As our last assignment for the Food and Society fellowship, IATP staff asked us to interview an "elder" about the future of the food movement. I decided, however, to approach this task in the format of an article, articulating any accumulated wisdom I might have gained from the numerous thinkers who have influenced me over the years. Some of these influences have been:
Bob Gottlieb, who has helped me to understand the role of social movements and broad based coalitions in making change;
Mark Winne, who has shown how food can be a very effective tool for organizing and how building alliances is essential to increasing power;
Gail Feenstra, who has worked diligently to show how community food system projects have had tangible impacts on the way food is produced, consumed and distributed;
Anim Steel, who has shown me the wisdom of youth; and
Hank Herrera who has vociferously demonstrated the importance of listening to the unheard.
Food is an extraordinary organizing tool. It touches everyone's lives in very personal ways. The food system impacts so many different fields of interest: economy, family, land use, health, and environment, that virtually all professions are stakeholders in food system change. Food brings people together across class, race, geography and culture.
Yet at the same time it plays a bridging role, food can also separate us. To PETA activists, "meat is murder." Public health activists may believe that fast food corporations are peddling disease, no differently than tobacco companies. To the working class, farmers' markets and organic food can be perceived as the province of elitists. Improving the quality of school food can be seen as the work of a "nanny state."
We will probably never resolve these differences, because of the unique and highly personal relationship we all have to food. Food gets to the core of our society, culture, and individuality.
In all of our collective efforts to build a more just, sustainable, ecological, democratic, healthy— or whatever adjectives you prefer to use—society, we will not succeed if we don’t transform the food system. Conversely, if we transform the food system, we will have won the battle for a more fair and sustainable society. Food is that important.
What are the critical issues in the food movement?
I'd like to highlight three key issues. First, we need to find a way to convert the public's interest in local and healthy food into political power. Millions of people shop at farmers’ markets, buy organic, and grow their own gardens, yet few identify with the food movement, and even fewer get involved in food politics. We are just beginning to see candidates for local office take stances on the food system. We need to organize and mobilize the public toward clear policy victories at all levels of government. We should demand that candidates for public office take a stance on food systems and hold them accountable to their promises. Finally, we should convince more powerful and established entities (environment, community developmet, social justice, ethnic, feminist, and labor) that incorporating food systems into their agendas will help them meet their goals as well as to build alliances with new and important partners.
Second, we have to figure out the movement's sustainability. Food is hot right now, but we need to ensure that it doesn’t just become a passing trend. This can happen in part through the incorporation of food systems within universities, public agencies, professional associations, and other important institutions. Fifteen years ago, there were perhaps a handful of classes on food systems across the country. Now, it seems like most universities have offerings in this field. A new cadre of young people is being trained in food systems, and will carry this training into their careers.
Finally, the best way to ensure the continued growth of the food movement is to prove that community-based food projects have real and measurable impacts. To date, those that have supported the movement have been those that share our values. If we are to expand our base of support, we must demonstrate that our work makes a tangible scientifically measured difference. For example, we need to show why schools shouldn't just incorporate a salad bar with food shipped halfway across the country into their lunch program, but a salad bar that uses locally grown or processed products. We have to quantify the importance of local food in terms of the local economy, the environment, and improved dietary patterns, among other things.
How do we take the movement to the next stage?
Come together to strategize new courses of action
Create new alliances with more powerful and established organizations.
Communicate a consistent values-based message across the movement
Organize our supporters and mobilize them toward policy victories.
Innovate market-based projects.
Gain additional resources for our efforts.
Document our impacts, successes and challenges.
How do we foster inclusion?
First we need to define whom we want to include. Food justice groups are doing a splendid job of making the case that communities of color and other socially disadvantaged persons should be at the table and benefiting from the changes being made. Their message is becoming more mainstream among the food movement, just as environmental justice groups helped to transform the environmental movement. Youth groups, such as Real Food Challenge, are doing a great job as well catalyzing youth leadership. Yet, there are systemic challenges to the full participation of youth and people of color far beyond the scope of our movement. It has not been and it will not be an easy road in the future, but food systems provide the venue for these important discussions to continue.
One of the weaknesses of progressive movements is their proclivity to factionalize themselves in ever more narrow groups. We must avoid that tendency, creating a big tent in which all persons can be housed, but also leaving enough space for people to organize based on shared characteristics. Finally, if we are to transcend the elitist label and make real political advances, we need to not demonize the average McDonald's eating, Pepsi-drinking, Walmart-shopping person, and bring them further into our orbit.
What can the fellowship do to support the movement?
The Food and Society Fellowship was founded to train movement leaders to counter the propaganda of right wing opponents of organics, such as Dennis Avery and the Hudson Institute. The movement needs more strong voices to emerge from the fellows program that will take on the challenge of communicating effectively and directly against our adversaries.
Our opponents continue to be in industries whose financial interests run contrary to our vision of a healthy and democratic food system: soda manufacturers, agri-business and agri-food conglomerates, and pesticide manufacturers among others.
Yet, we also have new and powerful enemies, skilled media manipulators. Fox News, right wing talk radio, and Sarah Palin have attacked efforts to support healthy food in schools and communities as a symbol of excessive government interference in citizen's lives. Food movement leaders need to be trained to confront these distortions of the truth in ways that resonate with the American public.