Who’s Minding the Movement?

The past year or so has brought some dramatic changes to key organizations in the community food arena. Organizations like the Community Food Security Coalition, Food Alliance, Organic Farming Research Foundation, and Slow Food have gone through either challenging leadership transitions, substantially downsized, and/or closed down. The leadership vacuum left in part by these unfortunate occurrences is compounded by the breakneck growth of the field, as new food-oriented organizations emerge  and existing groups discover how food systems work can help them meet their goals.

The result is a dramatically transformed landscape and a lack of clarity as to who will provide the unifying vision and direction to help these organizations become more powerful than the sum of their collective parts. As non-profits tend to fixate on the “four walls of their organization,” otherwise known as their mission, these changes to the flagship organizations lead me to wonder: Who’s minding the movement?

The struggles of these larger groups could be just random entropy. Organizations come and go. Yet, these struggles also point to several broad issues regarding the sustainability of the non-profit model and the foundations that support it.

For example, there exists enormous redundancy and wasted effort among the thousands of non-profits, which as legal entities, must comply with federal, state and local regulations. Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen, suggests that the best thing non-profits can do to fight hunger is to merge groups and build their collective capacity. Any Executive Director will tell you how much work it is to create and just maintain a 501(c)(3) entity, even before any of the real substantive work gets done. These are energies that could be better spent changing the food system.

Non-profits typically use their mission as the sole criteria in decision-making rather than considering the impact of their choices on the broader movement and society. Feeding America has raised millions of dollars for hunger relief efforts (its mission) from cause marketing partnerships with companies that sell products especially harmful to the public’s health, such as candy, cookies, and other desserts.  These marketing partnerships cause collateral damage, by increasing the sales of these products, contributing to the growing epidemic of diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases, especially among those who frequent food banks.

As Michael Shuman pointed out in The Nation, progressive foundations woefully underfund movement building through dispersing their grants too widely and with too many restrictions. This phenomenon has only been exacerbated since he wrote this article in the late 1990s. This leaves non-profits spending an inordinate amount of time fundraising, and social movements without the leadership needed to maximize their sector’s effectiveness.

Likewise, foundations can be fickle. They can be excessively directive, shift their areas of funding on a periodic basis, and in general are insufficiently accountable to the organizations and constituencies they support. These trends can be best understood in light of a foundation with the exact opposite characteristics. The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation provides modest general support awards, funding a group for as long as ten years consecutively. In part, they select grantees based upon their potential to strengthen the food movement. They even draw new Board members from the NGO sectors they serve. Their approach is unfortunately exceedingly rare.

These structural issues act as obstacles to building a strong food movement. Similarly, policy change has not fully materialized as a force for uniting us, as it has for the feminist and environmental movements. Many grassroots activists have misgivings about the value of working through policy channels to gain the changes necessary for the flourishing of community-based food systems. They see a long drawn out process with uncertain results, rife with unsavory compromises, and opponents with bottomless pockets. Politicians are standing at the ready to implement our agenda, but perhaps because of our lack of organizing experience, or the convoluted nature of food systems politics, or our own ambivalence, we have failed to seize the opportunity.

Instead, we have generally opted for the low-hanging fruit: Public education, market-based change, and individual small and medium-sized projects (e.g., getting a more sustainable chicken nugget into school meals rather than taking on property tax policies that force school food services to be revenue-neutral or generate income). It’s not that these accomplishments and efforts aren’t important. They can effect real change and provide inspiration for other communities to do the same. It’s that, as change grounded in a local or regional food system, they do not provide the opportunity for people in other parts of the country to fully engage in them. Michigan’s Double Up Food Bucks incentive program for SNAP recipients excites farmers market practitioners here in Portland, yet ultimately it is happening 2,000 miles away without a direct connection to Oregon. However, USDA has historically fostered an unbalanced playing field that favors Big Food over farmers markets for the redemption of SNAP benefits. Yet, without an organizing campaign to address this national issue, the good folks in Michigan and Portland remain disconnected, without a common project.  In other words, our constraints are national, yet our solutions are local. And a collage of local projects does not lend itself to a national movement without a national project or national goals.

Nevertheless, I have seen great innovation, enthusiasm, creativity, and accomplishments over the past 20 years. There’s been a tremendous influx of people interested in the food systems field, especially of youth. For example, Food Day 2012 saw actions at almost 300 colleges involving nearly 100,000 students, staff, and faculty.  Food systems work is becoming increasingly recognized as a long-overlooked but essential course of study and action through new university centers and municipal food policy plans. Our work is starting to manifest modest but real impacts. Witness the declining rates of childhood obesity in Philadelphia, which can be attributed in part to the fantastic efforts of The Food Trust and its partners.  One in every nine school children attends a school with a farm to school project. The number of farms in the nation has leveled off and even increased slightly after decades of decline.

As a field, however, we remain disconnected and disjointed. There is no center of gravity for the food movement, no central institutions to provide direction. We are fractured around issues of class and race, and around our relationship to the corporations that dominate the food system. While many of us espouse a systems-approach, individually, we come from diverse starting points that color our priorities.  To illustrate this point, Eric Holt Gimenez, of Food First, in his edited volume, “Food Movements Unite,” makes the case that there is not one food movement, but multiple movements.

I disagree with my esteemed colleague. Despite our differences, I believe that we are united by two things. First, we share common goals of fostering ecological sustainability, healthy people, vibrant communities, social justice, and democratic participation. Different organizations might prioritize these values differently, or engage in diverse tactics or strategies to reach these goals. Yet, they are common to all of us.  Second, we are unified by our excitement about using food to drive change at the personal, cultural, community, economic, and societal levels. As a tool for social change, food is heady stuff.

Collectively, we have made significant advances in the marketplace as well as in educating the public about the food system. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is transforming the tomato industry in Florida through gaining the support of eleven of the largest restaurant, food service management, and supermarket corporations to give farmworkers a voice in the fields. “Local” is the most influential product claim in 2012 according to the National Association of the Specialty Food Trade, and sales of local food have swelled have $4 billion in 2002 to $11 billion in 2012.  Tens of millions of shoppers flock to farmers markets on a summer weekend.

Yet, I have a nagging feeling that, unless we build some real political power, unless we find a common political project, we are squandering our moment in the sun. I see the food movement at the edge of a cliff. Either we take the leap and fly away soaring as an ever-more powerful force, or we turn around and walk slowly down the hill, our influence waning with every step. To soar requires organizing, coordination, and a much more sophisticated political analysis and strategic thinking than the leadership of the food movement, myself included, has mustered to date. We need a well-funded, bottom-up, multi-racial, multi-generational process to develop such a long-range blueprint to strengthen the movement and achieve our collective vision.

We need leadership to beget leadership. Who wants to get the ball rolling on this crucial matter? How shall we get together and strategize to soar? Who is going to mind the movement?

28 thoughts on “Who’s Minding the Movement?

  1. Hi Andy, many feel as you do, although more from intuition than in actual experience in the field. Wanted to point to Food Tank (http://www.toquemag.com/featured/the-food-tank-rebuilding-the-worlds-food-system-with-data) as a possible leader, more as a central headquarters than the army itself. Also I agree that there could be some great momentum if somehow national initiatives and local initiative could fall together. I thought Joel Berg’s “All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?” covered this very well.

  2. Well said, Andy.

    Let a thousand flowers bloom – that is not a bad strategy for winning change in a thousand ways, particularly when the goal is often to do it locally. I myself am personally engaged in maybe a dozen initiatives related to food.

    But I agree we are yearning for a collective movement. People I work with in one area are often not thinking of the larger common goals we share. Folks in general are not plugged in to the diversity of other initiatives that complement our work. We need to connect the dots and work together for both policy and social change.

  3. Excellent article, Andy… even though we disagree about whether we have “one” food movement untied by basic principles of sustainability and justice, or “multiple” food movements divided and stratified by issues of race and class. Maybe it is both. In any case, I don’t believe we can unite until we face the issues that divide us head-on. I suspect we can both agree that dismantling racism and classism (and all other isms) within our movement ) is not something we do “on the side” as we transform the food system… it is the core work itself.

  4. Andy’s observations are much appreciated and long overdue. Our movement has expanded at breakneck speed, and is now in a state of fragmentation. The only way to solve this is for effective and genuine (i.e. not just put together to impress a funder) partnerships to be formed that will foster some of the cost and messaging efficiencies that we sometimes criticize in the industrial model. But I do think total unity is both impossible and undesirable. We must have different voices within the movement in order to produce the kind of conversation and innovative thinking that’s needed. For instance, I feel that we’re in danger of losing the voice and perspective of farmers in what is becoming (perhaps necessarily) a more urban movement in general. Those with funds to support the ongoing growth of the movement would do well to understand that they can’t get it all done in one package, and that long-term commitments to different perspectives will be a key to success, even if such funding also supports some consolidation within those perspectives along the way.

  5. E pluribus unum.
    This is possibly one of the best analyses of the fractured nature of food movement NGO’s and it’s impact I’ve seen in a while. Mr. Fisher correctly points out that the fractionalization and factionalization of food movement groups only seeks to divide resources, confuse messaging and ultimately dilute impact across and in between groups.
    Sadly what Mr. Fisher points out is an all too common problem with social movements. While small organizations can do very targeted programming and change by being nimble, ultimately their impact is often only epiphenomenal. Instead of attacking the systemic and structural problems of food insecurity, poverty, corporate power and economic instability, many of these groups, due to their size and their limited reach can only have a local focus.
    However, what Mr. Fisher does not point out is that while large organizations can push for changes at the federal level, ultimately, without a coordinated effort at the grassroots level, regulation can only do so much. Furthermore, as messages become diluted at the federal level (more an issue of politics than an issue of cause), one does wonder if those changes may do more harm than good.
    What may be needed is a dual strategy – one that Theda Skocpol has nicely talked about in her work on social capital. A tripartiate structure for organizations that works both at the bottom and the top may be what the food movement needs. Slow Food USA has done that very effectively by putting local Slow Food chapters on the ground to work at the local level while the parent organization works at the top. But the problem at Slow Food was not due to structural or organizational elements: it was an issue of values.
    And this is something that must be there in order for ANY change to be effective. No amount of organizational change will be effective without the value consensus across groups. And as NGO’s and non-profits are working cross-purpose, until there is a larger consensus on what defines the food movement, it will be more than difficult to get groups to work together and pool resources. And that’s a value judgement.

  6. This is such a timely and important insight. Andy gives a well thought out analysis and anyone who cares about our movements should take heed, and join in the discussion. The main point, and it could be made about the ineffective environmental movement, recurring challenges to voting rights, patenting of life, or any of our causes, without political power we can not succeed.

    The one thing I would suggest, however, is that we do not impose an “either/or” tactic on to solving this problem. Food First is right, we need and should nurture thousands of efforts. Andy is right too, we need a core central effort to put it all together in a way that results in real political power. If we had that, maybe we would have a decent farm bill!

  7. A couple of years ago I asked members of Comfood, including Andy, to tell me who they thought were the most influential NGOs in this area based on their own experiences. I constructed a spreadsheet for network analysis but it became obvious very quickly that of the 30+ NGOs and 300+ respective board members I entered there was not a single connection, zero. A cursory examination of the NGO funders reveals the same thing, there are no connections among them either. We must seek to connect all these organizations’ boards from the smallest local to the largest international. When you look at commodity agriculture and retailers you find their connections run deep and wide as Mary Hendrickson’s work at Missou has shown, they are all interconnected! We’re all just pissin’ in the wind.

  8. For the few five years that I’ve been involved in Sustainable Agriculture, it has seemed to me that all the separate organizations are like separate pieces of a puzzle that need put together. Not as one organization, put with a unifying vision to be all on the same page. We need a common strategy for this to happen. We lost local farming in the past 50 years, if we don’t approach the issue with a strategy; we could lose it again. You can bet that the agri-industrial complex has plenty of people working on strategies. Just as we focus on sustainable agriculture, we need a sustainable movement.

  9. A lot of folks in the movement have been talking about the need for a unifying and cohesive written analysis that provides a compelling “state of the food movement”. Thanks for getting it done Andy!

    The Food & Community Fellows program at IATP is another important component of the movement that’s about to go through dramatic change as its primary funder has decided to not renew funding for future fellowships. You say “We need leadership to beget leadership.” We also need a pipeline, with a national scope, for training and developing leaders. As the only national food systems leadership support organization in the country the movement needs to also reconcile with the potential loss of this fellowship program and how we’re going to cultivate, strengthen and unify leaders as we move forward.

  10. thank you for this, Andy. we, at Good Food Jobs, have tens of thousands of users who are ready to go, just looking for inspiration for how to make their difference in the (food) world. let us mobilize the troops, and harness this energy for good.

  11. Without resourcing the struggling existing and beginning farmers and fishers our movement has no foundation on which to build. I have seen far too many trained, experienced, talented young people who have to go back to the workforce because they can’t afford land and all the other costs associated with production. Why is it that non-profits that supposedly work on behalf of farmers can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in free money (i.e. grants and donations) yet resource strapped farmers are almost exclusively only offered loans? The answer that farms are for-profit is insufficient because that for too long has been a tragic joke. Debt, particularly for our chronically indebted generation, keeps us working off-farm rather than growing more food, in effect wasting our labor subsidizing the food buyer and paying for the privilege to farm. Or we end up forced into servicing high-end markets because this economy does not accommodate poor people feeding other poor people, with few exceptions like matching SNAP dollars. The dismantling of rural America’s food production capacity and the take-over of our public institutions by food service companies has left us too poor and without the infrastructure to adequately respond to the demands of this movement. Ultimately the food crisis is a crisis of dependency on multinational food corporations brought about by state and federal policies that have deemed small and mid-sized farms and fisheries too inefficient to matter, and that have disregarded anti-trust enforcement in the name of cheap food. Until we adequately resource the front-lines, beyond the pittance offered by USDA programs, and take control of production and distribution this movement we speak of will continue to be an intellectual exercise too distant from the farms, fields, and waterways to do more than satisfy the food needs of a very small minority, while diverting scarce resources towards providing careers for researchers and non-profit professionals.

    There is only a leadership void if we fail to recognize that the leaders are too busy or broke trying to figure out how to feed “the movement”.

    Bob St.Peter
    Rough Road Farm
    Segdwick, ME

  12. Eric Herm is one such person. He’s a farmer, author, traveler, father and outspoken leader.

    He seems to have a positive outlook too: “It’s amazing how fast this is spreading. For years I was frustrated as it seemed most Americans didn’t or would never care about our food, what has happened and continues to happen to our food and seed supply. But I sense that more and more people are tapping into this awareness on many levels – not only the GMO issue but food in general and how intertwined the health of our body is to the health of the food we eat.” [1]

    [1] http://www.sonofafarmer.com/thoughts-upon-return-from-big-apple/

  13. Excellent perspective and so well said. I often find myself overwhelmed with choices on where to focus my time, energy and mind. We all do what we can, but collectively we have so much power that should be harnessed for the greater good. We are power when our voices are aligned. Thank you so much for writing this.

  14. I am. My husband is. My daughter is starting. Several of our neighbors and friends. Great to have this reminder that we all need to do our part it can’t be one or two alone and we need to connect meaningfully and strategically. I’m sharing onwards, thank you!

  15. Who should be the unifying voice within the United States is the USDA. This is the agency tasked with oversight and planning for the major portion of our food systems from supporting the grower to ensuring national food security and welfare of the population.

    Remember, I say “should” not is.

    Perhaps it is time for each individual entity to devote a portion of its agenda to making this an agency responsive to the public it serves. This would have to be done by public demand on congress to direct USDA in response to citizen demand. Yes, this would require a unified voice from the food system.

    Can the people of the United States control their government? With enough help from people uniting for a common good, it could happen.

  16. Andy, I really appreciate the thoughtful piece and agree that we are most in need of unification if we hope to break through resistance at the political level as well as in the marketplace, controlled by what I would called market makers. I also agree with Eric Holt-Gimenez and others who point out that the divides existing due to unequal levels of privilege, related to class and race particularly, must be addressed with a new and deep dedication and unprecedented skill. I am heartened that in the places I work, particularly with the new California Food Policy Council, there is a willingness to engage in these difficult, but essential conversations. There is also a deep commitment to build shared power and therefore collective impact. As we begin those conversations and make progress, we will also arm ourselves with the concepts and possibilities that might just reorient the power dynamics between funders and grantees that is pretty dysfunctional and does not allow the rapid evolution needed in food systems to become a reality. Progress is slow, but it is evident from where I stand. I invite you to watch the CA Food Policy Council develop this year to see if you agree. Thanks again and let’s cultivate this conversation!

  17. A brilliant article. One that really resonates with me, especially as a former campus coordinator for Food Day, a concerned citizen becoming increasingly involved in the Label GMO campaign, and a graduate student conducting research on agrarian sectors in both Asia and Latin America. Being involved in all of these movements has exposed me to the reality that communities around the world are fighting the same battle, contending with the same agri-industrial complex, but doing it separately and sometimes in isolation. This in mind, the only drawback of Andy’s article, is that he speaks to and recognizes “national constraints” and the limitations of “local solutions”. He does not speak to the implications of globalization and the world-wide movement and alliances being forged among farmers. Surely there are lessons to be learned here and leaders to consult with (i.e. Via Campesina).

  18. I agree with Mr. Fisher that the food landscape has been dramatically transformed in the last twenty years. That change, for the good, is in part to the work of organizations such as Organic Farming Research Foundation, Slow Food, and Community Food Security Coalition. Organic may not win every battle, but we are at the table and our issues are moving forward.

    OFRF, like many other organizations, has learned that in order to remain top of their game, we must change. And like all phases of maturation – it comes with a degree of challenge. But change we must if we want to ensure the success of organic farmers. The success of organic farmers is fundamental to the success of the food movement.

    It has been imperative that we introduce new and innovative skill sets in order to meet growing consumer demand and the burdens that creates for organic farmers. If a non-profit is not examining improvements in their operations, they risk irrelevance. One thing remains consistently clear to our stakeholders– is the need to focus on the needs of organic farmers and their families. The better job we do of this, the more likely we will attract the important resources needed to ensure their success.

    In the past year, OFRF launched our new website at http://www.ofrf.org. The new website is built to meet the needs of organic farmers and will thereby attract audiences wishing to create and sustain deeper relationships with leading suppliers of organic foods. The website platform will continue to evolve and engagement of all primary audiences in a continuing dialogue of organic farming issues and research. In 2012, OFRF had 38,527 unique visitors to the web site for a total of more than 50,000 visitors resulting in an average of 400 new web subscriptions per month.

    The new OFRF website served as a stage for us to present the first science-based, peer-reviewed report Organic Farming for Health & Prosperity. This comprehensive report extols the multiple societal benefits of organic farming in North America. This report is the basis for many applications of organic education and marketing support to organic farmers, including a webinar that will be available later this year.

    OFRF developed the only organic assessment of federally-funded land grant university programs. Released in April 2012, the information gathered for the Organic Land Grant Assessment yielded a vast amount of state-specific data on organic programs. OFRF’s methodology proved to be a firm basis on which to compare organic activity at 72 institutions. Credit was given to institutions having certified organic research land; having a student organic or “sustainable” farm; offering an organic major, minor, or certificate; providing organic Extension resources, among other factors. This report generated interest in students applying for organic programs in universities, that in one instance, it actually saved state level funding for the organic programs at the university.

    While we appreciate the concern of overlapping deliverables from other organizations, we have sustained our unique differentiation in that we are dedicated solely to organic farmers. This is a key piece to the overall food movement. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with others in the movement, specializing in different areas. Successful organizations recognize the power in joining forces with other organizations. Given the small size of the community, and the power of the industrial interests it opposes, forging such partnerships and alliances is critical to success.

    Today we are building a team of leaders who will address policy, research and education issues for organic farmers. We plan to introduce programs that will better address technical innovation, organic farmer regional networks, and model successful organic farming curriculum to those ag colleges seeking to meet the demand for new organic farmers. Backed by solid leadership in our farmer-driven board of directors, OFRF is poised to take that leap and fly.

  19. While I appreciate the desire to advance the “movement”, I bristle at the underlying assumption. (Or what appears to be.) The notion that movements are advanced primarily by a person or organization is questionable – think Arab spring or the abolition movement in the USA. Decentralized change has been more prominent in history than change via some one person or small group.

    Redundancy. As a management consultant many years ago, I heard time and again about the desire to eliminate redundancy. I came to the conclusion that most people were engineers and accountants, not biologists, in their views on the world. Redundancy should not be viewed in a negative light. It allows for more experimentation and increases robustness in a system. The focus on the _seeming_ waste ignores the value that redundancy delivers. The unwillingness to allow non-profits to die off is another matter.

    I’m pretty FAR removed from any national based organizations, but I can tell you from the perspective of a local Slow Food chapter, we don’t really expect, nor worry about a lack of support from the national organization. We’re pretty capable and connected with the local producers and eaters here in Madison. What we’d like more of is simply to be more connected with the (redundant) other Slow Food chapters (and other local food movement organizations) throughout this land.

    It seems to me the important data is the growth in CSAs, small farms, and artisan food producers (among many other ways of measuring the movement.)

    Sure there are many potential interventions that could take place at the national level (like abandoning the farm bill), but like most other movements, this one mostly is taking place at the local level, where it should be, and where (gradually) perceptions of the eaters can be influenced and changed.

  20. Both brilliant and very timely comments, Mr Fisher: I am convinced you are correct. I often wonder if we all know what we want the future to really look like. Many of us are very good at pointing out what is wrong and providing “single issue” solutions. Take agriculture, for example, which is my area of work. Agriculture is highly complex, with countless interactions and balances, and identifying potential solutions requires great care and understanding of the impacts that might occur. While we all recognize the challenges we face in feeding future generations sustainably, I’m afraid to say that some individuals and organizations who are promoting their single issue solutions are guilty of failing to fully consider what the system might look like after the changes they seek. There are too many people firing too many silver bullets in the agricultural arena, and the unintended consequences of some of these “quick fix” solutions could be just as horrific as the mess we now face. We must ensure the voices of change understand the vision and the complexities of the change. I am a small voice in the debate, but I passionately believe we can achieve real change if we focus on what that change will look like first. For example, all meat production or consumption isn’t bad and all vegetable production isn’t good, yet these facts frequently get lost in the polarized “eat meat vs. don’t eat meat” debate – and the end result is not a solution, but a writhing pile of opinion which inevitably leads to supporter confusion and apathy. We must all learn to propose solutions and demonstrate their long-term validity.

  21. Point well made Andy regarding decline of the food movement. It never was sustainable. There is only so much hyperbole one can heap upon the shaky foundation of Michael Pollan’s original human interest stories. Foodistas never understood any science but reveled in abusing it. That’s not sustainable. Before long someone always notices the scam. Pollan started this mess and he ended it when California’s prop 37 crashed and burned. There is no “food movement” worth it’s salt. That is Pollan’s own determination, supported by my own. Give it up campers. One final round of kumbaya, then we all go back home to the real world.

  22. I agree with Eric Holt-Giminez: there is no single local food movement and I hope there never will be.

    Rather than simply preaching to the choir, the most important leaders are people like Judith McGeary, the grass-fed beef producer who took on the NAIS when no one else would. She created Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), not for a job, but because there was no group willing to stand up to the USDA. The people we need to name our leaders are those who recognize focus on the most important issues impacting the growth of local healthy food. The greatest of the threats all involve the use of regulation to relegate us to a niche for the affluent.

    Our movement is increasingly dominated by non-profits where the lowest paid person makes more per hour than almost every farmer I know. Increasingly, these NGOs are creating mutual support groups with interlocking boards of directors. Frequently, their membership has little or no power while some are only controlled by self perpetuating boards and transparency exists too often in name only.

    So we end up with comments like those of Dr. Strong above, “We love the leadership coming from CSPI and Food Day 2013. Their strategies are science based. Their political actions have shown them to be untethered by BIGFOOD.”

    Give me a break! The self-styled science that CSPI published during the struggle over the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was almost entirely garbage. Its “authorities” had degrees in law not science. And EVERY outbreak was deemed to show the critical need for this particular form of very formal, very expensive risk management which has shown only limited efficacy. There was never any genuine analysis of what occurred in the largest outbreak. Was any attention given to the fact that approximately 40% of eggs recalled in the huge egg related salmonella outbreak were produced AFTER the new regs were in effect? Did the any of the media advocates for the FSMA point out that the new FDA regs did NOT include the key requirements that have reduced egg related salmonella cases in the UK and Denmark by over 95%?

    The important Food Day is World Food Day (begun in 1979), not CSPI’s 2011 attempt to jump on the local food wagon after unceasingly supporting Big Food’s opposition to the Tester amendment to the FSMA.

    But I digress.

    Most importantly, though discussions like this matter, they also tend to obscure what matters much more–the threat posed by the FDA’s rulemaking under the FSMA. We need to focus most of our resources on the proposed HARPC and Standards of Produce Safety rules. How big is the task? On 1/16/13, FDA filed 1273 pages of proposed rules and analyses that referenced 883 other publications. Many of references hundreds of pages in length and 350 of them weren’t published because they are privately copyrighted! And, after being leaned on by the OMB, it agreed to extend the comment period from the originally proposed 75 days to 120. FARFA, the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), Cornucopia and 274 other non-profits, food related businesses and farmers have requested a 120 day extension of that deadline.

    If anyone is interested in helping (or wants to discuss my claims above), please contact me at healthyfoodcoalition@gmail.com. If you are wondering who I am, simply Google “Harry Hamil.” If you include a phone number, I’ll be happy to call you.

  23. I am always torn trying to decide what is best done at the national level and what is best “grown” locally. I think that it’s always difficult to assess the point of critical mass, but perhaps like marriage equality, or any other civil rights issue, we need to create enough buy in at the grass roots level, and move forward thinking legislation in enough states that those models of success can be replicated. I appreciate that Slow Food is an international organization helping to fostering changes through offices around the world & through the US office…but that perhaps it’s strongest work has been done at the local level. We do need to take a more politically active role, but I believe in Carlo’ Petrini’s perspective on this being a joyful revolution. Monsanto, Wall Street investment firms betting on food futures, chemical toxins, environmental degradation, elections bought by corporations, and banks imploding are all part of the mounting frustrations of the Occupy Movement. We have food justice, workers rights, regional and cultural biodiversity, thriving new local economies, a healthy environment and flavorful, nutritious food to make a case. I don’t worry about a few growing pains in the food movement. I believe that we are beyond our youth, and we have been moving through our gangly awkward phase, but I also see us as a movement about to cross the threshold into it’s maturity. Personally, I believe that our joyful revolution is going to be the first movement to win over the hearts and minds of a populace worn and haggard by the corporate buy out of a democracy…and that discussion had to begin around a table, then at the farmers market and through the media, before it went on to our state houses and federal courthouses. Hopefully in our maturity, we remember to gather around the table, and to keep these movement anchored in Terra Madre, terra firma and community.

  24. Many thanks to Andy for starting this illuminating and provocative discussion, and the many others for their added perspectives! I find it interesting that there is consternation about who is “minding” the movement, with some suggesting we need more of the same old top-down models/leaders.

    As a few have already alluded to, if you look close enough, including within the various streams of not always neatly converging food systems work, a larger, I believe more participatory and hopeful social transformation is already underway. It is a movement away from control strategies, toward one based on networks of relationships, where insight and creativity are cultivated and allowed to rise up from below. Messy and at times dissonant, it is many conversations connected, incubating and linking new ideas and new structures which are dynamic, adaptive and resilient. The challenge is finding a way to do this which values diversity as well as coherence.

    For those like Bob who suggest we all need to roll up our sleeves and get to work where we are, I agree that is an important and critical part of the way forward. We must always be grounding our work, thoughts and emotions in the everyday realities of real people and real places. As someone whose work and experience straddles many different worlds related to the actual practice of growing and provisioning food as well as the theoretical, market and rights based constructs that emerge around that, I can say that each has its own strengths and blind spots, disconnected from larger insights and tools that the other might offer. If we are going to respond to current and looming challenges, more is needed to weave together our separate threads of work, within a larger, perhaps more humble community of learning. None of us can claim to have all the answers, and we all need to start from that point if we are to move forward.

    I believe we need to leverage all the tools and assets at our disposal so that no one is left behind, and the most equitable, sustainable and just solutions are found. Emerging collaborative wiki platforms like Farmhack offer potentially powerful way for supporting this, but history offers examples of many other types of social network structures from which we can draw, like the Grange Movement.

    Leveraging the power of networks is more like the earth, ecosystems and place based cultures which nurtured and shaped our species, and less like the “efficient” industrial monoculture which, through the narcissistic and ultimately oppressive construct of “externalities”, temporarily freed us from the constraints (and wisdom) of relationships, ultimately cannibalizing our communities. It is one based on increasingly interdependent systems where control is distributed, not concentrated in the hands of CEO’s. It is a belief in the power of WE, not misguided hope that a hero will come along to save the day. It is a manifestation of that primal urge for self-determination, part of the origin story of most food movements. In many ways what we are seeing are the natural growing pains of a learning and maturation process, from rebellious teen to self-actualized adult, and ultimately, toward a dissolution of the very concept of otherness.

    Steven Johnson has called this shift the rise of the “peer progressive” (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2012/10/08/comrades-join-the-peer-progressive-movement/). Drawing from social, biological and technological models, practical understanding is being gained on how healthy, resilient communities and systems can emerge from relative chaos and conditions characterized by ruthless competition, to higher functioning systems based on networks of reciprocity and collaboration. And that knowledge is being used to support adaptation and resilience in a variety of fascinating ways (see Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy’s book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back).

    One key function of networks is their ability to disrupt old, entrenched systems. But as Catherine Bracy points out (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/catherine-bracy/whats-progressive-about-peer-progressives_b_2861146.html), if we’re to adhere to the true principles of progressivism, we must make sure all have the ability to access and use the tools and fruits of that process. And we need policies and regulatory structures that allow peer networks to thrive and empower those most in need of them. Many regulations that propose to protect consumer or worker rights may ultimately squelch innovation and help maintain the status quo, and corporate hegemony. Success is most likely to come from hybrids of collaborative networks and institutions, like 311 phone services offered in many cities, solutions that link public contributions with institutional response (see http://reinventors.net/roundtables/reinvent-progressivism/). So the challenge is how to connect and coordinate in a coherent way, without the top heavy command and control from above, while drawing upon the resources and relative stability of more formalized institutions.

    In my own work, I’ve been exploring how we might apply these principles to support the emergence of healthy, just and sustainable agriculture and food systems, while helping the communities in which they are embedded become more self-determined. This includes the use of networking tools like wikis to connect food systems stakeholders with each other and support resources, including those of Land Grant institutions. Infrastructure that supports communication and exchange can also increase transparency, a necessary component of collective sense-making and progressive change.

    Of course there’s also a need for participatory process and social technologies like U Process (http://bit.ly/10Bf07W), which can help us transcend some of our tendencies toward categorizing the world in terms of us and them, growing the We. As many of you know, a key challenge in our work is how to support and encourage community member engagement in shaping the health and trajectory of their communities, not settling for the narrow exclusionary choices currently offered. Solving the wicked problems of the world, many of which food systems work finds itself centrally situated within, will require all hands on deck, perhaps working on separate parts of the problem but in coordination, toward the same basic goals of health, justice, and equity.

    Initiatives like Wealth Creation in Rural Communities (http://creatingruralwealth.org) offer one model for engaging communities in identifying, protecting and leveraging their existing assets for greater collective, equitable impact. Work around value chains, and value networks offer particular areas of promise for engaging stakeholders and their support networks around these goals.

    The Stanford Social Innovation Review has published several articles on collective impact that may be of interest to others. One of the things this work has revealed is the essential role collaborative platforms (http://leadershiplearning.org/system/files/Platforms for Collaboration.pdf) play, leading to adaptive innovations at the individual, organizational and community level.

    I believe these principles, supporting and connecting the power and creativity of food systems work from the bottom up, grounded in real communities, must be a part of any effort that seeks to connect the many into a stronger whole, while respecting and embracing the differences and strengths within. Rather than looking for one new unifying vision or central organization that we can rally around, the task at hand is figuring out how to lift up and loosely connect all our many points of lights already out there, a shimmering constellation with no center, but offering many pathways for good solutions to emerge. Wendell Berry might call this solving for pattern (http://www.hudson.org/files/documents/Berry_Solving_for_Pattern.pdf), finding what academics these days call “multi-functional” solutions, based on and supporting mutual dependence, while setting into motion further solutions. Might this be a pathway to Andy’s call for leadership that begets leadership?

  25. Andy, thank you for “Who’s Minding the Movement.” We need more reflection in this fast-paced and Balkanized age.
    The world around us is changing minute by minute. The cheap food consensus that mapped our world in the 1950s is now in tatters. No wonder elected officials are unable to cobble together a Farm Bill. Is this good? Is this terrible. Yes, probably both. However, I am troubled by the logic that we must assemble centralized political structures to combat centralized political structures.
    When I meet with leaders in local food communities, I see heavy lifting, creativity, and a sense of hope. Upon reading your analysis and the equally fascinating reader responses, I keep returning to how we should make it easier for organizations and individuals to share and to build more bridges to those outside of our movement.

  26. Thank you, Andy, for the thoughtful article. I am also impressed with the caliber of the comments.

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. When Prop 37, the GMO labeling initiative here in CA, was defeated, a lot of us speculated whether the presence of a unifying organization, a big player, would have pushed us over the edge to a win. I’ve been thinking about who could be the Sierra Club or the ACLU of the Good Food Movement. And I haven’t come up with any one good answer. Slow Food seems the closest, yet as you mention, a conflict of values arose, which in some ways illustrates Eric’s point that there may not be one single food movement.

    The food movement is as complex and nuanced as the food system. We’re all focused on our own little arena, and we need all of that work. And as Eric points out, we also need to acknowledge the role of privilege and power structures in creating many of the problems our movement(s) is facing. So do you get the buckets and start bailing out the water, or do you turn off the faucet? Well, until the faucet is turned off, you do both. And it seems like the commenters are surprisingly united in that view.

    I’m feeling this desire for a unified movement stirring in me, even as I read this article. Part of me is wishing we were all in the same room to discuss this in person. On the other hand, I am also realizing this is the nature of the new food movement (and of new social movements in general): the internet allows us to engage with each other in ways that were not possible when the environmental movement, civil rights movement, and other social movements were born. It’s rather amazing, actually. We can get tens of thousands of signatures in almost an instant! As soon as something happens, it’s all over Twitter! The food movement is new, and we are still learning the way. Maybe our power doesn’t come in the form of a large, unified force. Maybe it comes in the sheer volume of people from all over the place who care, who are willing to take a stand in their own way. The fact that we all eat is a point in our favor.

    My sense is that there is a lot of potential in this movement, and a lot of people who care. I do agree, though, that we aren’t fully tapping into our potential. I wish we had a few large, national organizations or coalitions that were household names to most Americans. I would like to see better systems of collaboration in place, so that we can be poised to take action on important opportunities when they come up. But with such a complex system, how will we ever decide which opportunities are most important? Who gets to say? I doubt one group could ever speak for everyone. But we could probably all agree on some baseline common values. If, like Eric says, there are actually multiple food movements, how many are they? And can they work together? And when should they work together, and when should they pursue their own vision of change?

    I wish I had more answers. All I can say is I really appreciate this engaging dialog. Thanks!