Food Fight for Sustainable Development?

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Fast food’s a slow death in disguise. It’s the wild wild westernized world of deception and lies…nothing won’t grow the land stays barren. Pollution in the river, mercury in the salmon. What sense does it make, being at war with the planet?

– Stic.man of Dead Prez

Eight percent of farms make up more than 60 percent of agriculture sales, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. The authors of the Common Market: A Case Study postulate that this is due to 75 years of consolidating, centralizing, and industrializing agriculture and food production.

What are the consequences of the consolidation of agriculture? The average prepared meal in the U.S. contains food from at least five different countries other than the U.S. The extensive use of unsustainable industrialized agriculture practices deplete soil nutrients and often use excess amounts of water. Consequences of this disconnect include contributing to the emissions of carbon dioxide (largest contributor to Green House Gases) through transporting the food from thousands of miles away, destabilizing local and regional economies, and reducing access to healthy food, especially in low-income communities of color.

AshEI is a Bay Area musical artist and food justice activist, and created a music video, Food Fight, to raise consciousness of the problems with processed food, particularly in the black community and other communities of color. In this video Vandana Shiva, an anti-globalization and food activist, discusses the threat of ‘food totalitarianism.’ She likens the consolidation of food production and globalization of food distribution to a mechanism of state control over food that in turn controls the population. Quoted at the beginning of this post, Stic.man from the hip hop group Dead Prez, articulates the negative impacts of processed food on chronic disease among people of color, and the toll it takes on the environment, saying, “what sense does it make, being at war with the planet?”

One way to address the three E’s of sustainable development (economy, environment, and equity) is through food initiatives, such as to shortening the food supply chains. Authors, Feagan, Connelly et al., and Feenstra discuss key issues to food initiatives that can lead the way for connecting these three components. Key questions include: How and where do we get our food? What food grows regionally/locally? How much food can a particular region produce and how does it vary from season to season? How did relationships between growers and consumers become disconnected? How can the relationship between growers and consumers be rebuilt to relocalize the food production and consumption chain within a community?

While these are important questions, understanding the complex meaning of place, community, and local may be even more pressing. To an extent, these terms have been reduced to buzz words in local food system marketing. However, in Robert Feagan’s article, “The place of food: mapping out the ‘local’ in local food systems,” he cites Pascual-de-Sans defining place as “a spatial concept having no existence without people and to which a geographic identification is critical.” This speaks to the importance of relationships, both between different groups and between people the land.

The industrialization of food sacrificed local connectedness with food for efficiency and perceived economic benefit. This process diminished societal acknowledgment of the intimacy between people and place. Relocalizing food systems is one way to rebuild connection between people and place, increase local economic activity, reduce nutrition related health inequities, and increase environmentally sustainable processes. Both Gail Feenstra (in her article, “Local food systems and sustainable communities”) and Feagan emphasize the importance of partnerships and collaboration across sectors to achieve relocalization.

Living in the Bay Area, the local food system movement holds a prime spot in dominant discourse. But, whom is this movement directed towards? Who is given access to participate in it? Who gets to define place, community, and local? The majority of marketing I see is geared towards higher income, predominantly white populations, often offering organic, locally-based, and sustainably farmed produce at boutique grocery stores, such as Canyon Market or chain stores like Whole Foods. Healthy, locally and sustainably grown food is often only accessible and affordable to privileged populations. This not only creates a logistical barrier, but it also sends the cultural message that healthy, non-processed food is not for everyone; it’s for privileged individuals. Vulnerable communities must be held at the center of the local food system movement, not only to ensure everyone has access to healthy food, but also to holistically implement sustainable practices.

Dominant discourse and research notes small profit margins in the food industry as a key challenge in making locally grown food available to low-income communities (Feenstra). However, the Common Market Case Study in Philadelphia and efforts in Vancouver for a local food hub help to demonstrate that it is feasible and “foster the politics of civic renewal.” Feenstra defines civic renewal as the “interactive – the debate of citizens regarding purpose, value, power…citizens pooling their intelligence to achieve maximum human good…the art of the possible – a process that recognizes limits and grapples with the questions of equity imposed by those limits.”

AshEI’s video is another great example of an effort to engage communities in civic renewal to shift the consolidated food paradigm to a more socially just and sustainable food system. AshEI demonstrates strong social economy efforts by analyzing food issues through a structural lens, using the characters dressed in suits with sunglasses (resembling the CIA) to represent the state as a source of power – considering many industrialized and processed food practices are government subsidized. However, while efforts that connect a social economy and sustainable development approach exist, they remain on the fringe of the local food system movement. What will it take for those who are most at risk to be held at the center of this movement? Will it take the kind of “food fight” as AshEI poses?

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8 thoughts on “Food Fight for Sustainable Development?

  1. frobertsgregory

    Thank you for this great post! I think the vegan hip hop movement has a lot to offer food advocates interested in bridging the gap between the food justice movement and the food movement. I think what is important to note is that we have to start with the acknowledgement that the US has always had a broken food system since this country was founded on plantation agriculture. I think slow food, glocal, and other catchphrases are in style, but I think we have to recognize that social justice advocates from communities of color have been doing this work a long time before it became popular. By re-discovering subjugated knowledge and narrative, and giving credit where credit is due (i.e. Black Panthers and the Breakfast program), we can start to engage communities and have real conversations. An anti-oppression and anti-racist approach must be fully embedded in any talks of a future sustainable food system.

  2. That video is so good! Thank for sharing it. This problem was definitely one of the biggest shocks for me when I first moved to the US: fast food, foods high in sugar and basically,the most unhealthy foods are the cheapest. I thought: ‘No wonder the US has diabetes and overweight problems.’ We live in a society where soda is cheaper than water: how does that even make sense? When buying a prepared processed meal is cheaper than buying the ingredients to make it, making “the right choice” becomes very hard, if not impossible and buying local, organic foods is not even imaginable.
    While I agree the solution has to come from the government through actions like taxing these lower quality foods, I agree with Aldo and the need for investing in a change in the education and social trends. This difference is something I experience daily with my american friends: they are always so surprised when I tell them I don’t like McDonalds or greasy foods because, they say, they would eat it every day if they could. The portion size is another big problem: I have been stared at with utter confusion when asking for half the size of something at a restaurant and the response is always “but it will cost the same and you get more.” I always think: if I’m not going to eat it all, if I know I don’t want it all, what good does it do to get more? There are only two options: I eat too much or I waste food, and neither fo those seem right.

  3. aldotudela7

    Great post! Thanks for the refreshing hip hop reference! I agree that low-income communities are the most vulnerable with quality of food provision. However, I think the solution needs to start from the root, from education and re-defining eating. “Let’s change the way we live, let’s change the way we eat” said 2pac in his song “Changes”, and I believe his right. Providing access to healthy food is not enough, we need to want it, we need to stop craving for McDonald’s super-size, we need to understand the concept of “small is beautiful”. All of these needs (I think) are intrinsic to education and social trends, and that needs to change in order to have a healthier society.

  4. jennamhahn

    I think in shortening the supply chain, we need pressure to make local food cool again (and not just in the Berkeley or California “bubbles”). During World War II Victory Gardens were “planted by families in the United States to help prevent a food shortage” both at home and for soldiers fighting overseas, according to the National WWII Museum. It became a point of national pride to grow food anywhere possible. This quickly faded after the war, especially as we went through the green revolution to industrialize agriculture. Today, there are movements growing to return to more local options – but sometimes barriers like restrictive zoning do not allow for urban (or even suburban) farming. Problems like these are ones that planners can play a direct role in changing. We need to make local food a point of national pride again!

    I like your discussion of local foods being a luxury for higher income areas. I am encouraged when I see innovative projects in low-income communities that work at addressing multiple community development and social challenges. Thanks for sharing the Food Fight video!

  5. jcollector4

    A couple thoughts come to mind in response to the final questions in this post: A) Industrial food systems claim to thrive because of economies of scale, but on closer examination this may not be always true, B) shifts in the “market” are driven by the willingness to pay premiums by the middle and upper class. Together these ideas suggest a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. If the poor have no healthy choices, how can they choose healthy; inversely: how can we provide healthy choices, if the poor may not choose them? Implicit in this dilemma is the idea of external change agents, yet all change must come, to some degree, from within. To take a jump in thinking, I suggest that the best entry point for creating demand and providing a subsidized supply, is mothers. Moms know best.

  6. Another really creative blog post! Since the name of the poster is always at the bottom, I have to admit I try to guess who wrote it as I read it and this one screamed Victoria, which is a good thing! It is very articulate and relates to the idea of sustainability on a cultural plane, which is something we don’t always investigate. I didn’t know that there were cultural figures in the Bay Area working on food justice in an artistic way and I will have to check them out. Similarly as my comment on the Aldo’s post last week, it is important to find ways to connect with a community that foster real relationships and interest in sustainability topics.

  7. caitlintouchberry

    I enjoyed this blog post. It creatively highlights yet another challenge to sustainability that is complex and wicked. One thought that I had to add came up this week while reading about Growing Power farm. It was, how can urban farming scale without government subsidies? Allen’s farm for example was not self-sufficient and relied on foundation grants and volunteers to operate. What would be ways to make it successful?

  8. niavila

    Nicely written! I like the quote by Stic.man. I met Vandana Shiva when she visited Berkeley last year. She was so inspiring and motivating. At her talk at the Brower center, I realized something. Sustainability is like developing backwards. This may not sound smart or academically enlightening but it struck a chord with me. I came to this realization because the Brower center was using rain water in the toilets. Wow, that was just like my village in Nigeria. It is as if developed countries ran towards the mark of progress and development, hit the finish line and just kept on running. Now they are exhausted, overextended, and out of resources. Sustainability is taking them back to the finish line (or before) and maintaining a regenerative way of living.

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