Eat Your Democracy

I was at a one of those general holiday season parties recently and had an exchange that I’ve been thinking about ever since.  I went with a friend and didn’t really know anyone, so I ended up talking with lots of strangers and of course the old “what do you do” question came up.  I usually try to dodge that question, since I never seem to have an acceptably simple answer for people.  But in one particular case since my new friend seemed to ask in earnest I did my best to answer, explaining briefly that I grow organic vegetables and deliver them on my bike, and that I teach people how to grow their own food.

“Ah!” he said with an air of satisfaction, “You’re a Foodie!”  And he nodded to himself, satisfied that he had now quantified me, categorized me.  Having that label stuck on me made me feel instantly uncomfortable, and I think I said something mildly snarky and made my escape.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since because it brought to light something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, something I keep coming up against in my travels in the world of urban food security.

There is a divide among those who care about food, agriculture, and sustainable urban living that keeps us from making real progress because it alienates people from one another, prevents us from working together with all our collective strength.  It’s a divide that I’ve encountered in every activist movement I’ve been involved in, whether I was able to recognize it at the time or not; the divide of wealth, privilege, and classism.  The term “Foodie” that was attributed to me brings up images of overpriced cookware stores in Kitsilano and spending a hundred bucks on two days’ meals at the farmer’s market.  It’s exciting to see stories, cookbooks, and articles everywhere about slow food, local food, and all sorts of new and exotic “artisan” cheeses, breads, and the revival of almost-lost skills around food and cooking.  But it’s scary that none of these seems to challenge the idea that quality food is a luxury item, a new way to demonstrate your wealth and status.  The language, the events, the downright swankiness of it all smacks a bit of self-righteousness and seems to be saying something pretty scary:  Local and organic is better, and so the people buy it (read: the people that can afford it) are therefor also better.  Now, if you already felt that you couldn’t afford to eat organic, would that kind of language encourage you to get more involved in it anyway?  I doubt it.  The movement for organic and local food is sliding dangerously toward being the newest bourgeois charity project, a way to buy environmental responsibility instead of becoming personally involved in it.  And in that slide, a large portion of folks are being left behind.

There is another side to the movement for local and organic food, one that understands the reality that food means independence, that local economies mean stability in a time of crisis.  This is the side of the movement that comes from those of us who can’t afford to shop at the farmer’s market, who recognize that quality food is a right, not a luxury.  From this side of the movement comes a recognition that along with promoting local and organic food, we also need to promote ways of making sure it’s accessible to everyone, ways that are outside of the simplicity of money exchanges and the disparity they necessarily breed.  Who is shopping at the farmer’s market and who isn’t, and why?  Who has access to community garden plots, or the time to work them?  What other factors might prevent people from being able to participate in these wonderful local food initiatives that we’re cooking up?  It’s easy to fall into writing people off as “part of the problem” if they don’t participate in the local/organic trend, without asking what might be keeping them from participating.  Understanding and removing systemic barriers that keep people from accessing all this wonderful local and organic food that we’re promoting is as important as getting the food out there in the first place.

It’s true that our economy has been built on the foundation of industrial food that’s underpriced because it’s heavily subsidized and because the environmental and social costs are hidden.  It’s also true that the food I grow costs more than the food at Safeway because I need to make a living.  But it’s also true that many peoples’ wages are as underpriced as the food, and that like it or not we are caught in the realities of that unfair system.  I’m wary of language around local and organic food that doesn’t challenge the dynamics of classism and implies that you’re environmentally irresponsible if you don’t buy the “right” kinds of food, without recognizing that for many people it’s just not realistic within our current system.  Our food system has become so undemocratic that to be involved in food one also has to be involved in food politics, and that means tackling political issues like gender, race, and class and seeing how they might be contributing to disparity within our food system.  Just shrugging and saying “well, I guess if we want better food we just have to spend more money” doesn’t do any good for the folks that don’t have any more money to spend.  The great irony is that this includes the majority of the people who are involved in growing that food, the agricultural workers and small-scale farmers who are struggling to make a living – ask me how I know.

It’s not enough to simply put the “right” kinds of food on the table, whatever the cost; we all need to learn to look around and notice who is and isn’t at the table with us, and ask why that might be so and what we can do about it, both personally and collectively.  It’s easy to say that people need to learn to value food, to choose to spend their money on sustainable food instead of buying cheap industrial food so they can afford a new cell phone.  But for many people, spending more on food doesn’t mean simply choosing that as your luxury instead of something else; for many people, spending more on food means getting less food to eat, and so much of the discourse around food seems to intentionally ignore that reality.

It’s often hard to see these dynamics at work; it’s not like the flyer at your local organic grocery store says THIS STORE FOR RICH PEOPLE ONLY across the top.  But the prices do.  And so does a lot of the language and attitudes around local and organic food, as well as the images that are presented.  Communities everywhere are employing innovative strategies to get around the capitalist approach to food and create local food economies that are based on sharing and collectivity instead of just on spending more for “better” food.  Why don’t we hear more about them?  If we really want to see a sustainable food system, then we need to look deeper than what was sprayed on the fields and how far away they are.  We also need to look at creating new ways of valuing and new systems of exchange that don’t create barriers between people and the good food that we all derserve.  So I’d like to propose we add a third critera to our definition of what creates sustainable food.  It not only has to be local and organic, it also has to be democratic.  And that means food that’s of the people – all of the people.  After all, we all eat; we’re all in this together.