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Life before Vegetables: Nutrition, Cash, and Subjunctive Health in Samoa

By Jessica Hardin

Cite As:
Hardin, Jessica. 2021. “Life before Vegetables: Nutrition, Cash, and Subjunctive Health in Samoa.” Cultural Anthropology 36, no. 3: 428–457.


Since the 1950s, Samoa has faced rapid changes in food systems and labor practices, creating an environment in which health conditions such as diabetes touch every individual. Through an ethnographic analysis of Samoan people’s attitudes toward the novel food category of vegetables, this article explores how intersecting health promotion and development discourses instrumentalize vegetables as a source of both health and sickness, and as signs of poverty or wealth. This dual instrumentalization simultaneously positions vegetables as objects of trade that may generate wealth for farmers and as objects of health that may accrue nutrition to combat chronic sickness. I introduce the notion of subjunctive health to analyze people’s preoccupation with vegetables, even when these are rarely eaten. In Samoa, subjunctive health frames the consumption of vegetables in several ways: as if vegetables were both plentiful and essential to a proper meal, as if people were not healthy before imported vegetables were introduced, as if it were possible to sustain one’s family through gardening alone. The subjunctive highlights how health is constructed as aspirational, relying on an as if logic that entangles economic and nutritional conditions. It operates through the daily acts of nourishing one’s family to erase from view those biocolonial processes that generated an environment in which chronic diseases flourish.


biocolonialism; vegetables; prevention; Oceania; health; subjunctive; care; nourishment