I think it was the University of Wisconsin sociology professor Steve Stevenson who first coined the phrase “warriors, workers, and weavers” to characterize the three most common flavors that change agents come in. If it wasn’t him, I hope he’ll forgive the attribution because regardless of who first spoketh thus, I’ve yet to find a better descriptor of what’s currently playing on the food policy stage.
As the battle for the soul of our food system rages across the city hall, state legislature, and congressional landscapes, we increasingly see the health and sustainability warriors taking on the Evil Empire in hand-to-hand combat. Michael Bloomberg has challenged the Bubbleheads of Big Soda to a World Wrestling Federation “Smack Down,” while Food and Water Watch has unleashed its raw recruits – “once more unto the breach” – on Monsanto. “Stiffen the sinews [and] conjure up blood” has been the food warriors’ battle cry of late.
Unfortunately, the warriors have been badly bloodied in their recent attempts to storm the barricades. In the cause of labeling GMO products during this session of the New Mexico legislature, Food and Water Watch’s troops were mowed down like dry buffalo grass. The massed artillery of bio-tech’s high-powered lobbyists and Big Ag-lovin’ legislators made short work of the anti-GMO brigade that came to the fight armed with not much more than a couple of rusty muskets. But even Bloomberg’s mayoral clout and impeccable public health credentials have been insufficient to convince his own state court that huge soda containers, some of which are big enough to do the breaststroke in, are not an entitlement but a corrosive threat to humankind.
GMO battles in at least 20 other state legislatures this year, as well as numerous regulatory and tax measures designed to take the fizz out of soda consumption, have not fared well either. That’s not surprising considering the bottomless pecuniary pit of the food industry. If California’s spending spree on Proposition 37 is any indication – $45 million by pro-GMO corporations – we can reasonably surmise that combined spending by the food industry to kill the people’s hunger for food system change is running into the hundreds of millions. Add in the “millions for minorities” that Coke and Pepsi have cynically spent to curry anti-regulatory favor among groups like the NAACP and the National Hispana Leadership Institute (“Bottlers and Minority Groups, Soda War Allies,” New York Times, 3/13/13), we can assume that the warriors must do much more than simply max out their credit cards to take on the food industry.
The Evil Empire is not just playing defense. Taking cues from a rising anti “nanny state” fervor, Mississippi’s state legislature joined Ohio’s in passing a pre-emption bill that disables local government from promulgating unhealthy food ingredients and sugary soft-drink regulations. As if to say, “we’re fat and proud of it,” Mississippi, the state with the highest obesity rate, has proclaimed diet-related health problems are solely a matter of personal responsibility. And since their ability to demonstrate dietary restraint thus far has been hindered by city hall’s alleged food tyrants, we can now expect Mississippians to slim down in record numbers now that government is off their backs.
But there are also the workers. As food activists and program operators know, making lasting change is a long-term process that can feel at times like a slow slog through a shoe-sucking bog. There are those who organize the farmers’ markets and urban farms, create the food hubs and farm to school programs, and coalesce myriad local food projects and organizations into food coalitions. Over time they realize that this hard, grinding work can be accelerated when they enter the food policy arena, even if it’s just to get a few more program bucks out of their state legislature or a “Local Food Day” proclamation from their mayor.
Recently, the policy wins have been getting bigger. The National Conference of State Legislatures identified 77 diet-related health bills alone that became law between 2009 and 2011 in dozens of states. Just as one example, there are a host of food bills before the Hawaii legislature this year – inspired in part by the Hawaii Food Policy Council – that include new gardening initiatives (one would put a garden on the state capitol’s rooftop), favorable changes in locally grown procurement regulations, and efforts to promote new farmers.
New Mexico, where the workers and warriors often cross paths, is seeing years of policy work bear succulent fruit. Following past-years’ victories in reforming school food and securing more agricultural extension support for the state’s tribal communities, the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Council is poised to secure an appropriation of $85,000 for the New Mexico Farmers’ Market Association. This will enable the state’s 63 grower markets to better serve lower income shoppers. In addition, the Council will add $100,000 in state funds to a previous appropriation of $85,000 to purchase New Mexico-grown produce for public schools. And after a four-year campaign to revitalize indigenous agriculture, the Council has secured a $600,000 capital outlay from the legislature to develop wells and an irrigation system for the 938-acre Red Willow Farm at the Tohatchi Chapter of the Navajo Nation. This will enable up to one hundred Navajo farmers to grow food for their families and neighbors.
New Mexico’s policy advances are a result of tenacious coalition development among dozens of public and private sector partners, painstaking relationship building with elected and appointed state officials, and yes, shunning much of the warrior work. In a state like New Mexico, sadly, fighting Big Ag will scuttle your modest policy gains faster than a hungry man can eat his lunch.
So where do the weavers come in? In what is fast becoming trench warfare between the well-heeled food industry and the well dug-in food warriors, one has to ask if there is a way to negotiate an armistice. The simple irony of the current stalemate is that the workers have achieved unprecedented food project and policy wins at the same time that the warriors, who tackle consequential issues, are crashing headlong into a brick wall. Can the weavers bring together these disparate food system stakeholders including, God forbid, Big Ag and Big Food?
There are now about 200 local, state, and tribal food policy councils (up from 111 in 2010). Can they become food system weavers? Though they can certainly be the voice of reason and keep the community focused on the big prize, methinks they are still maturing and perhaps not ready for such a big task. Can First Lady Michelle Obama, with her now legendary arms clenching the waist of the nation’s obesity crisis, use her prestige to bring the warring factions to the table? The compromising nature of politics being what it is, to say nothing of its innate servitude to incremental change, may very well keep the warriors out of that sandbox. Will the federal government be the cavalry that rides to the rescue in the form of national dietary, GMO, and labeling standards that most people can accept? Many would say “ugh!” while some would say maybe.
Wherever the answer lies, there is much weaver work to be done. In the dialectic of social change, well-managed conflict can bring progress – over time. One might even say there’s the potential for a “good cop, bad cop” partnership between the workers and the warriors. But I don’t yet see enough communication between these change agents to suggest that such sophisticated tactics are in the offing. Perhaps those weavers among us might see as their first task the stitching together of a common cloth for food system change. Their slogan might read: “Food Warriors and Workers of the World Unite!”