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.