March 24, 2009
Aaron French’s commentary yesterday on the Civil Eat’s blog raises this issue of how prepared the sustainable food movement is to take its seat at the table in Washington. An important question given the receptivity the current administration has shown of late. It seems some more organizing is necessary. Case-in-point: a statement from Obama, as quoted by Michael Pollan at the Georgia Organics conference (where I was on Saturday), in reference to taking action on sustainable food:
While Obama’s comments are encouraging, they point to the need for stronger organization within the movement. Obama needs to see a strong, organized movement in order to take action and work with Congress to fix our food system. Obama isn’t the first to note that the movement doesn’t have a unified voice. Yet, the voice (unified or not) is certainly gaining in volume and drawing attention (see this part weekend’s Washington Post or New York Times for examples of this. Post: White House Garden, Marylanders growing their own food, Times: White House Garden, reprint of a Pollan op-ed, 1.5 page article French refers to, discussion of eating well versus organic, op-ed about the sustainablility of fisheries). Side note: The Obamafoodarama blog commented that most of the White House garden coverage was by traditionally white-skewing media–something to pay attention to if we want to grow our movement to reach all citizens.
Michael Pollan raised his concern about the movement’s preparedness during his keynote (what he called a “State of the Movement”) address at the Georgia Organics Conference this weekend. According to Pollan, people often all mean different things when they talk about food reform; yet, there is a virtue in having a big guiding idea and an organizing rubric. I couldn’t agree more.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is an excellent example of the kind of coalition that is needed from the sustainable food movement. NSAC’s member organizations all have specific areas of focus and are able to work on these important issues while also contributing to one focused voice for national policy debates. This singular voice is what enables meaningful policy change because it can be heard above the numerous asks of individual groups and can stand firmly in opposition to agribusinesses which have long been organized to speak as one on Capitol Hill.
Speaking with one voice will require serious debate to determine key priorities for the sustainable food movement. Champions of the movement will have to agree on a few major ones and move from there (feel free to start the discussion in the comments section here). There are already lots of good ideas out there. Pollan has suggested an over-arching concept for the movement. He calls it the “Sun Food Agenda” and outlines the idea in his letter to the “Farmer in Chief.” (Similar Pollan comments on changes needed in our food system can be heard in a Georgia Organics podcast.) Dan Imhoff is another person pushing for food system reform, and he outlined some ideas during his”Civic Agriculture” talk at the Georgia Organics conference (I’ve been told recordings of conference sessions will be available for sale through Georgia Organics). Imhoff was also involved in developing the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture. Parke Wilde of the U.S. Food Policy blog also had some advice about how the movement should proceed. And, these are just a few of the voices.
The sustainable food movement can be “both and”–it must continue at the local and regional level, and it also needs to call for (enforced) federal policy that repairs our food system. Working from the top and the bottom the movement can meet in the middle and widen the playing field that has been cinched closed by agribusiness.
The next Farm Bill is 3 years away. It’s time to formalize the dialogue and organize the movement.