From the Introduction
As a community food system activist, I have the annoying habit of checking in from time to time on the progress we have made as a food movement in battling food insecurity, unhealthy eating, and the damaging effects of our industrial food system. Compared to where we’ve been over the past few decades, the news isn’t good. Almost 14 percent of Americans are food insecure today compared to 10 percent at the start of the century; 36.5 percent of us are obese, over 50 percent more than in 1994; and factory farms and conventional farming continue to load our air and water with toxic levels of chemical pollutants and animal waste, while food processors make only marginal progress in reducing the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in their products.
This is the state of our food system at the latter end of the millennium’s second decade. It is the place where we produce, process, distribute, and consume the essential nutrients for life, but the problems associated with our food supply affect nearly every one of us somewhat and many of us severely. As we look at today’s data and cast an eye back at yesterday’s, we have to ask ourselves why, if the so-called food revolution has been underway for 50 years, has so little progress has been made.
Yes, there is a strong argument that the food system has failed us, that “it” is responsible for a host of evils that only the most sainted and self-reliant among us could avoid. But I want to explore another idea, one I’ve come to reluctantlyembrace as a result of working for and with numerous food organizations, campaigns, and causes for 45 years, and it is that we have failed the food system. By “we” I mean the vast army of individuals, organizations, and agencies that have claimed a stake in making good, healthy, and fair food available to all.
I don’t mean to imply that any one person or entity has necessarily performed his or her tasks in a slipshod manner, but I do believe that there has been a failure to achieve lasting and comprehensive success because of the food movement’s inability to collaborate. While we may each do a heck of a job running a food pantry or organizing a farmers’ market, when it comes to working together, we are like a rookie rowing team whose oars are hopelessly tangled as the coxswain calls out contradictory instructions. Offering even harsher appraisals, some food advocates have caricatured the food movement as a circular firing squad – one command to “Fire!” and we’re all dead.
Without a doubt, the food movement’s members don’t lack for commitment or enthusiasm – a surfeit of both is the norm. We in fact believe sometimes too stridently, too certainly, holding to our sacred vows regardless of the facts, giving proof to Montaigne’s admonition that “nothing is so firmly believed as that which a man knoweth least.” But perhaps the food movement’s biggest internal threat, which always appears just beneath the surface, is a kind of voluntary servitude to the cause and the “rules” that prescribe one’s thoughts and actions with regard to who or what we serve. Too often we “go along” with the crowd more out of social prudence than any heartfelt personal conviction. Simply put, my loyalty is to my group’s mission, not the larger vision. The time has come to remove the blinders and take in the wider food system landscape – its beauty as well as its ugliness.
And there still is much ugliness. With food insecurity and obesity rates remaining stubbornly high, with climate change approaching a nightmarish reality, and with our farmers struggling to achieve both financial and environmental sustainability, there is more work to do than ever before. Studies, reports, and wheel-barrels full of data continue to roll in, suggesting a little improvement here or no progress there. One recent and discouraging example is a recent Harvard study (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, March, 2017) of restaurant chains that found “little progress” in meeting their pledge to make children’s meals healthier. This in spite of an entirely earnest and well-publicized effort by the former First Lady Michelle Obama to modify children’s diets and increase their physical activity.
Granted, on a sector-by-sector basis, the food movement’s efforts can look enormously impressive. The local food movement is booming with over 8,500 farmers’ markets (there were only a few hundred in the 1970s), and over 40,000 schools are buying food from nearby farmers (nary a local carrot had found its way into school cafeterias until the late 1990s).
At some of the country’s most elite institutions of higher learning, a national, student-run organization called Real Food Challenge has secured commitments from hundreds of colleges and universities to collectively purchase at least a billion dollars of food annually that is deﬁned as “healthy, fair, and green” by 2020.
But as we have seen time and time again in the food movement, good intentions to right the food system’s wrong often ignore the creeping demons of its failures. Since 2011, almost concurrently with the rise of the Real Food Challenge, over 500 college and university food banks have been established to serve a growing number of hungry students and staff.
Though an equally dubious measure of success, over 200 very large food bank warehouses dot the American landscape, distributing billions of pounds of free or nearly free food annually to over 61,000 emergency food sites. Again, a short historical view tells a tale: not a single warehouse or regionally oriented food bank existed prior to the late 1970s.
But more partners continue to join the fray. With the intent of reducing obesity and improving local economies, local and state governments have started to play a more prominent role in correcting the failings of the food system. According to a 2012 survey of municipal food policies conducted by Michigan State University, and a follow- up survey in 2015, about 2,000 cities and counties are taking action to improve access to healthy food and to stimulate their local food economies. The National Conference of State Legislatures reviewed the food policy activity of state legislative sessions from 2012 through 2014 and found that 36 states had enacted over 90 bills that created various measures to improve food access and promote food security. Much of this local and state policy work has been initiated by nearly 250 food policy councils of which only a few existed in the 1990s.
The latter trend of more coalition development and local and state policy engagement offers ways to herd the movement’s many cats. States like Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts have put forward comprehensive food plans and are working tirelessly to rally their respective food system stakeholders to sign on and work for their implementation. We see similar progress at the local level where advocates and city halls across the nation are buying into a common strategy for food system change. Nationally, organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have brought together almost 200 organizations from across the hinterland to set a common agenda for federal food and farm policy.
In sum, more non-profit organizations, academic and health care institutions, food businesses, and private and public sector funders must adjust to larger scale, collective impact structures. If they did so, the food movement would be in the position to achieve the level of social mobilization it needs to leverage the transformation of the food system.
Learning to stand and work together will easily be the hardest thing we will ever accomplish. But to do less will mean that the few will have more, and the many will have less.
Running with the Devil – To Take His Money or Not
The view from the 21st ﬂoor into mid-town Manhattan was breathtaking. Shapes that Walt Whitman never imagined arose with asymmetrical splen- dor before my eyes. The late afternoon sun on a near-perfect New York day splashed golden patterns across soaring plate glass canvasses, shifting rap- idly from bursts of blinding reﬂected light to the deepest shadows kidnapped by hundreds of masonry troughs. Grand Central Station’s iconic façade was to my left, while Park Avenue’s trillion-dollar mile stretched to my right. What more could there be in life to increase my astonishment?
The well-appointed conference room where I stood, gazing at the ﬂoor-to- ceiling windows and sipping a yummy Chardonnay, was aglow with pleasant smiles and the soothing burble of cocktail chatter. Waiters in white tunics moved unobtrusively among the noshing clusters to reﬁll glasses and pass trays of caviar-stacked toast squares. A beautiful blond woman dressed in an elegant ﬂoor-length gown was tucked discreetly into one of the room’s corners where she strummed a harp. Her heavenly notes ﬁlled our little empyrean, taking the room’s habitants a story or two higher.
Though professionally dressed, the drinkers and gobblers were not attired in the requisite button down, business wear that was mandatory for the regular occupants of this and adjoining New York ofﬁce buildings. The men— some with ties and most without—wore sports jackets, and the women were dressed in casual business skirts and pant suits—more J.C. Penny than Nordstrom’s. But that was as it should be, because after all, these were nonproﬁt people—folks who earned their livings doing work that was primarily for the beneﬁt of others. They served the public interest or a charitable purpose through their respective organizations—some with no more than one or two employees—for no other reason than some larger good might be rendered unto humankind. Their bottom line was distinctly different from that of corporate America’s where the ﬁnancial return to the shareholder was the highest (and sometimes the only) good. For those like myself, now temporarily suspended within the city’s opulence, the bottom line was the social return to our communities, constituents, and clients.
Though driven by mission, they weren’t driven solely by altruism. They worked hard not only to serve others but also to cobble together a middle- class lifestyle for themselves from their nonproﬁt organization salaries. For even the best paid among them—executive directors, program heads, fund- raising experts—earned a salary barely on par with the receptionists, secretaries, and entry-level professionals who scurried about the ﬂoors just above and below this humble gathering.
Though driven by their respective organization’s mission, they were deﬁnitely not driven by a vision that was commonly shared by those in the room. They may have been genuinely sympathetic to each other’s endeavors, willing on some occasions to help each other out or even collaborate if there was money to do so, but those enjoying this glamorous moment were not known to regularly communicate with one another nor support each other’s various projects and initiatives. If one of the organizations in that room went out of business due to lack of funding, there would barely be a murmur of condolence. Silently, even darkly, they would say to themselves, “It’s a shame but I’m glad it wasn’t me.” The more ruthless among them would even be saying, “Hmmm, that might mean a little more money for me!” Social Darwinism was more prevalent than social solidarity.
Such morbid speculation didn’t matter right now. The people present were the survivors, the chosen few. Their long hours, their efforts to keep their agencies’ doors open, and their weekly struggle to make payroll were all for- gotten for the moment in the rareﬁed air of a Manhattan ofﬁce tower. It wasn’t just that second glass of wine that relieved the sore muscles of nonproﬁt work; it was the fact that the people who walked out of that room and entered the elevator for the descent to Park Avenue would have a very fat check tucked into their suit jacket or purse, courtesy of the Philip Morris corporation, formally known as Philip Morris USA, and now known as Altria. Yes, the tobacco corporation that had been manufacturing and selling tobacco products since 1847, and since 1983, was the largest cigarette manufacturer in the United States. According to their 2011 annual corporation report, the company had the largest share (49%) of the retail cigarette industry. The iconic Marlboro brand itself, which is the leading seller in every state in the United States and controls a 42 percent retail share, is purchased more than the next 13 tobacco brands combined (Phillip Morris International, 2011). There could be little doubt that the room’s merrymakers were unaware of tobacco’s impact on human health or its ranking as the nation’s number one public health problem. It had been a well-established medical fact for decades that cigarettes can kill you, and not just here and there like a stray bullet or car accident but in numbers that make our world wars look like an occasional gangland shootout. The World Health Organization’s 2008 report starkly summed up the body count: 100 million people dead from tobacco- related diseases in the 20th century alone; currently, 5.4 million die every year; and tobacco increases the likelihood of contracting six of the eight leading causes of death such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Bodies stacked up like cordwood across the world, or maybe more appropriately like cigarettes tucked snugly into their cartons (World Health Organization, 2008).
Yet the tinkling of wine glasses, the ethereal sound of the harp, the suffused laughter, and the all-round gaiety of the moment would not be over- shadowed by these grim statistics. Maybe all of us, the soon-to-be-a-little-richer, had been reassured by the “No Smoking” signs discreetly placed in the event room and the building’s corridors and restrooms. Contrary to my expectations, my stroll down the well-lit hallways whose walls were tastefully adorned with an enviable collection of artwork didn’t yield clouds of cigarette smoke belching from open ofﬁces. Like all the other “progressive” NYC- based corporations, Philip Morris had largely banned smoking from the building’s public areas. Its remaining puffers and hackers were relegated, like the remnants of a defeated army, to nearby windy sidewalks.
One woman in her ﬁfties with whom I conversed seemed to express the crowd’s prevailing sentiment. She ran a Meals-on-Wheels program that delivered prepared meals to “shut-in” senior citizens and other disabled peo- ple. She told me that she currently could only serve a fraction of her com- munity’s need because of funding limitations, and that the Philip Morris grant would enable her to reach another 1,000-needy elderly. When I asked her if she had any qualms about taking tobacco money, she cringed a bit, acknowledging the ill-effects of tobacco, but said without embarrassment that her agency desperately needed the money. If she had taken a conscientious stand and rejected the funding, she said, “my board of directors would kill me!”
Of course, I had to answer my own question. Having been less than can- did with my staff about why I was leaving the ofﬁce early that day, I mumbled something about meeting with a foundation in New York. As a person who spoke often and loudly about the need to promote healthy eating and lifestyles for everyone, especially the poor, it was more than a bit ironic that I was now guzzling the Devil’s booze and taking his bucks. I was that very same person, for whom “doing good” was not just a personal preference but a self-imposed life sentence, now making obsequious chatter with the corporation’s staff, and, like a thirsty dog with his tongue dangling obscenely, waiting for his share of Killer Tobacco’s loot.
My thoughts on the train back to Hartford were a case study in situational ethics. As if Socrates was sharing the seat next to me on the 8:37 P.M. Metro-North, I carried on a “yes, but” conversation in my head that drew more than one worried stare from neighboring riders. In one ear, I could hear Gunter Grass saying “something that’s morally wrong must be opposed regardless of personal consequence.” In the other ear, I could hear countless community voices telling me what Philip Morris’ money will buy—lots of organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables for low-income families; lots of additional income for hardworking farmers. I was bringing home the bacon for my people, I told myself; I was only doing my job. One colleague would later try to lift my spirits by explaining that if government had made more money available in the ﬁrst place, nonproﬁts like mine would not have to stoop so low in order to meet their budgets. I asked myself what would Gandhi do (the Mahatma’s life being my college thesis topic); what would the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. do; what would Ralph Waldo Emerson do? All three of my beloved heroes were sitting in the seat across from me just shaking their heads. When I offered them each a cut of the check I held inside my coat pocket in hopes that I could win them over, they all got off at the next stop
Strategies for Unifying: Building a Bigger Tent That Won’t Fall Down
There are methods, models, and perhaps a little magic required to build a stronger and more uniﬁed food movement. The good news is that these options don’t need to be assembled from scratch. They exist already, though they may need to be modiﬁed to suit current realities and situations; some may require reinvention or perhaps adaptation from a different but related ﬁeld; and still others will perform best after some practice and experimentation. Examples and illustrations are also available from different parts of the country and different settings—urban and rural, big and small. None of this is to say, of course, that all you have to do is add water and heat. Any commitment to use these methods, whether at local or national level, may require a sea change in how business is conducted and a commitment to a longer time horizon. But small steps are allowed as long as the direction is clear and the commitment strong.
In this section, I’ll examine some of those methods and models, and I’ll consider where and how that magic—let’s also call it imagination—may need to be applied. To begin, I’ll look at the concept of collective impact and its application to community food system settings. While the term has been overused and the concept criticized in some quarters (the criticism will be considered as well), collective impact does provide a broad and logical frame- work in which to undertake food system work. Next, I’ll examine the role of food policy councils (and similar food coalitions) as a pragmatic tool for organizing food system stakeholders in a given city, region, state, or tribe. Along with food policy councils, I’ll include a discussion of food charters and plans that have been used locally and statewide to organize stakeholders around an agreed-upon set of principles and actions. The third piece, and one that’s roughly related to the second, is how multiple food system stake- holders can begin and have begun to work together at the national level, speciﬁcally with regard to shaping federal food policy. Though the emphasis is usually on existing federal programs and budgets, there is evidence of sustained and broader (food systemwide) initiatives that are looking for more “joined-up” forms of food policy. Finally, I’ll provide additional examples and illustrations that demonstrate how individual food movement sectors have built bigger tents both locally and nationally.
Let’s begin with collective impact. There are two reasons that the concept should be considered in the context of the food movement, and especially at the level of organized community action. The ﬁrst is because it offers a set of tasks that, if adhered to by all the participants, provides a clear path to working together effectively. The second reason is that collective impact is particularly well adapted to food system thinking, which considers the connection and potential integration between the many parts of our food supply. A short paper by John Kania and Mark Kramer (2011) describes the concept’s basic elements. I’ll follow their outline to provide a summation.
The justiﬁcation for the use of collective impact is that, “Large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations.” Nothing describes the state of local and national food movement activity more accurately than that statement. Whether you’re working in Seattle, Washington, or Washington, D.C., food sector activists will recognize both the immensity of the social change they want to bring about and the state of rampant dis- connect that exists among those who have something to contribute to that change. Food banks are busy distributing food, urban garden advocates are trying to expand local food production, nutrition educators are teaching people to make healthier food choices, and farmers’ market coordinators are working to strengthen the small farm sector. Everyone’s work is needed but every sector is “doing its own thing” without expending enough time to join forces with other sectors.