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On Food Activism

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I’ve long been interested in food activism, more in theory than in personal interest in participation. What motivates my interest here is the connections between food activism and the larger atmosphere of change at a given time. Americans have always been obsessed with food and food faddism has a long history. Food activism is not really the same thing, but there’s a context of a large industrialized nation having to move massive amounts of food around every single day and people responding to that industrialization by trying to slow things down and engage in a different relationship with food that is largely a rejection of industrialization, whether at quack Battle Creek sanitariums or in the organic soil of your local community garden.

I think people focus on food as an activist move these days because you can’t control climate change or extinction or the other gigantic problems we face, but you can control what you put in your own body. I think that’s a huge piece of this. I’ve seen it in environmental history courses I’ve taught for nearly 15 years now. Earlier interests in wilderness and the public lands have mostly been replaced by a turn toward food activism and/or activism or depression about climate change.

But how do you scale this up? The last public event I did before the pandemic was a day long conference about planning the Green New Deal at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. There were some great talks and ideas. But there was also a real distrust of government and focus on small, food based initiatives. I was on a panel with a guy who ran some community garden in Boston. And I pointed out that the thing about a Green New Deal as a concept is that the New Deal was a series of unprecedented gigantic top-down government programs and I didn’t see how community gardens at the hyper-local scale could really address global climate change, which the community garden readily admitted.

Anyway, there was a long Times Magazine article on food activists last week that deserves a mention here. There are some really great activists working on these issues. But, it’s not a movement without some problems.

Yet, since the 1980s, the primary message of the food movement to reach the broader public has been not a call to arms but rather a vaguely feel-good mantra: to eat more healthily by shopping at the farmers’ market and buying organic, unprocessed, non-mass-market foods. Certainly these strategies help the environment and support small businesses, but this sometimes seems like just a side benefit, with the emphasis on personal wellness, as if the only way to persuade people to “vote with their fork” on behalf of laborers or the planet were by appealing to their self-interest. It points to a tension in food activism between trying to influence individual acts of consumption, in hopes of bringing about incremental change, and taking direct political action. “The belief that we will change things through individual market choices is a way of not questioning the market itself,” says Eric Holt-Giménez, 67, an agroecologist and the former executive director of the Oakland-based think tank Food First. “We tend to concentrate on the romantic — the small farmer growing organic vegetables — when all this time we could’ve been fighting for parity and antitrust laws.”

The 48-year-old food-system scholar Raj Patel, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, notes that, internationally, activists in the past few decades have subscribed to a more sweeping notion of food sovereignty, a term introduced by La Via Campesina, a network of farmers and agricultural workers founded at a conference in Belgium in 1993. This goes beyond simply having reliable access to healthy food to recognizing the importance of cultural context, ecological stewardship and a fundamental right to have a say in your destiny. “Are you eating an organic banana because you think your body is a temple, or because the people affected most by pesticides are farm workers?” Patel asks. (Indeed, there’s a troubling historical connection between organic food and white ethnonationalism, drawing on the language of purity and a gauzy, idealized notion of a nativist relationship to the land, which must be kept unsullied by industrial pesticides or “foreign substances,” in the words of the Nazi scientist Werner Kollath, who during the Second World War promoted the slogan “Lasst unsere Nahrung so natürlich wie möglich” — “Leave our food as natural as possible” — alongside forced sterilization and eugenics. At the beginning of January, one of the far-right insurgents arrested after the invasion of the United States Capitol was reported to have demanded organic food in jail, in order to keep from getting sick.)

Critics on both the right and the left have accused the food movement of elitism. It takes a certain amount of privilege and financial resources to be able to eat in a way that’s commonly defined as healthy, and so labels like “organic” risk becoming simply a mark of status and virtue, while food-stamp recipients are regularly scolded for using government assistance to purchase the “wrong” kinds of food. S. Margot Finn, a Michigan-based food scholar, argued in a 2019 article that mostly white, wealthy activists have skewed the food agenda by prioritizing community gardens, urban farming, subscription vegetable boxes and access to fresh ingredients over, say, universal health care or a higher minimum wage, revealing “an impoverished moral imagination about what is worth wanting when it comes to food.” (It is possible, of course, to fight for all these things at once.)

I’ve not really trying to attack anything about the food movements here. As the article discusses, many of these food activists are also Black civil rights activists trying to feed their own food desert communities. It’s critical stuff. It’s also worth having critical (in the academic-platonic sense) conversations about the food movement like it is about all movements in order that we can do them better.

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