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To profit or not to profit on the food movement?

My friend Tree runs the Free Farm Stand, a weekly give-away of left over farmers’ market produce, plus “hecka-local” produce gleaned and grown in San Francisco. Working the line between charity and community building, the Free Farm Stand allows people to provide for each other without requiring proof-of-poverty–which for many hungry people can be stigmatizing. People line up at the stand every Sunday, get food, share food, interact, and enjoy.

Recently, Tree and I discussed the recently-passed legislation which officially legalized urban agriculture in the San Francisco. His project is primarily concerned with food access for low-income communities and creating collaborative, non-commercial projects. Tree does not see a benefit in gaining the legal right to sell city-grown food because he wants food to be free. How, Tree asked, is the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA–the main civic group pushing for the passage of the legislation) going to work for those who want to see volunteer-based, collective, and non-commodified forms of urban agriculture?

As mentioned in my previous post, the SFUAA worked on this new legislation out of a need expressed by one of our members, Little City Gardens, and an opportunity presented by members of city government. But my conversation with Tree has brought to my attention a rift forming in the San Francisco urban farming scene.

The other side of the rift is expressed by Iso Rabins, Founder of ForageSF and the Underground Farmers Market, who said in a recent review of his market:

“The feeling in the food community is that if you’re making money, it’s not something you’re passionate about,” Mr. Rabins said. “But if we actually want to change anything—dedicate our lives to it—we need to make money doing it.”

I have two reactions to this. My skeptical response is to ask what sort of “change” Rabins is talking about making here. The Underground Farmers Market, in my experience, is a bacchanalian celebration of homescale food preparation, not food system change. To be sure, eating homemade pickles might be a stepping away from the corporate food world. But, as a student of international food systems issues, I’ve never seen the political economy of food shift due to slightly expanded networks of boutique prepared foods. That the Underground Farmers Market has also been skirting the law by allowing producers to circumvent health and safety rules (In fact, the market was recently issued a cease-and-desist notice by the California Department of Public Health) does not mean that it is challenging, or “changing” the food system in a substantive way.

My less skeptical response is that, yes, Rabins is right about something. No matter how anti-capitalist your values might be, we still live in a capitalist society, with capitalist realities like rent (which here is San Francisco is a brutal reality indeed). Some people can choose to live a low-income lifestyle, and spend their free time volunteering to grow and give away organic food. But many people cannot.

Many marginalized communities are not as focused on creating a world free of capitalism as they are creating a way to survive and thrive within capitalism. A model that promotes what some call “social entrepreneurship” then, is more appropriate than one that asks that we all volunteer our time, in service of grander values and long-term goals. With the exception of Little City Gardens, no San Francisco farm has people who are paid to farm via sales of produce. Most rely on volunteers, plus grants, philanthropies, and government funds to pay any staffers who do exist.

When one considers one’s actions as activism, done for the purpose of creating social, political, or economic change, and not just personal fulfillment, it behooves one to have a “theory of change.” The “anti-capitalist” theory of change holds that solutions to market failures can’t come from the market (recalling Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”), and this is hard to square with a “green economy” theory of change, which believes that a capitalist economy can be reformed, through business, into one that is less destructive to people and the environment.

Though the anti-capitalist perspective can be seen as elitist (how can many people afford to live from this perspective?), a similar critique could be leveled against green economy proponents. After all, most of the current pathways sought to create a local economy from sustainably produced food lead to high-end restaurants and products (like those sold at the Underground Farmers Market). While there have been efforts to expand access to “good food”, like the Eat Real Market or Peoples Grocery sliding-scale “Grub Box”, these efforts are limited by two main problems: good food costs more to produce, and low income people must often prioritize other necessary expenses over food. Our options are thus framed between cheap foods accessible to all or small scale food products serving only the elite.

A social movement must have a vision of the world it wants to create. Anti-capitalists have this vision in spades, seeing a future economy based in developing and re-creating commons and not just markets, but have a rather unverified and (to many) an unconvincing path to get there. Green economy enthusiasts have a vision which seems more “realistic,” but strikes me as toothless in addressing longstanding legacies of economic inequality and the structural hurdles to sustainability engendered by endless-growth capitalism. With waves of greenwashing and the watering down of organic standards, green seems easily compromised.

Also, competition from cheap foods grown by still-existent industrial farming operations continually skew a green food economy, causing good food sources to seem expensive, even as good food farmers struggle to survive. So “opting out” of this global, corporate-controlled food system is not tantamount to challenging it.

There is another point that vexes both sides of this debate: How do social movements succeed? Is it more imperative that they are massive, unpaid, volunteer, collectively-organized, and values-driven? Or that they are organized (into hierarchical bureaucracies), paid, and supported financially by their work? Looking to the past, we see that both sides are at least part of the equation. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece about the inadequacies of social technologies like Twitter to create social change, pointing to the effectiveness of the Civil Rights movement, which was built by organizations with paid staff, but also through deep connections built between individual activists acting together, for free and for no other compensation than the hope for success.

A scary truth is that creating social change almost certainly requires sacrifice, if not of life and limb, then at least of time. To expect to get paid to create change is to deny that change has its own value that deserves effort outside of remuneration.

I hope that we can find “both/and” solutions to this potential rift among food and farming activists, but once again I feel like I find myself with more questions than answers. We who do consider ourselves as “activists” or part of a “movement” need to do a better job of defining what and who that movement is for. And we can’t allow ourselves to settle with self-satisfaction of “a job well done” without considering the true nature of the problem and the efficacy of our actions to solve them.

San Francisco native Antonio Roman-Alcalá has been irrationally dedicated to urban sustainability since he decided that there wasn't enough "land" for all dropouts to go "back to". Attempting to live both a well-examined life and a joyful one, he splits his time among such pursuits as: teaching farming and permaculture through Alemany Farm; playing drums, guitar and singing; writing about the sustainable food movement as a perpetually critical insider; promoting his film In Search of Good Food; organizing the urban farm movement via the SFUAA, and resisting–yet submitting to–the dominant paradigm of institutional learning environments.

Editorial Notes: Thanks to Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats and to Antonio for allowing up to repost this piece. -KS Photo credit: freefarmstand.org

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