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The Food Movement

food-protestI recently stumbled across a blog post arguing that 2016 was The Year the Food Movement Died. I thought perhaps the author was referring to the passage of the so-called-but-really-the-opposite-of-a GMO Labeling Bill; or the election of a pro-Fast Food president and the prospect of some of his less-than-sustainably-minded appointments at the EPA, USDA, and FDA; or the exposure of a rash of not-really-Farm to Table restaurants in a series of articles in the Tampa Bay Times. But, no: she was chiding herself for no longer avoiding out of season vegetables or foods with certain preservatives, and decided that maybe these little issues she had obsessed over weren’t really all that important. The blog’s representative photo was of a coffee grinder at Whole Foods plastered with a warning that they no longer segregate Organic from other coffee beans when grinding. Horrors!

I found more articles arguing that the individual food choice movement, the insistence on local, seasonal, organic, fresh, etc. is little more than another exclusive club that really does nothing to improve the food lives of people who don’t have the luxury of eating whatever they want. Well, yeah, I thought, but that’s not the “food movement.”

I’m no conspiracist who insists that agribusiness giants found a way to commodify the animal rights, environmental protection, and worker empowerment movements that brought us farmers markets, free-range animals, Organics, and fair trade, then processed them into the prettily packaged product of “consumer freedom” and relabeled that distortion as the movement itself. But here we are, in a world where smart, engaged people think the food movement means fancy food and exclusionary purchasing options, which rightfully turns the less privileged away from the cause. The conflation of the “foodie” trend with the food movement, which those articles doubtless did with no ill intent, has the potential to weaken support for the real movement for social, environmental, and economic viability in growing, selling, and eating good, nutritious food.

The food movement as Main Street Project and countless others define it is a movement to make food ethical, the supply lines transparent, and healthy food available and accessible to all, while protecting the soil and air and water and people that make the production of that food possible. Who could oppose that? Only those who would benefit from preventing that transformation.

The Washington Post published an article a year ago demonstrating that pretty much everyone cares about these issues when asked; nonetheless, Organics still only account for 5% of the total food market, sales at farmers markets peaked in 2007, and local foods make up a mere 1% of food sales. Why the disparity? The author’s conclusion is that “old habits die hard” and people aren’t buying those theoretically preferred foods simply because they don’t want to. I don’t doubt there’s a little of that going on, but I think the presumption that consumers, as a whole, have a choice, is dangerous. Consider the 14% of Americans who officially live in poverty, or the millions upon millions more who have to be careful about how much money they spend on food. Many people don’t live near a farmers market and/or don’t have transportation to get there. Nonetheless, the SNAP dollars spent at farmers markets more than quadrupled from 2009 to 2015, from $4.2 to $18.8 million, despite the fact that less than half of the country’s 8,000+ farmers markets are set up to accept SNAP, and education about the option has been less than stellar. People lacking economic privilege want to eat well.

Regenerative food systems are not foremost in everyone’s minds, but they don’t need to be convinced of the value of sustainable food production. People do not want animals abused and workers exploited and water poisoned to put food on their table. But without accurate and available information, the income to choose the more ethical item, and access to those items at all, the consumer’s impact is minimal at best. Letting the market decide is a myth when there is rampant socio-economic inequality, and when costs and methods are hidden.

Fortunately, there is an actual food movement and its participants have their fingers in many pies, from consumer education to international food policies to banning antibiotics to real people growing real food for real people. They don’t require permission from the dominant food system or the endorsement of the foodie crowd; and while some trends may be fleeting, the core principles of health, environmental protection, worker’s rights, and equity won’t die until all of us do. And then it really won’t matter anymore.

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