Given all the defeats and set-backs this year due to powerful food industry lobbying, the good food movement should by now be collectively shouting: I am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
If you feel that way, I have two words of advice: get political.
I don’t mean to ignore the very real successes: increases in farmers markets, innovative and inspiring programs such as Food Corps, and an increasingly diverse food justice movement, just to name a few. But lately, at least when it comes to kids and junk food, we’ve been getting our butts kicked.
And it’s not just because corporations have more money to lobby, of course they do. It’s that too often, we’re not even in the game. Or, we tend to give up too easily. While I know many food justice advocates who understand this is a political fight over control of the food system, sadly I cannot say the same thing about some of my public health colleagues. Too many nonprofits, foundations, and professionals are playing it safe, afraid to take on the harder fights.
A politician from Maine I interviewed for my book was complaining to me about how food industry lobbyists were in his state capital every single day, while public health sent the occasional volunteer. His sage advice to us advocates: “You may be out-gunned, but you have to bring a gun.”
Moreover, many groups have shown that you don’t always even need a bigger gun. The small but impressive organization, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood proved that this summer when it won an important victory against Scholastic regarding its corporate-sponsored materials. How did they do it? A combination of smart campaigning and effective media. Not by playing nice.
Many public health folks I know are more comfortable with research and data than politics and lobbying. But if we are to make real progress, that has to change. Back in May, after a series of defeats, my colleague Nancy Huehnergarth wrote a great call-to-action. She noted how public health advocates and its funders are “very genteel” and that when industry lobbying beats us back, advocates just want more science, believing that the new data “will finally convince policymakers and the public to take action.” But it doesn’t work that way, as she explains:
The reality is that when going up against deep-pocketed, no-holds barred opponents like Big Food, Big Beverage and Big Agriculture, public health’s focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by money and messaging. If public health advocates don’t start rolling up their sleeves and using some of the same tactics used by industry, progress in this fight to create a safe, healthy, sustainable food system is going to move very slowly.
OK, now for some good news. We are already seeing positive signs that indeed, the food movement is getting more political. Recent defeats are helping to mobilize people even more, as folks realize the food industry is not playing nice, so we can’t either. Here then, are just a few signs of hope for 2012: