Food Justice – Changing ‘there’ by changing here

In Articles on 15 August 2011 at 5:30 pm

by Matthew Steele

I remember as an undergrad reading Ivan Illich’s 1968 speech to American students working in Mexico and having the once-clear vision of my life’s path confused. Illich’s rather simple, passionate, and poignant criticism has stayed in the back of my consciousness ever since. He dismissed the aid efforts the students were embarking on and went further to explain that their efforts would likely have a destructive impact in their host Latin American countries.

He found the students to be ambassadors for the American way of life, positing values that would ultimately serve more to destroy their host countries instead of aid them. He further remarked that working in an American ghetto as an alternative for these students could be equally destructive, but at least there community members would have the ability to vocalize or organize a rejection of student’s efforts. I think such critiques are increasingly relevant to the world of food, especially in the potential advent of “Food Corps”, a food-focused AmeriCorps program.

In the world of food activism, and arguably in every context, a person must identify the systems of power in place in the worlds they traverse to appropriately justify what role they take in changing them. Many of my well-intended contemporaries in the food movement fail to focus their efforts where they have the most power to apply a constructive and systemic critique. It is all too common for food activists to live in a community distinctly different from the one they are serving; their work and personal lives held separate “to maintain their sanity.” Though complete assimilation will likely never be possible, nor perhaps ideal, many of these community activists fail to even marginally immerse themselves in the community they are advocating for or organizing among. While focused on serving “other” communities, many food organizers and advocates in turn ignore the food system of the privileged community in which they choose to inhabit, thus obscuring the linkages between the choices made in the spaces of privilege and the spaces that lack privilege. Undergraduate student activists working on community projects are especially prone to exist in this outsider dynamic, as they frequently have superficial, short, and often uninformed interactions, and they live, if not physically then at least mentally, in disconnected bastions of privilege at their university.

These problems surface most explicitly in the efforts of current food justice advocates abroad who are focused on holding back unsustainable industrialization from reaching the agricultural sectors of Latin American and African countries. The American food system is the model being followed and these advocates’ efforts abroad are opportunities lost to change the unsustainable and unethical system perpetuated in the U.S. The well-intentioned activists utilize their influence as Americans, but in so doing they inadvertently reinforce the problems they are hoping to solve.  They are in part legitimizing the means by which American power was attained, specifically rapid industrialization and economic imperialism.

Many food justice advocates are brought into their work by an emotional reaction to the tragic hunger that exists in the world, be it in the context of the U.S.’s inner cities or global poverty. Indeed, hunger and emergency food efforts have been the recipients of the bulk of funding in the growing food movement over the last 40 years, a time period that simultaneously saw an expansion of hunger and food-related problems. Focusing on the one issue of food access has only enabled the persistence of the true underlying causes of our unjust food system. Food access, though important, cannot be the focus of efforts. It is more important to restructure the food system in a way that empowers a community to have control in their food system thereby ensuring their continued access.

The radical conceptions of food sovereignty movements and movements such as Via Campesina (an international peasant movement for food sovereignty) were born out of this realization. To advocate for food sovereignty is to advocate for a redistribution of power within the food system so that communities have the ability and control to feed themselves with healthy and quality food.

Despite the increasing popularity of the term “food sovereignty”, funds are still doled out to organizations whose efforts only stand to superficially address food access issues. Often the funders are businesses like Walmart, which have been the major culprits in restructuring the food system and increasing income and health disparities. Philanthropic funds given to emergency food service providers satisfy a paternalistic need to help poor and starving people through direct forms of assistance. These funds are directed to those whose faces and places have become synonymous with need. However, the underlying causes of the need are ignored. Though humanitarian concerns should be addressed in tandem, the focus of available resources should be on building food security and addressing systemic issues at work causing mass hunger.

CoFed: A Systemic Approach

The idea of CoFed was built out of the growing relationships between student food cooperative (co-op) start-ups and is especially linked to the success of the Berkeley Student Food Collective in the winter of 2009-2010. The idea was to create an incubating structure to support students interested in creating food co-ops in their campus food system as well as to address some of the endemic problems, such as high turnover, institutional capacity, and memory, many of these cooperative projects have historically faced.

Student food co-ops integrate into the landscape of the university and operate as beacons for education and hubs for sustainability and activism among students. Student food co-ops as thriving money-making businesses can be a source of direct power for students aiming to transform their campus food systems. Co-ops can have control over the sourcing, the price of food for students, and revenue reinvestment. In addition, co-ops create opportunities for people to gain access to quality food through volunteering and wages. These co-ops educate and expose generations of students to food system critiques and give students a solid way to build food sovereignty. They also provide a means to create a peer-facilitated cultural shift in student communities. Through involvement in food co-ops, student organizers internalize food justice and food sustainability in their daily lives and often continue to build food sovereignty in the communities they join following graduation.

The creation and success of student-run food cooperatives, and the often-accompanying campus farms, serve to legitimize community efforts of a similar nature. The systemic efforts on behalf of student food co-op organizers have the potential to transform their campuses into more ideal models for development within a conducive intellectual environment where arguments around food sovereignty can especially gain traction. We hope that a national co-op organizing effort—in tandem with efforts to start campus gardens and farmers’ markets—can build momentum for food sovereignty on campuses throughout the country. In the process, we seek to increase the influence of food sovereignty as a development model in broader community development patterns both at the local, city, national, and international scale.

Experiential Learning

Ivan Illich was a staunch advocate of experiential learning. Indeed, one of his most important intellectual contributions was a book arguing for more self-directed, project-based learning, Deschooling Society. It is because of my support for such kinds of learning that I find it important to determine where such work is appropriate. While recognizing how much students actually gain from experiential learning, it is important to note that such learning is not gained at the expense of the communities being “helped”. As the students at the conference Illich was speaking at noted, students often have much more to learn from their host communities than the reverse.

Students in conventional universities only have a short period of time to get “credit” for project-based learning in a community. Given the time constraints of their semester/quarter system and institutional support for a year, or at most, four years, the community food projects in which students tend to partake struggle to be genuinely community-based and sustainable, precursors which are needed for any effort toward food sovereignty. Students also often lack the knowledge and the sensitivity to ensure their work is significant, and gaining such knowledge and sensitivity should not come at the expense of the community they are hoping to serve.

Regardless of their background, students and academics often come from a place of privilege and power inherited through their explicit association with an academic institution and the intellectual legitimacy it represents. The systems in place that maintain a university’s legitimacy provide students the privilege to bring service to a community and be accepted by the same. Indirectly, the systems that enable one’s power are condoned in the use of that power. A student is an ambassador for all of the values substantiated in the process that enabled the imparting of the privilege they wield. In the context of food systems work, the privilege a student wields is in part made possible by the exploitation of farm workers and by the unsustainable usage of fossil fuels in an industrialized and global agricultural system far removed from their daily life. It is important for all students to be cognizant that they are enabled to focus on their school projects because of a pattern of development that thrives on existing disparities in the world.

The conclusions drawn from the Illich’s paternalist critique should not be that one should throw up one’s hands and embrace blind apathy. Rather, it means one should take radical and sometimes more difficult steps to systemically change the worlds they do inhabit. For students focused on food, the most elemental of our systems, the focus should be their own campus food systems.

Sweeping policy changes such as those made to campus food dining halls or restaurants and the food service provider, often widely touted and spearheaded by administration, are rarely systemic, not sustained over time, and largely superficial even if directly and quantitatively significant in the short run. Such policy changes to campus food systems may have the overall impact and image of greening a campus, but such efforts need not involve students, and indeed could occur and be reversed without the broader student body ever noticing. The policies changed are often preliminary and enable the university or a sub-contracted food service provider to put on a green face while ultimately making few changes significant in the long-term.

The example of this I always provide is: the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle touts the sustainability of its food service. The crux of their claim to being “green” lies in the university’s switch from disposable to compostable eating utensils and plates in all of their restaurants and dining halls. They were especially proud of their ability to pressure Coca-Cola to make a compostable cup for the first time. While it is difficult enough to fathom Coca-Cola as sustainable in any form due to its egregious human rights violations in Colombia, its abysmal environmental track record in India, or its contribution to the obesity epidemic in this country, the compostable plates and utensils they put into use are actually less sustainable than their reusable counterparts that were once employed 25 years or so prior. This is because less resources are consumed through washing and the production of such serviceware. In making its change to compostable utensils and plates, the UW housing and food service perpetuates a fast food model.

Student food co-ops, in sharp contrast to these university-wide policies, provide a democratic cornerstone on which to build food sovereignty and channel power into students’ hands. In a co-op, students wield the power to make decisions about the quality, sustainability, and cost of their food. The potential power these food co-ops wield pose a threat to existing power structures and each successful co-op generally must engage in a battle with the existing monopolistic food service provider, be that an in-house operation or a sub-contracted corporate food service provider like Aramark and Sodex. Food co-op efforts on campuses, after being established, go on to spearhead the implementation of important systemic changes in the broader food system and increased democracy.

From my experience, though sweeping political changes can happen, ideally, in tandem with the creation of food co-ops, if it occurs before hand, it can paradoxically become difficult to build support for a food co-op. Superficial green policy changes become status quo and legitimatize a claim to being “sustainable,” which masks the lack of any systemic changes or plans for further changes. Once a system or institution has been legitimatized by such green policy lip service, food sovereignty by paths such as food co-ops is no longer a strong consideration. In contrast, the initiation of a food co-op on campus stirs policy changes by placing students into a prominent and empowered place in the food system that allows students to further push the status quo consistently into the future.

Food Justice Work

Food Justice work cannot narrowly be conceived of as helping poor people obtain access to food. We need to consider the broader systemic effects of each choice made in our lives and how we contribute to the systems of oppression that exacerbate health disparities and food access issues in our own communities. In the context of economic oppression, the food choices of those living in poverty are reflections of the norms substantiated in popular culture. To use the analogy of Paulo Freire, the oppressed internalize a love for their oppressor. The norms established by privileged individuals disproportionately influence norms that go on to influence popular culture on the aggregate. In other words, the choices of the poor are structurally framed through the influence and power wielded by the rich.

Regardless of where in the food system one focuses one’s efforts, there are injustices present throughout the system. The most blatant exploitation in the food system—that of the farm workers—can be addressed if the power and responsibility of sourcing is put into the hands of consumers. Consumers can then make decisions in collective dialogue with others, which creates the space for considerations of ethics and social values. This is precisely the goal of the student food co-ops I work with.

The influence of retail is powerful, and as such it is an important medium through which sovereignty can be built. As Raj Patal puts it in Stuffed and Starved (2007):

“The highest temple of the modern food system is the supermarket. The supermarket chain is an empire of logistics, one that governs and regulates the smaller fiefdoms within the food industry, such as the commission agent’s rule over the grower, or the distributor’s clutch on the agent. Through its decisions, and through its close supervision of each step in a product chain, supermarket-buying desks can fire the poorest farm workers in South Africa, flip the fates of coffee growers in Guatemala or tweak the output of paddy terraces in Thailand.”

Walmart, while clearly a powerful player in the food system, gained its power through unethical, unsustainable, and highly profitable, exploitive business practices. The use of its power in addressing food insecurity is enabling of Walmart’s business model both directly, by shielding the company from criticism, and indirectly by legitimizing that power among those being aided. Up until 2000, and more starkly in 2007, the Waltons were notorious for their lack of charity and the small size of the gifts they did give out. The company is making these superficial changes largely in response to the growing criticism in response to their mammoth presence in the food system, growing beyond 40% of all national food sales.

Retail power can be taken from corporate moguls and, through co-ops, be put into the hands of community members. This can happen in a wealthy neighborhood far easier than it can happen in a low-income neighborhood, and happening in the former will help make it possible in the latter. Efforts in one community can help build solidarity for community based efforts toward food sovereignty in others. Community food co-ops in low-income neighborhoods notoriously fail for a myriad of reasons including but not limited to issues surrounding poverty, such as a lack of human capital, a lack of community buy-in, and a lack of access to capital and credit. A report by UW (Madison) Center for Cooperatives provides some examples of failed cooperatives in low-income communities but identifies that community food co-ops that exist on the periphery between low-income and upper-income communities have been able to be very successful.

I understand the potential of a university to be an “anchor institution” for a local low-income community. An anchor institution, as discussed in the development field, utilizes its institutional power to catalyze surrounding development. Indeed, the local university, the University of Pennsylvania, enables me to work among a low-income community in North Philadelphia. But even in my position as a food ethnographer, I find myself not entirely immersed in the local community. A complete immersion requires sacrifices only some of the most privileged people could enjoy. To radically change the fate of an oppressed community, one needs to share its fate. For young, educated, but poor community organizers, time spent developing relations and immersing themselves in a world of chronically unemployed individuals is time that could otherwise be spent among those who could connect them with opportunities. Such a situation creates contentious incentives especially for those who are doing community food organizing as an employment strategy while unemployed, as is largely the case in Philadelphia.

I see few genuine, complete immersions by young food justice advocates in the area that I live. Indeed, the food justice world mainly consists of hyper-educated food activists who primarily associate with each other. At some level, I think people can immerse themselves sufficiently among a community to build truly community-based projects. However, such organizers need to accept that they will always be balancing a tension between what privileges they can sacrifice against the degree of their community immersion. For some, immersion is not even possible as the sacrifices are too difficult or impossible for them to make.

Many of the urban farmers I work with cannot or are unwilling to adapt their appearances to fit the community being served, because so much of their identity, and by extension motivation, is wrapped up in their radical appearances. They expect and hope to be “accepted,” and at some level this happens. Though the culture and values they are perpetuating may be admirable, they walk as aliens among the people they are working with, unable to connect with important figures who hold cultural influence over the neighborhood. As a result, they are unable to build bridges to create genuinely community-based food projects. In my neighborhood, the cultural icons are not the existing community organizers, but rather the hustlers of the neighborhood, the dealers, the players, the graffiti artists, and the rap artists. Those in the age group between 16 and 24 are often the most important cultural figures in the neighborhood and yet the most absent in community food projects.

Building a highly successful community-based grocer is possible, as demonstrated by People’s Grocery in West Oakland. Much of its ability to integrate into the surrounding community was due to the efforts of Nikki Henderson. Though an outsider, Henderson lived in, immersed herself in, and built community among the communities of color in West Oakland. Her partner is an equally engaged and respected community organizer involved withOakland’s hip hop scene.  The project also benefited from its proximity to San Francisco, a city of privilege spearheading food sovereignty.

In neighborhoods like Philadelphia, the food co-ops that exist have been invisible. Of the two co-ops, Mariposa has been for members only, though is about to open to the public. Weaver’s Way was closed to the public as well up until a few years ago. While the latter is now open, it is tucked away on the outskirts of the city near the suburbs. For now, those living in low-income communities consider the notion of convenient, affordable, healthy and quality food access only in association with the suburban development model and by way of a corporation like Walmart. Ironically the migration process of “getting out” to the suburbs to enjoy these benefits will only continue to disintegrate the local community, making it ever more unlikely that things will change for the better.

I hope the reader takes from this article a clearer idea of where to focus their passions. One wields the most power in a descending concentric sphere of influence in relation to one’s identities and respective communities. Though I focused on students in this article, the arguments can be extrapolated. One must analyze where best to focus their efforts, taking into account what role they could occupy in the potential communities they aspire to serve. Efforts placed in one potential sphere of the food system are absent in other. Ultimately, efforts to reform the part of the food system in which we are active participants will have more impact in changing broader systems and indirectly address the disparities that spur a lack of access. Though hunger and other problems associated with food access are important issues to address, these issues are rooted in the disparities and poverty spawned from systemic and historical injustices that have as much to do with privileged contexts as they do spaces plagued with hunger.

For students, student food cooperatives can build food sovereignty into the food system of the institutions that provide them their privilege. Having food co-ops on universities throughout the country will indirectly influence development patterns by normalizing and legitimizing food sovereignty and food co-ops. Working in your own communities starting food sovereignty projects is just as important if not more important than working in “other” communities.

Matthew Steele works part-time as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, incubating food cooperative start-ups at universities and consulting with existing cooperatives. He also works part-time as a food ethnographer through the University of Pennsylvania, studying and documenting the local food movement, specifically market creation in areas of low access. Matt facilitated the creation of the University of Washington Student Food Cooperative (UWSFC) before moving to Philadelphia to focus on community development in North Philadelphia in conjunction with the work of his partner, Fernando Montero, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Upcoming CoFED Event

Mid-Atlantic CoFED convergence
For students engaged in or hoping to start a student food co-op
September 30 to October 2
@ The Village of Arts and Humanities, Philadelphia
For more information, visit

  1. I just said that just a few days in the past!!!

  2. This article hit on a lot of important points in addressing ethical food sovereignty movements. The issue of being a privileged food justice advocate hits close to home for me. Did you take any of this from current anthropological theory? You might be interested in current trends within the Anthropology field in addressing this issue – anthropology has been making the transition from a culturally imperialistic methodology towards a more nuanced view of how privilege affects the cultural impacts of “outsider” anthropologists. The most helpful advice I ever got for working within a community where I was considered an “outsider” was: make yourself available and ask if your help is needed and in what way. Educated/connected/privileged outsiders can serve as important conduits to resources and influence for disenfranchised communities, but these communities need to be able to control how the outside influence is changing their community.

    How are you feeling about your work in philly? I know you touched on it in the article…have you had any difficult interactions based on your background or identity?

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