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?