Food for thought

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An excerpt of Edible Action, a book that examines how food movements can address the ills of an unjust economic system and mobilize people against it

A friend and her little brother were left alone one day to eat their bowls of tomato soup. They soon discovered that although the soup looked pretty neat just sitting in the bowl, it looked even better splattered on the wall. Spoons, it turned out, made excellent catapults. Choosing beauty over appetite, they launched great dollops of the stuff onto the white walls. They admired the beautiful red splotches, no two alike. They enjoyed the tomato soup thoroughly until their mother came back to the room and they saw her face. Food is so much more than sustenance.

Food gathers meaning like an insatiable sponge. To paraphrase Claude Lévi-Strauss, food is good to think with. Many listeners have delighted in my friend's story because, like spoons filled with soup, it is brimming over with meaning. The story ruminates about North American eating practices, the origins of rebellion, the beauty of food, alliances, and misunderstanding. From annual family gatherings to daily concerns over hunger, from anxiety over hidden ingredients in food to innovative co-operative businesses, from the fight for land to the fight for nature-friendly agriculture, food becomes not just the key to how we live our lives in this world, but a way in which we talk about the world. Food is an idiom that, like a language full of puns, is useful for talking about certain things because it is so hospitable to the multiplication of meaning. Food is also a catalyst for social change - as both an inspiration and ally. In the case of this book, food provides an especially useful tool for discussing the ambivalence and shifting communication invoked by the work of social change. Food dogs the progress of social change. Like a puppy it runs eagerly ahead, leads the way, then falls back again, distracted by a bug.

The ways in which people and societies change through food are myriad. The examples of this change are equally mind-boggling in their extent and colour. Food inspires actions in Canada and across the world - actions that redress inequities between North and South, between rich and poor. Whether through food banks and community kitchens, or consumer movements or agrarian reform, the ways in which people try to change the world through food are plentiful and diverse. Sometimes they celebrate together while at other times they seem to be shouting each other down.

Food protests were vivid and enthusiastic within the widespread movement that stopped the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks on free trade in Seattle in 1999, hurled itself against the massive fence during the Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA) talks in Quebec City in 2001, and once again demonstrated and celebrated as world trade talks disintegrated in Cancun in 2003.

Reports from Cancun gave witness to the breakdown of a world trade plan controlled by a wealthy few. A key issue was agricultural subsidies: unfair subsidies united Southern nations against the selective protectionism that makes the transported product of U.S. farming cheaper than locally grown Mexican (or Canadian) products.

Edible Action is concerned with two aspects of the relation of food and social change. First, what are the numerous ways in which food has inspired social change? And second, why is food such a successful catalyst for social change? These questions open the door for continued thoughtful practice and reflection. The answers will indicate which key issues are mobilized by food and agriculture, and provide a map for the alternatives that food engages.

Talking with your mouth full

All over the world, people are using food to change how they live: their society, politics, and economies. For instance, every week the farmers of Plan B Organic Farm near Toronto bring their organic produce to farmers' markets all over the region. They also supply food to members of their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, in which people pay early in the spring to receive a weekly share of the season's harvest. One market that Plan B helped to start is the Dufferin Grove market, where farmers, bakers, and organic meat purveyors rub elbows with the community pizza oven and
park community garden.

On Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, the first Canadian multistake-holder co-op, Growing Circle, buys local foods to supply local people and puts everyone on the board. At the other end of Canada, over 200,000 people are members of the Co-op Atlantic network of food co-ops, co-op farm stores, and funeral and housing co-ops. Over the border in Maine, 50,000 to 60,000 people show up every year at the Common Ground Fair, a celebration of rural living put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The Community Food Security Coalition in Venice, California, has taken its community food mapping process on the road across the United States, offering local people a way of viewing their community through food access and of taking charge of their food security. Consumer actions and boycotts have forced Starbucks, a giant coffee corporation, to offer fair trade coffee in its cafés. Dunkin' Donuts quickly followed suit.

In Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Europe, Africa, Mexico, and beyond, community organizers, activists, farmers, environmentalists, scientists, and Southern producers have joined forces to keep genetically modified foods out of the fields and off the shelves. In the global South, landless people have begun to occupy and win unused land back from wealthy landowners. Across the world, rural producers have joined forces in La Vía Campesina, an international movement of peasants and small farmers that fights for more just and sustainable food and agriculture systems. As the people at SunRoot Organic farm in Kennetcook, Nova Scotia, told me, food is a medium that people use to talk about politics and to take action. Steve Law, one of SunRoot's three farmer-activists, told me, "What we are doing here on the farm is part of trying to model a different world." Across North America and the world, people have joined together to create diverse food initiatives. They are using food to talk about politics, economic justice, and social change.

Edible Action explores the cultural responses that arise when the principles of globalization, structural adjustment, and consolidation are applied to food and agriculture. These principles include: consolidate production under huge transnational corporations, slash public spending, consolidate land-holdings, increase efficiency, reduce small-scale industry, open all doors to free trade, constrict the movement of organized labour, and curtail the protection of local production. How do cultures erupt in creative and popular protest around food and agriculture issues? Why do food issues bring people out to the streets, to their city councils, and even (in Brazil) to their national governments? Why do they also result in an extraordinary feast of workable alternatives - that is, edible action? Polls show widespread concern about food and environmental issues, but how does the step from knowledge or concern to action take place? Why does food have a significant ability to mobilize people, moving them readily from information to political action for change?

Food is good to think with

When we fight about food we are also fighting about social change. Edible Action explores this thesis through the stories of various key movements in food and agriculture. The book investigates the ways in which the narratives of change overlap and build to a realistic conversation about social change. Throughout the book, this conversation exemplifies the growth of food democracy, in the sense not of pure agreement (coincidence of thought) but of negotiated agreement (consensus). Such a democracy in Canada builds on the legacy of the People's Food Commission (pfc) in the late 1970s, which set a historical context in Canada for the unfolding of social change through food. Like the "totemic species" that Lévi-Strauss describes, food is good to think with. The question that impels this book is: if food is good to think with, what do we use it to think about?

The answer to this question lies in the resistance that food activists, innovators, farmers, and store owners pose to the logic of conventional food economics. For instance, in the Maritime provinces, managers of the 200,000-member co-op network actively consider ways of building social capital. They have created an economic system in which the concatenation of overlapping interests guarantees that the standard rift between producers and consumers, which has built to crisis proportions in the food system, is almost impossible to maintain in all seriousness. Elsewhere, natural food stores have developed highly successful strategies based on a non-conventional understanding of customer behaviour. Price takes a back seat to the negotiations of needs, desires, plans for the planet, and care for other people. Food security organizations, such as the Stop Community Food Centre, FoodShare in Toronto, and the Food Project in Boston, focus on fairness and a right for all to feed themselves before profit. Fair trade organizations and localization initiatives seek to reduce the dangerous distance between producer and consumer that infects our food system. Out of this welter of alternatives, practices, and hope, the elements of true democracy become visible: participatory, constantly negotiated, constantly in process. These organizations have redefined financial success. They have eschewed the single-minded pursuit of growth and profit for the subtler goals of environmental health, democracy, and a world without hunger. An alternative economics rises from the stories of their everyday strategies, visions, and practical solutions.

Excerpted with permission by the author and Fernwood Publishing.

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