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Occupy the Food System!

In the past few weeks, the U.S. Food Movement has made its presence felt in Occupy Wall Street. Voices from food justice organizations across the country are connecting the dots between hunger, diet-related diseases and the unchecked power of Wall Street investors and corporations (See Tom Philppot's excellent article in Mother Jones).

This is very fertile ground.

On one hand, the Food Movement's practical alternatives to industrial food are rooted at the base of our economic system. Its activities are key to building the alternative, localized economies being called for by Occupy Wall Street. On the other hand, Occupy provides a space for the Food Movement to politicize its collective agenda and scale-up community-based solutions by changing the rules that govern local economies.

Of course, in the U.S., what we refer to as the "food movement" is really more of a loose "food network" of non-profit organizations and community groups (CSAs, food policy councils, community gardens, etc) with a sprinkling of bona-fide family farmer organizations and food worker organizations. There's nothing wrong with this. The network has blossomed over the past decade, creating an amazing social infrastructure that is actively using the food system to make us healthier and happier. In the Food Movement we re-learn and re-invent ways of farming, cooking and eating. In doing so, we put back in the social, economic and cultural values robbed by the industrial food system.

But if the community gardens, CSAs, farm-to-school programs and sustainable family farms in the Food Movement are so great why isn't everyone doing it?

The simple answer is, because the rules and institutions governing our food system -- Wall Street, the U.S. Farm Bill, the World Trade Organization and the USDA -- all favor the global monopolies controlling the world's seeds, food processing, distribution and retail. This should come as no surprise, the "revolving door" between government and corporate food monopolies is alive and well, and goes back decades. But it means it's unlikely that the Food Movement's alternatives will ever become the norm rather than the alternative fringe -- unless the Food Movement can change the rules and institutions controlling our food.

To do that, the Food Movement needs politicizing.

Why? Hasn't it worked to improve school food, legalize urban chickens and reform the farm bill? Indeed, it has made important strides in impacting food policy. But many community food organizations have become dependent on the diminishing funding streams from the very foundations that helped them get off the ground. The nation's economic downturn has further affected community organizations, forcing them to tighten belts, cut staff, eliminate programs and compete for scarce resources at a time when communities need them more than ever. This makes them vulnerable to cooptation.

This is not to say that the organizations in the Food Movement don't deserve financial support. They do, and the existence of so many community food organizations is testament to positive cooperation with funders. But a broad-based movement is a different animal than an isolated community organization. For a movement, following a funding stream is the tail wagging the dog. Movements are about creating political will for the benefit of all. They converge, unifying and amplifying popular voices around a shared vision. Politically, movements cannot afford to be disarmed by money, silenced or divided.

A movement to "occupy the food system" will need to put healthy food in our communities and community voices in places of power.

A new, collective decision-making process is being fleshed out at Occupy sites across the country, and in the vibrant conversations on blogs, list servs and social media. It's about more than formulating "demands." As Naomi Klein commented in a recent visit to Food First, "Demands are about negotiation and compromise; this movement is articulating a broader vision." As the food movement moves into the new political spaces being opened up by Occupy Wall Street, a bold vision of food sovereignty is being crafted -- one in which food decisions, food resources and the food dollar are not controlled by Wall Street or by the food monopolies, but by local communities.

This political "convergence in diversity" has the potential to take us from the strategies for survival to strategies for transformation.

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