December 19, 2017
“The food system is broken,” is a familiar refrain among US food activists. They cite the industrialization of our food supply as evidence of its unsustainability, and the nation’s stubbornly high rates of food insecurity and obesity as evidence of its injustice. The data tends to support the claims of disrepair and depreciation of what is touted as the most advanced food machine on earth. From dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and sprawling CAFOs, to 42 million Americans who are hungry or food insecure, to the nearly two-thirds of us who are obese or overweight, it’s easy to see why many regard our food system as a basket case rather than a bread basket.
Yet those of us who have labored long and hard to correct the food system’s litany of failures would do well to confront our own culpability. It’s not enough to simply be the avenging archangel of doom wielding our righteous sword in angry disapproval without also holding the mirror up to ourselves. In my newest book, Stand Together or Starve Alone: Unity and Chaos in the U.S. Food Movement, I examine the soaring growth and near-infinite diversification of America’s food movement over the past decades and ask, “Has the food system failed us, or have we failed the food system?”
As a participant of 45 years in the food movement, I felt the need to ask myself and tens of thousands of colleagues why we haven’t made more progress. Yes, we’ve organized over 8,500 farmers’ markets and 42,000 farm-to-school sites. More than 200 giant food banks have sprung forth that, along with at least $100 billion in annual federal food expenditures (e.g., SNAP), bolster the food security of tens of millions of Americans. And unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 20 years, your food consciousness has probably been raised by at least one of the 18,000 food blogs, 929 hunger book titles on Amazon, or the thousands of food movies, listservs, magazine articles, and conferences.
Indeed, under the food movement’s nurturing gaze, a thousand food projects have bloomed, each with their own mission, funding streams, conferences, language, national associations, and in some cases, their own federal program. But what we haven’t done is learn how to navigate our way through this many-splendored labyrinth toward a common vision – we haven’t learned how to collaborate. In other words, designing and implementing a collective impact framework that can be applied at the local, state, and national levels is imperative to finding effective resolutions to our biggest food system challenges.
One example I use is the rise and fall of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC). Founded in the mid-1990s as a “big tent” organization to work for the bourgeoning number of community food security stakeholders, CFSC brought together local food, anti-hunger, community development, and social justice. At its peak in 2011, CFSC was able to attract nearly 1,200 people to its annual conference, work on several federal food policy initiatives, and support the development of new food system elements including food policy councils, urban agriculture, and farm to school.
But the CFSC tent collapsed in 2012 when the board shuttered its doors. Ask a hundred people why and you’ll get a hundred different answers. But as one who was there at the beginning, the end, and most of the time in between, I posit that the “state of the art” of coalition building – at CFSC and throughout the food movement – was insufficient to accommodate the continual pressure of emerging interests. In the case of CFSC, people of color were not satisfied with the coalition’s progress in addressing racial justice issues, and sub-movements like farm to school wanted to create their own organizational and issue identities. The inability to accommodate everyone’s needs led to conflicts that could not be resolved without splintering the coalition.
Stand Together or Starve Alone cites numerous examples of people and groups that are starting to do the hard work of standing together. More than 250 food policy councils are organizing food system stakeholders from across their communities; both the Minnesota and Michigan food planning and food charter initiatives have defined their respective state goals and engaged thousands of participants; the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has organized one of the most effective membership-based national food policy organizations in the nation. Beyond these models I offer tips on how we can strengthen our organizational, management, and communication muscles to produce better meetings, plans, and collective action.
I’m convinced that building effective collaborations is the hardest work that the food movement must do, but that work is necessary to stem the tide of a failing food system.