The Common Good
September/October 2009

Food We Can Live With

by Tom Philpott | September/October 2009

Why 'voting with your fork' doesn't cut it -- Big Food will not slink away just because you shop at the farmers market.

By now, most of us know that our food system is failing on many fronts. Prevalence of diet-related maladies (e.g., excess weight and type 2 diabetes) rises, even as the nutritional value of conventionally grown produce drops. The handful of multinational firms that control our food supply reel in billions of dollars in annual profit, while farm and food-service workers live in poverty, earning some of the lowest wages in the U.S. labor force.

Meanwhile, industrial food production sucks in tremendous amounts of fossil fuel and spews out more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector. Chemical and fecal runoff from vast cornfields and factory animal farms fouls waterways, poisoning drinking water and blotting out aquatic life. The list goes on.

The question isn’t whether to reform the food system, but how. Author Michael Pollan and others urge us to “vote with our forks,” preaching that we can create a new food paradigm by choosing local, organically grown, and/or in-season foods.

But we can’t simply consume our way to a just national dinner table. To try to do so risks creating two food systems—an artisanal one for people with the resources to care about what’s on their plates and a low-quality, industrial one for everybody else.

“Vote with your fork” neglects the vast role of government and corporate power, decades in the making, in setting up the current system. To really challenge the slop being served up by Big Food, we’ll have to vote with our feet as well. We’ll have to take seriously what Wendell Berry has called the “agrarian responsibility” borne by all eaters. That means community- and municipal-level organizing.

Does your town have a food policy council? If so, consider participating; if not, consider starting one. These entities bring together various stakeholders—farmers, community members, anti-hunger activists, and more—to assess a community’s food assets and gaps and strategize about ways to improve things. There are currently 50 food policy councils nationwide—and the number is growing fast.

Do you shop at the farmers market? If so, talk to the farmers. What infrastructural gaps add to their costs, reduce their profitability, and force them to sell at higher prices? What could the community do to help? Take those ideas and concerns to local policymakers—including representatives in Washington.

Visit the institutions that serve vulnerable populations: soup kitchens, nursing homes, hospitals, and schools. Are they serving life-giving food that nourishes and heals (and provides important markets for local farmers)—or processed dreck that sickens and enfeebles? Document what you see and write it up for the local newspaper or your own blog. Be a troublemaker.

Meanwhile, plug into national networks through information-rich Web sites such as The Ethicurean, La Vida Locavore, Civil Eats, and Grist. See what other people are thinking and doing across the country—and throw in your two cents.

Big Food will not slink away just because you shop at the farmers market. Food and agriculture conglomerates own literally trillions of dollars of assets designed to cheaply, profitably churn out processed fare—health and environment be damned. Those assets will be defended—and hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent on advertising and lobbying to keep their goods at the center of the national plate.

Creating viable, locally accountable alternatives will require smart political organizing. That bell you hear in the distance doesn’t signal “time for dinner.” It means get thee to the streets!

Tom Philpott is food editor at Grist.org and co-founder of North Carolina-based Maverick Farms.

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