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?