FOOD LIBERATION INSPIRES PEOPLE-CENTERED FOOD POLICY

The author (Wayne Roberts) with Brad Long of Cafe Belong, celebrating food liberation

CAN FOOD MOVEMENTS BE DESCRIBED AS MOVEMENTS FOR HUMAN LIBERATION?

Jonathan Latham has written a brief but enthusiastic piece (you can find it here) explaining why food movements are unstoppable movements for liberation.

Two strong big, hairy, audacious claims — food movements are unstoppable and they promise human liberation.

I’ve never seen food described as a liberation movement before. Neither have I ever thought of it as a liberating movement. It took a while before I agreed that this is an unstoppable and liberating way of thinking about food movements.

Latham’s belief that food policies will change the world for the better is a new twist on the way most people think about food. There are two reasons why this view is unusual. Both reasons relate to powerful thought traps created by the forces behind the commanding heights of the food and health sectors.

Most of us in the Global North have come to think of food as a commodity wrapped around relationships of self-interest. On one side are self-interested consumers, defined by the fact that they buy the commodity and want it for as little money as possible. On the other side are self-interested producers, who want the most for their food.

The word “consumer” presumes that people who buy and eat food are defined by a relatively passive role. They simply consume — a word that descends from days of old when people were consumed by evil passions or deadly diseases, such as consumption. People classified as consumers, almost by definition, don’t have an active stake as parents, community members, citizens, or environmentalists who are interested in food’s broader impacts. From a purely commercial and transactional starting point, there can be no open-ended and common interests in food — just narrow and conflicting self-interests.

Latham’s understanding goes far beyond that all-consuming cash nexus. But he’s equally at odds with the narrow and self-interested way most health professionals look at food. They see food as a storehouse of nutrients and fuels that create energy and health, one individual at a time.

This “essentialist” and “reductionist” approach to food (increasingly referred to as “nutritionism”) does not highlight food experiences as significant for psychological health and well-being or for social and environmental well-being. Nor does this view appreciate health as more complex than a mechanical outcome of nutritional inputs. This narrow take on food as fuel is the healthcare retailers’ parallel to the commodity fetishism promoted by food retailers.

The food industry and health industry perspectives push to the side any social, emotional, environmental, economic, empowerment or community outcomes of food, as distinct from nutritional, considerations.

This dominant worldview defining food as a commodity and delivery vehicle of nutrients inevitably undermines the imagination needed by city and education leaders, whose support is needed for food projects that animate community economic development or a social or environmental economy. Likewise, few local government leaders can imagine food as a stimulant to overcome such harmful conditions as loneliness, apathy, hopelessness, demoralization, or disempowerment — all of which are rife in today’s world, and all of which can be addressed by dynamic food programs.

As someone who works to promote “people-centered food policy,” I am drawn to Latham’s positioning of food as a transformational force — so much more positive than a force for self-centeredness and self-interest.

Seeing food through the win-win lens of mutual interest and common benefit comes out of an understanding of food’s role in human evolution and an appreciation for the qualities that allow humans to succeed as a species.

I don’t want to appear naive by claiming that food experiences led humans to become saintlike and think first of the wellbeing other people or other creatures. At the same time, it’s hard to be so cynical as to imagine humans having thrived if mothers and fathers hadn’t put their children’s food needs ahead of their own, and if they didn't participate in a group that cooperated to ensure there was food for all. Some among our ancestors hunted while others gathered food, and others gathered firewood, and all ate together around the fire at night.

As the initial bonding between mother and infant during breastfeeding dramatizes, food relationships can be deepened, broadened and transformed during the course of life. Perhaps the aged mom who once devotedly breastfed her baby will end her time being fed by her devoted child, in a nursing home or hospital paid for by all who understand how cooperation benefits everyone.

Food relationships have helped humans expand beyond basic survival and narrow self-interest. Human “brainware” comes with already-installed “apps” for empathy and collaboration.

CONVIVIALITY & PLEASURE ARE AS GOOD AS FUEL & NUTRIENTS

Today’s campfires hearken back to a quintessential human habit that got us through many a dark time.

A close second to peoples’ inborn physical needs for food is peoples’ needs for food experiences that nourish our mind and soul while sustaining us for the necessity of finding our next meal. More often than not, we will get to eat again because we evolved as social and pack animals, not lone wolves. The earliest hunters and gatherers huddled around a common fire to eat, to share, and to talk and plan. The next meals come from group efforts. That’s what kept the home fires alive and warm.

There are many consequences to fire’s historic role as the first human invention and tool. Fireplaces allowed us to cook food, which meant a wider range of foods could be rendered chewable, digestible, safe, pleasant and nutritious. And the fireplace at the center of the meal experience kept us in a circle around the same place where we ate, as lingered to share the fire’s heat, light, and protection. Fireplaces engendered gathering in circles that distributed benefits equally, not in rows designed around hierarchy. This circular and sharing tradition provides a universally understood metaphor of shared humanity to this day. In Canada, the French version of the national anthem refers to our home fires and our rights (“nos foyers et nos droits”), both achievements of our standing together.

The Rochester food bank, Foodlinks, understands food can be a lever. It provides food and also people-oriented services, including a new program to train people for cooking jobs.

This formative human experience of food eaten in a community around a common fire — not food to-go, or food gulped down as part of a hand-to-mouth existence — is where the slow food movement comes from. Eating as pals came with eating the paleo diet. Eating together was essential to food security. Without social capital, we would have fought each other over scraps of food instead of working together to make the fullest advantage out of each person’s optimal skillset. We wouldn’t have survived as a species if eating was wired to happen as lone individuals hoovering food over a sink, at a desk, or behind the wheel — places where approximately half of the meals in North America are eaten today.

We all know deep-down that food is linked to connectedness. That is probably why we commonly begin important meals with a collective toast to everyone’s health and well-being, and a collective expression of humility and gratitude for all the contributions and connectivity that went into the meal.

That need for community cooperation around food explains why humans are social animals — not the lone, calculating, self-absorbed animals assumed by conservative economic theory. The same cooperative impulse is key to the success of cities as exciting and productive places to develop our humanity and civilization.

What’s not to like? The need for food dovetails with the need to be together.

The harmony between “lower” (physical) and “higher” (emotional and intellectual) human needs underlies the wisdom behind many food habits, rituals, and practices. The word “companion,” for example, comes from the Latin roots for “with” and “bread.”

This way of thinking about food as foundational to essential human and humane practices led me to develop and promote “people-centered food policy.”

People-centered food policy is especially important for cities, which need to be understood as habitats that exist on the edge of vulnerability and strength. Cities cannot survive without interdependence that ultimately relies on the kindness of strangers — a slender reed on which to build the engines of the world economy and the center of the majority of the world's population. We are more vulnerable when we rely so much on people we don’t already know — walking down a street at night or entering an impersonal crowd in a building, for example. But we are also able to share ideas and brainstorm and innovate more creatively when we meet with people we don’t already know.

Local governments don’t get much respect for their considerable successes in managing the inevitable turmoil of life at the edge of vulnerability and strength. Councils of cities, towns, villages, and boards of education are commonly described as the “lower” levels of government — a strange way of describing the levels of government responsible for such common issues as public safety, education, transportation, water, garbage, sewage, and other utilities providing everyday needs.

In my view, such local agencies of democracy should be seen as the “higher” level of government. When these levels of government deal with food, they can deal with it as a people issue. They can create opportunities to cultivate food experiences that bring people together, support cohesive neighborhoods, strengthen foundational economies built around basic needs, influence the social determinants of health, and counter the epidemics of loneliness, apathy, and disengagement that put society and health at risk. In a democracy, such work does not belong at the “lower” levels of government.

Food experiences can rise to the task for two reasons. One, food is inherently multifunctional, capable of multitasking and fulfilling many tasks at once. A meal can provide settings for nutrients, entertainment, and informal learning at the same time, for example. Likewise, a garden can grow nutritious food, teach skills, increase biodiversity and beautify a neighborhood — all at the same time.

Secondly, food can manage the seemingly contrary forces of bonding and bridging. Food can bring together people of a common heritage, language, and tradition, as is common on days of feasts and celebration among many ethnocultural and religious groups. Food can also bring different types of people together, as commonly happens when people from many ethnocultural backgrounds enjoy meals and food traditions provided in multicultural restaurant districts.

Movements built around such a multipurpose and positive force deserve to be regarded as unstoppable and liberating.

Jonathan Latham and Heather Lee enjoy a convivial moment after presenting on genetic engineering technologies at a January 2019 Guelph University conference on organic food. An unstoppable duo!

Near the beginning of his meditation, Latham says that “the food movement is unexpectedly radical.

I think that food is disruptive and radical because it teaches us to live in our gut, not just our head. The gut is as important to human evolution as the brain, and we need to show it that respect — not fill it with the cheapest junk we can find, which happens to be the most profitable way that global corporations have of producing it.

Any shift to prioritizing the needs of our gut can be unexpectedly radical.

How might the world be redesigned if we took our bodily, mental and spiritual needs for nutrients, pleasure, and conviviality as the starting point for designs to manage our economies?

FIVE FOOD SECRETS

Latham lists five hopeful qualities of food movements.

First, the movements are leaderless, he says.

At first glance, the advantages of that are hard to imagine. We usually think of centralized leadership as essential to good planning, strong organizations and winning campaigns. But overly-centralized organizations are as prone to authoritarianism as efficiency, as history has documented too many times.

Although the lack of formal leadership does create challenges in terms of being disciplined and effective as a striking force for change, such problems are more tolerable than suffering through centralized and authoritarian leadership. If you want to travel quickly, go alone, an African proverb has it; if you want to go far, go together.”

Second, the movements are grassroots.

Anyone who likes to eat is welcome, says Latham. That’s also a good place to start, because it doesn’t attract the people who don’t like to eat — the people who fear food and worry about food, such as the kind of people who misled us for so long about fat in food, and the mad scientists who want re-engineer the world’s genes so we never run out of fake food. The road to food hell has been paved by people with tyrannical and sterile utopias based on fear of and dislike for “primitive” and “lowly” and “uncontrollable” food needs.

farewell dinner for beloved co-worker put on by Mayan-inspired ChocoSol. Michael Sacco, leader of ChocoSol and coiner of the term “actionism, is third from the left, with a red Tshirt.

Third, food movements are open to all people.

That includes a few billion peasants, who for centuries have been scorned by Modernists — who scorned the deep wisdom that comes from dwelling in and on the land and water and in Nature.

Fourth, food movements are low-budget.

They can be sustained by people of limited means, Latham says.

I think Latham could be more specific about this.

The connecting power of food overcomes both polarization and silos or departmentalization.

The quality we need to highlight is that food is directly empowering. It is within our immediate grasp to ask for fair trade coffee, cook from scratch, start a garden, shop at farmers markets. Taking personal power — what I and my co-authors of Real Food for a Change, written way back in 1999, called The Power of One to Make a Difference — is an opportunity accessible to many people.

Food movements are low-budget precisely because they are directly empowering. They can be fueled by people power, not money power.

Fifth, food has many dimensions.

Food can be approached from many perspectives, Latham says, including ethics, ecology, and economics. This leads people in food activities to make cross-sectoral connections. That’s contrary to what Big Science, Big Money, and Big Government want us to do — which is to organize in narrowly departmentalized silos.

Food connects us all — this is the sentiment that really got me going in food movements, as you will see from this mannapesto I and others wrote in 2008.

TWO MORE QUALITIES OF FOOD MOVEMENTS

That’s me, sitting in judgment — as one of a team of judges choosing the best bacon dish served at my local farmers market. Farmers markets are a way to get food into the city. They also serve up a heck of a lot of fun, connecting and socializing.

I’ve heard that humans can remember a max of 7 things, so I’d like to ask Latham to add only two points to his list of five.

My nomination for point 6 is that food movements are solutionary. Critics and oppositionists don’t stay long with food movements; they find food types unpleasantly positive. The people in food organizations are usually the people doing things — not just protesting things, as many activists do, but doing things, as actionists do. To create the changes they want to see, actionists can start a community garden, start a food truck business, start a farmers market, start a direct trade chocolate social enterprise… I could go on and on and on.

More importantly, food actionists get started on solutions, not problems. It’s a movement of pro’s, not anti’s. Making a difference is what it’s often about. And as the late Paul Dewar, a popular Canadian Member of Parliament described making a difference just before he died: “ The secret is not to focus on how to solve the problem, but concentrate on what you can contribute — to your country, your community, and neighbors.”

Being a solutionary movement means we carry ourselves as a positive and joyous force of nature. Many things about the world and about food can make us angry, but they do not require or justify negativity or hate. The food movement is unabashedly a movement of positive, joyful hope. We’re far sweeter than sugar!

Food advocacy organizations, such as Toronto-based STOP Community Food Centre, don’t stop with advocating policy change. They also show what community food service can be about.

The solutionary leaning of food makes it well-suited for local governments, which relies on an active citizenry for ideas and action. And the solutionary energy can course through every sort of issue — be it the need to uplift people from poverty or the need to manage existential threats to the environment.

My nomination for point 7 borrows from Latham’s point about the power of food to reframe.

Like many deep thinkers of the last 40 years, Latham heaps a lot of blame on the Enlightenment — — the 1600s and 1700s era when Europeans bit the apple of rational knowledge and started separating humans from the rest of Nature and life.

I think, therefore I am, said Descartes, who lost sight of the fact that he eats, therefore he is. Talk about living in your head!!

Food teaches us not to put Descartes ahead of the horse. I sense, therefore, I am!

Lots can be said in favor of reason — it sure beats ignorant prejudice! But the Age of Reason was often unreasonable.

The Age of Enlightenment, for example, coincided with the time when slave labor was used on a massive scale to make it profitable to grow, harvest and refine sugar and tobacco in the “New World.” The Enlightenment era often darkened human history.

Reason is a very good thing, but you can overthink some issues, and that gets you nowhere.

There’s a trashing of rationalism in a review of a new book on The Enlightenment (note the Capital T in The) by, of all people, a former editor of the Economist, which is premised on calculating rationality.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel, writing in the New York Review of Books, says the mathematical and physics turn of mind common among Enlightenment thinkers (and classical economics, I would add) dehumanized reality.

Color, taste, feel, smell, sound — all the sensual things that make the food experience what it is — are invisibilized in order to make room for shape, size, and motion. Only measurable aspects qualify for what the physics geeks considered to be “primary” characteristics; all others are secondary characteristics.

That passage in the review of the Age of Reason hit me like a ton of bricks. All of a sudden, I realized why food advocates have been pushing against a glass ceiling — not knowing why we could never get city officials, agriculture officials, medical officials, university officials, and so on — to take food seriously as a primary issue.

For them, food deals with secondary characteristics. Second rate. Not for the likes of us.

The Turin celebration of Terre Madre demonstrates artisan foods and food for thought

To love food is to understand why it’s important to steer a little clear of policy wonks — “fear the geeks, even bearing gifts.” Loving food experiences keeps conviviality, sensuality, holistic health, and well-being — the humble and lofty human needs and pleasures , albeit secondary— at the forefront of our understanding.

Food not only meets our physical survival needs. It is also an existential force that helps define who we are — as individuals and as a species. That’s why food movements are both unstoppable and liberating.

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The signing of the Milan Pact on food and cities, inspiring people around the world to raise the level of food policy at the local level.