The Food Movement in Flux: When a Good Idea is No Longer Enough

Recently, a friend described to me a well-known, long-established food movement organization facing a huge staff turnover.  Just one hour earlier, I had heard essentially the same story — from a different friend about a different organization. Only days beforehand, the Community Food Security Coalition, arguably one of the most important conveners of the modern food movement, had shut its doors.

Have you had these conversations too?  Do you know a food policy council facing an identity crisis?  A food organization in a funding crisis and/or a moral conundrum?  A friend or leader of the movement who has stepped away from a previous role?

I haven’t been at this for decades, far from it, but it sure seems hard to interact with the food movement at all this year without relating to the storyline.  Perhaps it should be of little surprise (and of much concern) that Mark Bittman has recently claimed as an aside that there is not yet a real food movement at all.

What is happening?  And where do we go from here?

A Remarkable Success

In a 2010 article, “Food Movement, Rising,” Michael Pollan quoted sociologist Troy Duster:

“No movement is as coherent and integrated as it seems from afar,” he says, “and no movement is as incoherent and fractured as it seems from up close.”

The quote seemed particularly useful as me and Real Food Real Jobs colleagues spoke to others within our union, UNITE HERE, about the food movement and why we needed to become more active participants within it.  We argued, in contrast to Bittman’s latest statement, that indeed there was a movement – one that was achieving real success, even if we couldn’t peg it to a particular campaign, legislative victory or premier organization.

The message resonated.  Just as our own labor movement was facing outright attacks in Wisconsin as a new front in a long struggle, Michelle Obama was working in the White House garden with kids to promote her healthy food agenda.  The food movement we saw was thriving, seriously influencing popular discourse, and it looked pretty good to us!  It still does.

Indeed, piece-by-piece, the food movement has won victories over decades of hard work and even become part of mainstream institutions.  As food policy councils number in the hundreds, foodies have reached celebrity status and the almighty food service industry (whose stance toward labor is well-represented by its strident opposition to minimum wage increases) recognizes all things sustainable as key trends to address.

Reaching the Limits of a Good Idea

Yet, it seems the food movement has reached a crossroads: the next round of successes will be even more difficult to win.

Take, for example, the issue of food stamps at farmer’s markets.  The very issue denotes some real success – farmer’s markets have proliferated in response to an increasing demand for local, fresh and healthy food.  It also suggests a trajectory of the food movement, evolving from wanting to create the market to grappling over who has access to it.

In May of this year, the United States Department of Agriculture announced increased efforts to help farmer’s markets accept SNAP benefits, while SNAP usage at farmer’s markets has increased in recent years.

Good news?  Perhaps, but at the same time, more and more people are having to rely on SNAP to feed their families!  We at Real Food Real Jobs happen to think that workers should make enough money to have food security without dependence on federal assistance and therefore policymakers’ whims.

Most people in the food movement probably agree with us, but there lies the crossroads: the transition from ‘good food’ to ‘good food for all’ to ‘food justice’ is not an easy one.  The refrain to “vote with our forks” is not enough in a nation with relatively unequal access to polls, and even more unequal ability to construct the ballot.

So like many movements before it, the food movement – full of good ideas, local victories and traction far into the halls of governmental power – has now matured into a viable force for broader change.  But the inches for which we’ve asked and received are no longer satisfactory.  We have come face-to-face with a wealthy corporate system that is itself organized from farm to table and is determined only to give so much ground.

Identity Crisis

At this juncture, the food movement is searching the past for lessons to guide it into the future.

At the 2011, and apparently final, Community Food Security Coalition conference, I remember sitting in a room full of 1000 food movement leaders and activists listening to a speech about lessons the Black Panthers programs of the 1960s and 1970s could provide to the food movement today.

It was inspiring, and I’d imagine a sign of the food movement’s path through the conundrums of justice.  But what would have happened if the leaders in that room began including honest comparisons of their work to the Black Panthers in their grant applications to mainstream foundations?  How would the Mayor’s Office have responded to such a presentation at the next Food Policy Council meeting?

Those questions and their likely answers are simple realities of a movement in flux, a movement wondering precisely how the structures that got it this far can continue to take it further.

Of course such a moment would also find organizational boards, staff and leaders in a bit of a scramble.  The labor movement, in a similar state, has too seen its upheavals.

Stories of Change

But through the flux and upheavals, there are stories of change and justice that is built to last.  The synthesis of Yale University’s renowned sustainable dining program may provide a useful lens as we seek our path forward.

One version of the story, perhaps the official one, goes like this:

A conversation between [Alice] Waters and Yale President Richard Levin sparked the idea for an ambitious University undertaking: a project encompassing a sustainable dining program, a college farm, university composting, and increased education around food and agriculture.

A less-cited version of the story includes food service workers who, as members of UNITE HERE, struggled for decades with the Yale administration about working conditions and regularly stood up for the quality of food. The workers had protested and wrote letters to the University.  They organized with the support of students and faculty. At a time when Yale was considering a campus Domino’s outlet, the workers went on strike to directly challenge the people who signed their paychecks, as they had done often over the course of the last 40 years.  Through struggle and compromise, they reached agreements with the University that put them in position to play a key role in making the sustainable food program a success.  They are now among its biggest champions.

Both of these stories are true and admirable.  Perhaps they are necessarily complimentary.

But while a good idea and a conversation can help instigate change, only shifting the balance of power toward those most affected by it can ensure that the change does not reach its limits far too soon.  That’s why the organization built by the dining workers at Yale is so important.

Shifting the Balance of Power

The labor movement is in trouble of its own, but I like to think my union has learned at least one lesson from surviving (however tattered) a decades-long corporate assault on unions’ very existence: Lasting change requires organizing diverse groups of people to individually and collectively do difficult and incredible things.  There are no easy shortcuts.

The possibility of such organizing is on clear display at Yale, from the sustainable food program in the dining halls all the way to New Haven’s City Hall, where many union members including Yale cook and Real Food Real Jobs supporter Frank Douglass now sits on the Board of Aldermen.

What might the lesson mean for the food movement’s current crossroads?

Certainly the food movement’s future ought not forgo the celebrity, the conversations, the corporate collaborations, the policy councils, the food banks or the farmers markets.  We should recognize their immense utility and use them as tools to all of their advantage.  But we cannot rely on them solely to change the equation.

To take on the current food system, indeed to shift the balance of power to all of us who are affected by its dysfunctions, the movement will have to organize a base not only of well-fed consumers but of all sorts of everyday people who are willing to stand up and take risks because they want a better life for themselves and a better future for their children.

If and when that organizing project gets underway, I hope we won’t have to debate if the plight of food workers is the food movement’s “final frontier” or if the food movement “should push for better jobs too.”  The project of building power should necessitate that from foodie to food insecure, urban to rural, farmer to philosophy professor, real connections be made whatever the apparent difficulty.

Then workers and their unions will not be an academic topic for the food movement to discuss but rather be part of its base of people power.

Granted, these shifts in the food movement may not be smooth.  They may not be well funded either.

But we’ll figure them out, together.

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