8 Ways to Move the Food Movement Forward in the Age of Trump | Civil Eats

8 Ways to Move the Food Movement Forward in the Age of Trump

A discussion of about uniting food activists in New York City with the larger Trump resistance offers lessons and tools to create positive change everywhere.

Fight for 15

In the four months since Trump took office, many of our fears have come true. Spiking deportation activities have scared farmworkers out of the fields and broken up families across the country. The threats to repeal the Affordable Care Act are closer to reality, putting farmers, rural communities, and tens of millions of others at risk of losing their health care. An executive order that claims to promote rural prosperity instead focuses on repealing ag regulations that protect farmworkers, farm communities, and food safety. And, across the board, Trump’s proposed budget would decimate funding to help make healthy, affordable food more available to everyone, especially those already at highest risk of food insecurity and diet-related diseases.

The only silver lining has been the loud, sustained resistance to these devastating policies. Even as this administration works to turn back the progress the food justice movement has made in the past 20 years, many are standing strong and pushing back.

In early May, the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Urban Food Policy Institute Forum hosted a group discussion exploring the ways food activists and their allies could strengthen the food movement in New York City and elsewhere over the next four years. Here are eight ways food movements can create change in ways that could benefit everyone.

1. Link food to other issues and campaigns.

Living wages, climate change, and immigrant rights are all food issues. By finding concrete ways for activists in each of these campaigns to work together to achieve common goals, we amplify the power of food and other movements and increase the chances of winning meaningful victories.

Take as an example the food workers involved with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Workers (RWDSU)’s recent fight for decent wages and safe working conditions. Their campaign also includes efforts to increase the availability of healthy food in their communities and to resist deportation policies—two struggles shared by many immigrant and community groups.

2. Build on local struggles.

National campaigns must connect to the local issues that already mobilize people. For example, low-income, immigrant, and Black and Latino communities have long had to fight for affordable housing, decent jobs, good schools, and adequate health care; leaders of activist campaigns should focus on these issues rather than expecting already-struggling people to take up new causes triggered by Trump’s latest executive order.

How can food activists link the changes President Trump is proposing in SNAP eligibility, school lunch policy, or deporting immigrants to existing local issues that are already mobilizing New York City and other communities? One solution is creating sanctuary cities, sanctuary schools, and sanctuary restaurants, places that can provide a somewhat safe space for individuals mobilizing local and national resistance to discriminatory policies.

3. Make moral arguments.

The 2016 campaign showed that facts alone do not win elections. Similarly, it’s not enough to show evidence that changes in policy can lead to increases in hunger and diabetes. We must also appeal to people’s values. Michelle Obama’s recent comments on the Trump administration’s efforts to degrade school food policies were a good example.

“Moms, think about this,” the former first lady told the participants at health conference in Washington. “I don’t care what state you live in, take me out of the equation. Like me, don’t like me, but think about why someone is Okay with your kids eating crap.”

In New York City, Bronx REACH and the Brooklyn Interfaith Advisory Group have shown the potential for bringing faith-based organizations into food work, where they constitute a moral voice for changing harmful food policies.

Food is intensely personal, but too often the food movement focuses on issues that seem distant from these intimate concerns, such as menu labels, soda taxes, or agricultural subsidies. By linking these important but less-emotional issues with deep personal concerns such as protecting our children’s health or leaving a better world for future generations, activists reconnect policy debates with moral concerns.

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Many food organizations are creating forums where this translation from the political to the personal can take place. Make the Road New York, for example, hosts community meetings every night where volunteers and activists cook and serve meals to 100 people and discuss politics, food, and strategy for their campaigns. In nearby New Jersey, the Syrian Supper Club raises money for Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq by bringing them together with groups of mostly Jewish residents to exchange ideas, food, and experiences.

4. Recognize racism, poverty, and inequality as underlying causes of all our food problems.

As I wrote with my colleagues in January, “Fighting for real food is part of the larger fight against inequality and racism, since poor diets disproportionately affect economically marginalized and politically disenfranchised populations.”

A food movement that focuses on improving access and equity for all will better mobilize the vast constituencies of food workers, recent immigrants, parents struggling to raise healthy children, and Black and Latino families living in neighborhoods where unhealthy food is the default.

A food movement that does not include these populations will not be able to muster the support to make the changes we want to see. Make the Road New York and Bronx REACH are showing that broad-based multi-issue community coalitions can link fights for food justice and a more equitable food system to campaigns for improved health care, labor rights, and immigration policies. One way to keep equity at the center of the conversation is to ensure that members of communities most adversely affected are called on to lead the way when these campaigns are being created.

5. Ask who benefits from the status quo.

Food policies that leave people hungry and put millions at risk of diet-related disease are intentional. They’re the product of a food system shaped by multinational food companies and their political supporters. By identifying who benefits from these policies, we deepen our analysis and identify targets for political action. Trump’s Cabinet—made up of executives and billionaires from the agricultural, energy, pharmaceutical, and financial industries—illustrates the President’s decision to select a fox to guard every henhouse.

In New York City, the #Not62 Campaign, organized by Bronx Health REACH, the Bronx Borough president, the NYC Department of Health, and others with the goal of moving the Bronx out of the lowest health ranking among New York 62 counties, asks, “Who benefits from keeping the Bronx unhealthy?” How much profit does Coca-Cola or PepsiCo earn in the Bronx by marketing sugary beverages, the product most associated with the borough’s high diabetes rates?

6. Focus on families and children.

Many food groups have found that protecting children’s health can be a powerful frame for bringing diverse constituencies together. For the last several years, the Lunch for Learning Campaign has worked to persuade the mayor and the New York City Council to make free and healthy school meals available to all public school students in the city, regardless of income. In 2015, the city agreed to make lunch free for all in middle schools; now they are demanding that the city expand the program to include elementary and high schools.

Free lunch enables children to learn better, decreases the stigma and bullying that low-income children experience, makes kids healthier by making nutritious food easier to get, and eases the burden for immigrant families fearful about accepting other food benefits.

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7. Keep our eyes on 2018 and 2020.

A clear focus on local issues should not prevent food activists from also thinking nationally. The 2018 election provides an opportunity to elect senators and representatives who can approve healthier food policies and better protect Americans against the cutbacks and de-regulation that Trump is proposing. The national food policy agenda developed by Plate of the Union can help to align the policy agendas of local food groups with the national issues politicians will be debating in 2018 and 2020. We must hold current politicians accountable and more rigorously vet those running to replace them.

8. Promote food democracy.

The Trump presidency threatens American democracy, challenges the rule of law, and offers unfair privileges and benefits to its wealthy supporters while cutting back basic support for the most vulnerable Americans. The food justice movement—despite its disparate constituencies—stands for the principle that people should have the right to shape their food environment. By finding new ways to preserve and expand our rights to protest, litigate, propose legislation, control our communities, and respect the Constitution, local food movements in New York City and beyond can help expand democracy throughout the United States.


Photo by Fibonacci Blue.

Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the City University of New York School of Public Health and directs the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, which provides evidence to inform equitable solutions to urban food problems. His most recent book is Lethal but Legal: Corporations, Consumption, and Protecting Public Health. Read more >

MARK BITTMAN is one of America’s beloved, best-known and most widely respected food writers. He covered food policy as an Opinion columnist for The New York Times for five years, produced "The Minimalist" column for 13 years, and has starred in several popular television series, including the Emmy-winning Years of Living Dangerously. He recently left the Times to devote his time to cookbooks, teaching at Berkeley, and working on food movement strategy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He also co-founded Purple Carrot, the national company that delivers weekly vegan meal kits. Bittman has authored more than a dozen cookbooks, including the best-selling How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything The Basics, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (all available as apps), How to Cook Everything Fast, Food Matters, and VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00. Read more >

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  1. Great points about strengthening the community momentum in the food movement! Can we add community funding for local food projects and enterprises? Communities need to be more aware of their economic power they have. Investments in small businesses used to be the domain of institutions and rich people. No surprise that minority and women founders of food businesses are systematically underfunded. Due to 2016 changes, the rest of us can now move our savings and IRAs from banks and Wall Street into ventures we care about. How about we keep voting with our money, to support local struggles and exercise food democracy?
  2. Brilliant writing, magnificent thinking, thank you for putting this into context in such a focused and intentional way! We will find that path forward. Movements for good are truly starting to collaborate community by community~ We can do this!
  3. I'm pro-sustainable farming, and pro-environment. And I happily voted for Trump as I saw no real benefit to the areas I was concerned about in the Obama presidency. I disagree with the article's premises in many areas, most especially that the Trump presidency threatens the rule of law, and would argue the contra.

    This is an extraordinarily partisan article, reinforcing the concept that government and taxpayer-funded government financial support is the solution to solving all the problems of sustainable farming and healthy food production--and it relates identity politics to food and nutrition--which is unfair. White southerners in Appalachia may have a worse diet than someone in the Bronx. Regardless of identity, education may help, and education that allows choice rather than mandates is congruent with the current administration.

    On "food democracy": We have a free-market economy. How many small sustainable farms struggle economically and fade after just a few years? Economic sustainability is first and foremost essential.

    Think about the challenges of the Food Safety Act and the heavy imposition of bureaucracy-- the creation of the Obama Administration--and the impact of that on small farm economics. Consider the challenges to small farmers working with value-added food businesses as they cope with the myriad of prohibitive regulation. And was/is farming's wholesale reliance on illegal workers for cheap labor really a good thing?

    Re the government's role, while farm policy is not an isolated issue, most innovations in farming sustainably have occurred without government help. Were the actions of Rodale or Steiner funded (in their inception) by government entities? No. Perhaps less bureaucracy will actually increase the viability and opportunity for sustainable farming. The prior administration's policies frequently discussed environmental causes but in actuality funded social initiatives while ignoring the very real problems of GMOs and pesticide use.

    All this is to say: Why don't we give the current administration a chance? Why not propose ideas that work to support sustainable farming within the framework of limited government? (I have a few in mind but that would make this comment even longer.) Just one small sustainable (and certified sustainable through a non-government venue) farmer's opinion.

    Addendum: I subscribed to Civil Eats because I care about quality, healthy food--but find it frustrating that food policy seems to be wholly tied in some perspective into partisan actions. Divorcing the partisanship may open the door to more of us who truly care about food quality, human health, and the environment.
    • Sue Thomas
      I totally agree with this response. Exuse me Trump and the rule of law? No one violated this more than the Obama administration denying immigration laws and open borders. I find food justice narrow. Where is the inclusion of ranchers in the West losing their livelihood through government policies or national monument designations where local food producers and ranchers ignored or kept out of the discussion.

      Another issue I have with Civil Eats is the term white privilege arrogant demeaning term like everyone with a white skin is privileged. I grew up in rural Iowa a single mother raised four children we all worked hard and paid for our education. White privilege? I don't see white privilege in rural Kentucky? The election was one by middle America the people who produce most of the food not the East and West coasts liberals. No matter what color or gender we all need to eat and some people out of choice only like meat and potatoes and like their own culture. The reason you are turned away because always using the term race.

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