Insight into the Food Movement, from Sustainable Development Center Team Member

In this commentary, Annie Moss, SD Center team member, considers what today’s growing “food movement” actually represents.

Anyone with a finger on the cultural pulse of the United States can sense that there’s something happening around food. And to foodie insiders and outsiders alike, it is becoming less and less radical to implicate oneself as a part of this thing we call the food movement.”

But underlying the simplicity of its title, the food movement is at present amorphous and fragmented. What it is about food we’re fighting for remains loosely defined, or definitions conflict with one another. And the most pressing question on almost nobody’s mind is: Is the food movement a movement at all?

From popular sources and mainstream media to activists and entrepreneurs, everyone seems to be jumping at the opportunity to stake their claim as a part of the food movement. The New York Times runs frequent articles on the resurgence of small-scale farming, and columnist Mark Bittman recently shifted his focus from recipes and cooking to an opinion column focused more on the social and political side of food. More and more young folks are electing to spend their first years out of college WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) or apprenticing on farms. They are met on the other side of these experiences by organizations like The Greenhorns, which seeks to build upon the trend of young people interested in farming through networking and support; and CropMob, which links urban volunteers to community gardens and urban and rural farms. Restaurants post the sources of their ingredients, hire foragers, and create seasonally rotating menus.

Then there are the more seasoned factions of the food movement, which are perhaps slower to come to mind when we think of this new trend towards a greater consciousness about what we eat. These include anti-hunger organizations; groups looking at farm labor issues; and international food sovereignty organizations concerned with trade policy and globalization. Certainly, these groups may find their way into the spotlight cast by the food craze, and some of the issues on which they focus are becoming more broadly understood thanks to increased public attention. But what links these types of organizations to the others may be less significant than what sets them apart.

What links them, of course, is food. The stuff we eat. Simple as that. And what’s great about food is that it is both serious and sexy. We need it to live; but we can also use it to create. Running parallel alongside the food movement is the new sustainability movement; for many, food is what gives real substance to the issues around sustainability. By participating in gardening and farming, we better understand natural systems; we interface with dirt; we produce something without relying on fossil fuel. By choosing to buy local or organic, we find a way to alter our everyday behavior in a way that tastes good and feels good. And food politics provide a microcosm (although it’s a stretch to use the words food politics, and micro, in the same sentence) to understanding global politics as a whole.

But this is where the connection begins to get tenuous; and it’s where the definition of movement, becomes essential. In her book Together at the Table: Sustainability and Sustenance in the American Agrifood System, Patricia Allen examines alternative agrifood movements in the context of social change. She defines social change as persistent, patterned, and widely distributed collective challenges to the status quo, (5, 2005). Her lens asks us to see which elements of the movement create alternatives to the current agrifood system, and which elements push for real structural change. Folks promoting sustainable and small-scale farming practices, for instance, want to create alternatives to industrial agriculture; but these alternatives are based on a capitalist ideal of entrepreneurism and a pastoral ideal of the small family farm. These ideals are perhaps not well-equipped to address social justice issues around gender and labor, for example.

Allen poses the question of whether the success of the food movement is due in large part to the fact that it doesn’t address systemic change; this allows it to be more readily incorporated into current and mainstream institutions. Some would argue that this indicates its success, while on the other hand, radical reformers would propose working outside dominant institutions to create new ones, eventually drawing power to a new set of structures and practices around food and, more broadly, social institutions.

Allen’s work provides a relevant framework through which to further examine the food movement, and, more importantly, she raises an extremely difficult question about social change: Does it occur incrementally from within, or does it necessarily have to be radical in order to be genuine? And a related question: Does this division provide a useful categorization for the different factions of today’s food movement?

The movement, and the answers to these questions, needs to be further contextualized by researching historical struggles around food and environmental justice. In what ways were these movements successful, and how deep was the change that is their legacy? Historical struggles seem to be largely overshadowed by the enormous buzz around what’s happening in food today. Additional critiques of the various elements of today’s food movement, sustainable agriculture, locavorism, and farm to institution, can be examined alongside these historical movements. Are today’s approaches significantly different? Many of the evils being fought today seem to resonate with previous movements, industrialization and inhumane capitalist interests, environmental degradation, and rights to healthy food. Yet, the weapons gaining the most traction are hardly radical, small-scale commercial agriculture, food entrepreneurism, and a scientific approach to substantiate the benefits of sustainable agriculture. A more enhanced theoretical understanding of social change, revolutionary theory, and social justice can assist in the evaluation of the current food movement. What’s missing from the food movement today? Are the faces we so often see, hip, young, middle-class folks holding chickens, wearing aprons, or brushing mud off their hands, obscuring the faces of others, who are fighting the same system but with a less robust institutional reception? Unless some of these questions can be better understood, what we may be left with is a disparate collection of trends, and not a food movement at all.

Annie Moss is a member of the Sustainable Development Center’s team and the co-founder of La Finca Del Sur, the first women-run urban farm in the Bronx.