep a separate distance away from them. Once the children define the apples as dead, they lose interest quickly and decide the apples should be thrown in the garbage. The assumption that the death of the apples reduces them to a disposable uselessness that can be taken away and cared for by another – a man or God – reproduces the invisibility of interconnected common food worlds. From the children’s perceived uselessness and disposability of the apples, significant questions arise: What kinds of relations do we have with more-than-human lives when they are of no use to us, humans? In a human/child-centered early learning program, how are children learning to inherit more-than-human worlds? What might it do to disrupt human-centered logics in food relations and think food beyond regulatory and useful bodies?

Thinking with food and death, Val Plumwood (2008) challenges Euro-Western logics of human exceptionalism that work to separate humans from more-than-human worlds. Human exceptionalism, inherent in human/child-centered pedagogies, is related to the belief that death involves continuity of a disembodied spirit and the complete ending of the embodied self (Plumwood, 2008). In both cases, selves are separate from the ongoingness of common worlds, reproducing the idea that humans/children are bounded individuals, which distort the ethics of care required for more-than-human worlds (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017). Importantly, decentering the human/child in early childhood education does not mean the child is outside of the frame of concern, rather, it highlights interconnectedness and draws in questions of relational ethics. As such, common worlds imbue human-food relations as a “concomitant recognition of mutual interspecies vulnerability” and “carries a considerable ethical responsibility, not only to find ways to secure ecological futures of our own children, but the future generations of all other species, with whom our fates and futures are irrevocably bound” (Taylor & Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2019, p. 5). 

Noticing how food does not abide by the human-induced divisions between life and death, and the finality of these boundaries, dismantles imposed Euro-Western conceptualizations of individuality and human exceptionalism. The current state of the environment amid climate crisis and food insecurity and the commonplace exploitation of nonhuman species requires an embedded ethical obligation to rethink our relations within more-than-human common worlds. A common worlds pedagogy that decenters the human/child asks: what obligations and responsibilities do we have? How might decentering the human/child in food relations obligate different ethical considerations and responses in our times of climate crisis and food insecurity?

Asymmetrical obligations in human-centered food relations perpetuate a notion that the sole purpose of food species is for human extraction and consumption. When food species are no longer fit for either, their uselessness renders them disposable, garbage. In human-centered food relations, care is only offered to nonhuman species that can do something for us – fulfil our hunger, provide nutrients, be used for learning and skill acquisition. Even when food is fit for human consumption, care is often attended to through productive means rather than through a more immanent obligation to the conditions of existence and mutual flourishing. Beyond this usefulness, nonhuman species are garbage, dead, yucky. This neoliberal branding of care reproduces an exploitation of care. Afterall, food is in need of care; it cannot exist without someone taking care of something somewhere (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017).

While some educational practices focus on caring for nonhuman others through gardening, composting, and cooking, they are all-too-often rooted in the goal to teach children moral imperatives of “doing good” (Flowers & Swan, 2012). These redemptive teleologies reduce ethical relational tensions to a resolvable dilemma in which it is seemingly possible to extricate humans from more-than-human worlds (see: Noticing Redemptive Practices post and Against Redemptive Tree Pedagogies). The practice of caring for more-than-human others is not just of moral concern, as reproduced in a reforming position to curriculum, but it is a relational ethical concern based in mutual reciprocity. As humans implicated in food relations, we carry obligations to not only take from nonhuman species, but to give back. Taking time to notice the food differently reproduces “an ethics of care of the commons as a prerequisite for a flourishing and democratic early childhood educational community” (Taylor & Giugni, 2012, p. 110). How might we pay attention to what we do with our food excesses when they are no longer useful in ways do not reproduce redemptive human-centered logics and instead, enrich mutual relationality? What kind of ethics are required in these more-than-human fooding encounters that draw on a more immanent obligation to foodworlds we actively create?



Flowers, R., & Swan, E. (2012b). Pedagogies of doing good: Problematisations, authorities, technologies and teleologies in food activism. Australian Journal of Adult Learning 52, pp. 532–572.

Plumwood, V. (2008). Tasteless: Towards a food-based approach to death. Environmental Values 17, pp. 323-330. doi: 10.3197/096327108X343103

Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of care: Speculative ethics in more than human worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taylor, A., & Giugni, M. (2012). Common worlds: Reconceptualising inclusion in early childhood communities. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 13(2), pp. 108-119.

Taylor, A. & Pacini-Ketchabaw, V. (2019). The common worlds of children and animals: Relational ethics for entangled lives. New York, NY:Routledge.

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