I swear to the Lord, I still can’t see, why Democracy means, everybody but me. 

                  – Langston Hughes

The walk on this sunny winter day from the Lexington and 125th Street subway station took me several blocks down Harlem’s main drag. In spite of the cold, the sidewalk and streets were packed with the hurry and fury that only New York City can muster. Emergency vehicle sirens screamed in vain attempts to part the sea of snarled traffic, hucksters hawked wares of dubious origins from the curbsides, and hundreds of bodies averted collisions in defiance of the laws of physics. But amidst this carnival crush of humanity, this three-ring circus of semi-managed mayhem, were the neighborhood’s walking wounded who at times visibly out-numbered the undamaged.  Men, virtually comatose, were propped against building walls, legs splayed onto the sidewalk; elderly people walked with their upper torsos bent parallel to the ground; and everywhere the exhausted, the poor, the addicted shuffled with no apparent purpose or destination.

The occasion of my passing through Harlem was to speak at a forum on food democracy at the City University of New York (CUNY) Urban Food Policy Institute. Sitting a few floors above 125th Street, the institute had convened a respectable number of faculty, students, and NYC food activists to put some common flesh on a term that, I must confess, often makes me grumpy. Depending on who you talk to or what you read, food democracy means nothing to most people and many things to a few. Variations run from the literalists who believe in a food system “by the people, of the people, and for the people” to marketplace arbiters who grudgingly allow consumers the food they want, provided that they ask politely. For instance, I’m reasonably certain that food democracy means little more to those New Yorkers I passed on 125th Street than a regular meal.

As a justification for food democracy, however, I’ve never needed anything more complicated than the Japanese Buddhist Constitution which says, “Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be made by many.” And what’s more important than food!

Much of the language around food democracy is coming from people who feel left out by the dominant food system. These can be people for whom a good, affordable grocery store is too-many bus stops away, or, in rural areas, a long hitchhike away. Food democracy is also especially relevant to those who imagine smaller scale, neighborhood-based food production and processing, or worker and cooperatively owned food enterprises; in other words, places where the work, the people, and the community come first. These are natural desires in the face of a food system that places market exigencies and corporate bottom lines ahead of human need.

In a recent CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute article, the case of a Pathmark Supermarket that was closed about three years ago at the corner of Lexington and 125th St. was cited. Coincidentally, the store’s opening in a hard-core food desert 20 years ago was the result of citizen mobilization, i.e., food democracy. Its closing was the result of the parent company’s bankruptcy. But that didn’t deter Whole Foods from opening a Harlem store not too far away in response to the neighborhood’s growing pockets of deep pockets. That might be nice for Harlem’s Second Renaissance, but the high-end store does nothing for the remaining sea of food insecure residents.

But it’s not just the food industry’s willful disregard of the people’s interests that challenges food democracy, it’s also sometimes the people’s lack of clarity about their own goals. When, for instance, the CUNY forum’s participants were asked what would improve food democracy in NYC, most of the answers were more worker coops, more money for community gardens, racial justice, and funding for someone’s commercial food business in Brooklyn. While each of these projects and concepts make their contribution to a more diverse, inclusive, and responsive food system, they don’t resolve the fundamental question of what is food democracy, nor do they help us to operationalize it in a unified fashion.

Beginning with the concept of food justice as a fundamental building block of food democracy, I would assert that everyone must be fed well before others are fed better. Operating within that ethical framework would have required that the Pathmark Supermarket be kept open or replaced with a comparable store before a Whole Foods is opened nearby. Placing one group higher on the food chain while a large group of my fellow citizens sinks even lower should be regarded as a moral challenge for public policy. A unified food community should hold both the public and private sectors accountable for resolving such moral challenges according to a strong ethical framework. The recent rebellion against Amazon in Queens may demonstrate that NYC, or any city for that matter, doesn’t yet have the intellectual and planning infrastructure necessary to prioritize its economic development choices which are generally controlled by an elite group of elected officials and marketplace representatives.

This leads us into another philosophical dilemma. Simply put, most food organizations, especially larger institutions, don’t practice democracy themselves, resorting instead to a traditional non-profit, executive/board governance structure whose members may occasionally represent diverse communities, but rarely communities of need. In many cases, they draw their members heavily from entrenched food sectors such as industry (see Big Hunger by Andy Fisher). If one were to rate them on the quality of their inclusiveness and democratic enterprise, their scores would probably fall into the same range as banana republics of yore. Their decisions, some of which can have a major impact on a community’s food system – are made by a very small number of people, and sometimes only one!

But the ethical dilemma stretches beyond the question of who’s calling the tune. As much as I might rail against elite policy advocates who inhabit the interior regions of the Washington, DC beltway, they deliver the goods in the form of tens of billions of dollars in SNAP and private food benefits every year. Ask the people struggling to make sense of their existence on 125th Street if they would prefer food democracy or a couple of hundred dollars in SNAP benefits every month and several bags of groceries from nearby food pantries, and I think you’ll know the answer.

Another bedeviling feature of food democracy is that sometimes, let’s face it, the people are fickle (the results of the 2016 presidential election perhaps being the 21st century’s testament to the alarming growth of EDS – Electorate Dysfunction Syndrome). The food system’s economic, health, and policy issues can be complicated even for an educated lay person, and on those rare occasions when important choices are subjected to a pure form of democracy, i.e., a voter referendum, the results can be perplexing. Why, for instance, in my home city of Santa Fe would the voters by a wide margin defeat a measure to impose a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages when the health and economic benefits were searingly obvious?

But in spite of these challenges and apparent contradictions, food democracy is on the rise at the local level, if the growth in food policy councils is any indication. According to the just-released Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future Food Policy Council Survey 2018, there are 284 food policy councils (they go by various names) in the U.S., a dramatic six-fold increase since 2007. The survey is just brimming with data, but most tellingly for me is the high priority that councils place on community engagement which, after all, is the road to food democracy. Well over 90 percent of all councils include community members, labor representatives, and youth in addition to the usual cast of public and private professionals, and nearly 60 percent make community engagement their highest organizational priority. While these measures don’t conclusively prove a commitment to food democracy – nor the competency to pull it off – they place food policy councils at the forefront of attempts to bring people’s voices to the table. The will is there, in other words, but as the survey indicates, the resources are not – here too only 26 percent of the councils report a budget greater than $25,000 annually.

At the CUNY forum, New York City Deputy Mayor Philip Thompson made it clear that democracy, in all of its expressions, desperately needs leadership training. He’s right. Democracy is a fragile institution that must be practiced every day, but it is one in which we have seriously underinvested. Given the arduous tasks that accompany democracy’s practice, it can sometimes seem to the sincere practitioner that it is less a privilege of our birthright than a life sentence to be served.

In the case of food democracy, its managers must often assess the opportunity costs. How much time and money do we spend on citizen participation and community engagement? How do we measure success – by the number of policies that are making a difference in people’s lives or the number of people sitting around a table talking about who’s not sitting around the table? With Earth in the balance, there is no doubt that more voices must be heard and orchestrated, which means a considerable investment in democracy training and mobilization. At the same time, substantive action cannot be deferred for long. To those who find the right mix, Nobel Prizes await.