I’m an academic, and read this book in part for possible use in a class that I teach on philosophy and the food system. Criticisms of the food system are very popular these days, and my current (and very incomplete) list of food books is pushing a couple hundred. Winne’s book stands out from this crowd in two respects: his perspective as an activist rather than an academic, and his attention to aspects of the food system and the “food movement” that are often overlooked.
As Winne notes near the beginning, he’s a college-educated white man, but his working life has been spent as professional activist and organizer for food access in impoverished urban communities around the US. Much of the book is stories from either his own experience — especially in Hartford, Connecticut — or from other activists and organizers. His tone is generally thoughtful, and he stops occasionally to reflect on what succeeded and what failed in these efforts. In a few places — though only a few — he steps back even more, giving his take on the fundamental problems with our food system. But he’s not an academic, and he’s not offering an academic analysis. In my class, I can see using his book (or a few of the best chapters of it; more below) in tandem with more theoretical readings: How well does this theory fit with Winne’s experiences? How useful would it be for what he’s trying to accomplish? In this respect, Winne’s book is similar to Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. However, where Estabrook is a journalist writing about activists, Winne is an activist writing about himself.
Winne offers us an especially keen view of the class dynamics of the food system and the movement that aims to change it. The food movement, especially in the wake of Michael Pollan’s three books on food (The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) and the documentary Food Inc., has emphasized artisan and home production, organic/natural practices, and the aesthetics of food. However, over the past thirty-five years, supermarkets have followed their white, middle-class customers from cities to suburbs and politicians have dismantled the economic supports that helped impoverished households maintain food security. Urban farmer’s markets and community gardens may be well intentioned, but aren’t an adequate replacement for a familiar grocery store and food stamps.
Finally, I found four chapters to be especially thought-provoking — and I’ve been thinking about food a lot over the past two years, so that’s saying something! Chapters three and four deal with urban farmer’s markets and food banks. Winne is skeptical about farmer’s markets to address food security, since food insecure households can’t afford to pay the premiums small farmers need to stay in business. Food banks do a much better job providing “emergency” food, but are dependent on wealthy and powerful benefactors and consequently are hesitant to pose deep criticisms of the food system. Chapter five discusses the economics and geography of urban grocery stores, including the best discussion of public transit systems and food deserts that I’ve come across. And the first half of chapter seven looks at the obesity epidemic, portraying the food industry as a predator of vulnerable consumers in the urban jungle.