New Food Activism: State of the Field

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A farming family in Vermont looking happy and successful, courtesy of the National Young Farmers’ Coalition blog.

Over the course of this class, what has stood out to me the most is the incredible variety of community initiatives, national campaigns, people, and beliefs the term “new food activism” encompasses. While labels like “organic” and “locally grown” sometimes seem the domain of an upper class privileged enough to buy groceries from expensive supermarkets or up-scale farmer’s markets, new food activism both intersects class divides and provides a new framework with which to view those divides. A broad definition of “food” allows space for the varied expressions of new food activism: “all the processes that make animal, vegetable or mineral into something to eat and then all that is involved in what happens next to bodies and societies,” in the words of Rachel Slocum (2011:1).

New food activism is inter-class, inter-race, international, and even multi-species. It includes Latino immigrants fighting for their rights to a community garden in Los Angeles (The Garden) as well as a non-profit organization feeding orangutans with vertical farms in Borneo. While new food activism may seem elitist – a rich white woman lauding the superiority of organic produce does not give people living below the poverty line more access to chemical-free vegetables – it is actually accessible to consumers of all social, racial, and economic categories because, after all, we are all consumers. A conversation about food, including how we grow it and access it, is open to everyone who eats. And as people who eat, we each have a vested interest in our food systems and are qualified to participate in a discussion about food and farming.

As food movements develop and gain momentum in our country, the vocabulary we use to talk about them has not necessary kept up. As John Schlebecker demonstrates in his article “The Many Names of Farmers”, etymology makes it difficult to find words about farms, farming, and occupation that are devoid of some kind of connotation, either positive or negative, that frequently relates to class (1981). This difficulty reflects both our hesitation as Americans to discuss issues of class and to create appropriate terminology for this discussion as well the many values we have ascribed to the land and the people who cultivate it. While researching for my senior thesis, I noticed a similar trend in using Spanish to describe landholding categories in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Peru. Every term used to describe the variety of tenant or sharecropping arrangements indigenous peasants participated in denoted their inferior socioeconomic status. (For further reading, the most accessible and detailed account of this is Florencia Mallon’s The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands).

In a discussion of farming as it relates to new food activism, we have to consider exactly who farmers are and their specific priorities when labeling them with an identity they might not even call themselves. A “farmer” can be someone who owns thousands of monocropped acres or someone who works in a garden in the middle of an urban center; someone who is continuing generations of tradition or an Ivy League graduate venturing into new territory. In part because of recent food and farming movements, our vocabulary is growing to reflect this diversity – but we still have a long way to go.

When thinking about food and farming movements, it is important to remember that contemporary trends in food, nutrition, and returning to agriculture have historical precedents. For me, this makes conceptualizing our future less daunting. As a society, we have “left” the land and “returned” to it repeatedly, discovered the ideological importance and health benefits of specific diets like vegetarianism, and transformed our food systems. We encounter new problems and seek new solutions, but the struggle for personal and social betterment, as well as the racial, political, and economic tensions we find along the way, are characteristic of an American (if not universal) experience that extends far beyond the twenty-first century.  In Back to the Land, Dona Brown traces back-to-the-land movements across the nineteenth century, concluding that various economic, environmental, and even spiritual motivations have prompted us to escape industrialized city life, and capitalism itself, by purchasing or renting land outside of urban centers and cultivating it individually or communally.

At the core of past and present efforts to return to farming, I think, are universal aspirations enmeshed in the values we have come to deeply associate with the land. Individuals of every background have sought and continue to seek “autonomy, skill, independence, [and] self-sufficiency,” writes Brown, and some turn to the land to find these qualities (2011:12). But while farming and the values associated with it seem individualistic, farm labor and the initiatives established to support new farmers are the work of many people striving toward a common goal. In particular, the National Young Farmers’ Coalition is doing great things to get new operations started and connect farmers with resources and a larger national (and virtual!) community. (Check out the progress of five new dairy farmers here.) Financial independence (or at least a reliable source of grant income, etc.) means a sustainable operation for one farmer and a more sustainable future for the stakeholders – all of us.

Discussions of food and farming also revolve around aesthetics – what displays at farmer’s markets are most visually appealing, how farms can market themselves as tourist destinations, or how to offer potential CSA customers a certain kind of experience with their weekly or monthly baskets. New food movements have to attract interest to successfully accomplish their goals of revamping consumption and production systems, and this is often done by presenting beautiful produce, attractive displays, and idyllic landscapes. We gravitate toward perfectly red, plump tomatoes and freshly scrubbed potatoes more than we do toward those that are lopsided, discolored, or have dirt clinging to them. We have been conditioned (and this can begin another debate about learned tastes and how society differentiates “good” from “bad” and “clean” from “dirty”) to value aesthetically appealing produce over vegetables that are perhaps closer to their natural state, and are willing to pay more for this produce.

Farming is a business, and farmers need to grow food and produce animal products that sell. Some of us might prefer a manicured public market of strictly local food to noisy pushcart vendors selling conventionally grown fruit at bargain prices (the current Haymarket debate), which causes some farmers to feel pressured to live up to stereotypes of romanticized rural life and present food to customers that belies the hard work, dirt, and sweat that went in to growing that food. Through marketing schemes and the desire to be “close” to our food, we have come to expect more than just food from farmers. For me, one of the best parts of this course was hearing how farmers balance the challenges of doing what they love with limited resources with giving the public what they want in local food and the people growing it.

Food is powerful. It possesses both utilitarian and perceived values, reflects our ethnic, political, and socioeconomic identities, and transmits heritage and memory – a true intersection of culture and biology. Discussions about food are related in some way to almost every other issue concerning our society in general and us as individuals. Politics are involved when delegating public spaces for community gardens and passing farmer-friendly legislation or combating the use of GMOs. Economics determine who has the money to eat what and which neighborhoods are food desserts. Religion or spiritual beliefs also determine who eats what and how. Cooking and preparing food passes on traditions, and sharing meals together solidifies group bonds.

Our last class activity, planting potatoes at the Medford Community Garden, perfectly reflected the nature of current food and farming movements – individuals come to farming, or more generally participate in some aspect of “new food activism”, on their own terms and for their own reasons. Whether omnivores are debating vegans about feminism, new farmers are lobbying Congress for aid, or college students are playing in the dirt alongside elementary and middles schoolers, it is most important that we are all engaging with our food and food systems. I agree with many of my classmates when they say that current condition of food production, consumption, and access within the United States presents a grim outlook for the future of our country’s health, environment, and principles.

But I think there is much hope to be found in the enthusiasm, which bridges barriers of race, class, and education, for the various aspects of “new food activism”. Food and farming movements are no longer limited, if they ever really were, to the wealthy philanthropists or activists with deep pockets or college degrees. Every person can and should – and, I argue, is morally obligated to – participate in improving our food systems, expanding access, and helping farmers with similar values. A singular solution to achieving equal nutritional access and healthy, humane, and sustainable food production does not exist. Rather, the combined effort of all sectors of society and all types of people will yield working ideas to move us all forward.

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