For every heartwarming story of a rooftop farm providing food and work for the homeless or a catering company that empowers refugee women, there are a dozen downer stories that make us want to crawl in a hole, blast some Elliott Smith, and ponder the pointlessness of our brief existence on this flying space-rock.
Indeed, even the world of food can't escape humanity's penchant for violence, exploitation, and straight-up evil.
When it wasn't summarily executing foreigners and forcing Yazidis into sexual slavery (or worse), ISIS continued to wage its holy war, even through food. We reported on an ISIS-affiliated group that was attempting to lure young women into the fold by teaching them how to cook for their jihadist husbands. Not long after, the militant group was discovered to have stolen dozens of boxes of UN food rations and rebranded them with the ISIS flag logo. Considering that civil war in Syria has created a full-fledged food crisis, those rations were direly needed. Despite that, ISIS members seemingly saw no problem with setting fire to hundreds of boxes of American chicken because it wasn't considered halal enough.
Of course, the strife in the Middle East has caused wave after wave of refugees to flee their homes, whom we met in camps from Turkey to Germany. Some of them were fortunate enough to have access to fresh ingredients to cook in their makeshift kitchens, while others had to make do with cut-up hot-dogs and flatbread, cooked on smuggled pans.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, conservative politics have led to bar and cafe closings. We met a bar owner in Turkey who has been operating his establishment—located next to a mosque—illegally, due to the conservative government's crackdown on alcohol consumption. In Egypt, one of Cairo's most vibrant underground cafe districts was closed due to its reputation as a haven for sex workers and the LGBT community.
Food workers of all stripes endured exploitation and even physical harm. In Myanmar, the teahouse culture still relies on the labor of underaged and impoverished boys who work for next to nothing. In South Asia at large, the shrimp industry has continued to use indentured servitude and straight-up slave labor to keep your plate of scampi at the low, low price of $9.99.
We also heard about the plight of sugarcane workers in Nicaragua who provide the raw materials for the country's rum, but who face an epidemic of chronic kidney disease that has been linked to their working conditions. Remember that the next time you order a dark and stormy.
Up in the US and Canada, things weren't exactly rosy. We heard from restaurant and bar industry insiders who dished on the worst aspects of their jobs, including a bar waitress who routinely faces sexual harassment at work, a food safety inspector who has a very good reason for never ordering soft-serve again, and a former cook who was violently attacked by her sous chef in the kitchen.
All in all, 2015 was one fucked-up year. Let's hope that humans can do better in 2016—otherwise, hell is going to start getting crowded fast.