Act: Inspiration

Halfway Thoughts on Today’s Food Movements

March 15, 2018

Some people wonder if youthful food movements spreading through cities across the Global North are half-full, half-empty — or maybe even half-baked.

The timing for such questioning is perfect. Once a new trend gets over its first flush, people start to judge it as a movement that will be around for a while. That’s when tough questions crop up.

The food fad/trend-turned-movement is in the midst of such questioning right now.

It’s an important learning opportunity — the social movement equivalent of teething.

We’re often too easily comforted by complacent sayings about how progress is made in social movement history. An old saying, sometimes wrongly attributed to Gandhi, has it that the path to success goes like this: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you….Then they debate you. Then you win.”

Sounds like a pretty smooth and easy ride.

Not so! From the inside of social movements, the order goes more like this: First, we’re exhilarated by the power of the new idea and the bounce it gets from friends and enemies. Then we find out that getting beyond our tiny circle of support is harder than we thought. Then people point out our mistakes. Then we rethink, regroup and set a course of action that leads to debate and win.

Food movements are at the halfway — hopefully half-full — point of this narrative arc.

A number of academic heavies have criticized food movement leaders for their inattention to food system policy, politics and government, and their elitist neglect of disadvantaged people who suffer most from food industry wrongs.


It’s time food movements take a half-time break for rest, reflection and renewal.

I learned a lot from two informed, positive and well-written contributions to the discussion. One is an academic article by Lesli Hoey and Allison Sponseller. The other is Mark Winne’s latest book, based on his 47 years as an organizer working on food issues. I will present their arguments, and then offer some of my own.

To disclose any bias, I should say I know two of the three writers quite well.

I met Lesli about ten years when she invited me to speak at Cornell, where she got her Ph D in city planning. Two years ago, she invited me to do a speaking tour around Michigan University in Ann Arbor, where she’s a popular professor. She later joined me and our family and friends on a canoe trip through the wilderness of northern Ontario.

I met Mark about 15 years ago when we were both on the board of the US-based Community Food Security Coalition. Mark actually coined the term community food security, which I consider a brilliant stroke. I’ve also watched Mark work the legislative halls in Washington, where he won respect for his ability to put a positive spin on tough issues. His grey hair helped, but he also knew how to do the work.

I’ve agreed and disagreed with both of them over many years and circumstances. You’ll see both agreement and disagreement in what follows. I would say I’m partial to them as people of great fun and values, but as tough on their arguments as they will be on mine.


Hoey and Sponseller review a sample of critical interpretations by a number of academics who scold food organizations and the “alternative food movement” for their superficiality.

These critics believe food issues have been taken over by elite-dominated “new social movements.” Unlike old social movements which emphasized the need for government programs to address structural obstacles to equality, too many food organizations believe small group actions and individual lifestyle choices can solve deep-seated problems, the critics say.

Hoey and Sponseller test the validity of such harsh interpretations by interviewing 27 food movement leaders in Michigan — a hotbed of imaginative and dynamic grassroots activism and actionism (a scene which I have described elsewhere).

It turns out that the academic critics are guilty of theorizing first and asking questions later. The in-depth interviews with Michigan leaders don’t bear out the accusations. In the delicate phrasing of Hoey and Sponseller, “our findings complicate the established academic narratives.” (Note to self: there are polite ways like this to describe armchair critics who just make stuff up out of a cocked hat, without checking in with people in the trenches.)

Hoey and Sponseller found that Michigan leaders had a deep understanding and anger about the structural barriers people face when they try to feed their families well on limited incomes and scarce free time.

But food leaders also have to cope with long lineups of people in dire circumstances, and short lineups of people bringing donations and time. Though most food leaders know full well that food system barriers are the problem, they have no access to funding needed to run meaningful campaigns on structural issues. So they devote themselves to solving desperate food problems with the resources at hand.

Hoey and Sponseller sympathize with one person they interviewed: “It’s hard to be strategic when your hair is on fire.”

The complex reality Hoey and Sponseller discovered is a warning against prejudging motivations by reading backwards from appearances. Just because people aren’t doing something doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to do something. Appearances can be deceiving, in food movements and elsewhere.


Hoey and Sponseller offer a way of adding two half-truths to make one full truth. They suggest there is a “middle ground.” It lies equal distance between full-on campaigns for restructured food systems, and flat-out dedication to dealing with everyday crises.

This recognizes that food is not a scene where polar or binary opposites belong. As insisted by one of India’s outstanding food leaders, Vandana Shiva, “food is a movement of ands, not buts.”

Hoey and Sponseller conclude with a call to increase the organizational and political capacity of on-the-ground organizations. If they met more often and worked together more closely, they could squeeze out some modest resources to say what’s needed to say about long-lasting, policy-based solutions.

Though Winne doesn’t use the middle ground phrase, it’s fair to say he also favors finding the sweet spot in the political space Hey and Sponseller propose.

Winne wrote his book with the purpose of warning food activists that they might starve alone in the near future if they don’t start standing together now. But he also wrestles with finding a middle ground that allows activists to go about the immediate project they’re dedicated to while finding a place where all good food advocates can come together in the name of “collective impact.” (Ironically, Hoey is quite harsh in her reading of that term, which has become quite commonplace in philanthropic and social advocacy circles.)

I have summarized Winne’s arguments and made my case that his is a milestone book here. As can be expected from a veteran of 47 years of on-the-ground leadership, his book is filled with practical and workable suggestions of ways to deal with “the causes of causes” behind food problems.

For ideas on why and how to occupy this middle ground, I can’t do better than recommend that people read the entirety of these contributions themselves.


During this critical halftime break, I’d like to offer some thoughts on what makes the food movement different from other movements facing the same dilemmas food movements face — how to find resources to deal with problems that have to be solved soon while facing real everyday problems that have to be solved today.

First, we need a point of perspective. We must specify what perch we’re looking down from when we evaluate successes and failures of food movements.

If the perch is the 2016 election of Donald Trump, for example, then we can’t help but see the wreckage from failing to bringing together members of disadvantaged groups who should be side by side — women, racialized minorities, young people, gay and trans people, farmers, and older people who have been cast aside. Food movements were part of this monumental failure.

If the perch is March, 2018, one week before this newsletter came out, the perch is the collapse of the all-powerful lobbying arm for global junkfood monopolies. The Humpty Dumpty of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and all its horses and men, couldn’t put the junkfood giants together to take a hard line on each and every claim made by progressive food organizations. Seen from here, the food movement is a giant killer!

Over a very short period of time, poorly-resourced food movements have both successes and failures to show for their efforts. So we should find a middle ground in our evaluations.


Reasonable criticism has to start with what the food movement is — not what it isn’t.

Otherwise, we’re into the logic of “if only” — -“my mother would be a car if only she had four wheels and a motor.” To argue that the food movement should be united around protest against faulty food system structures isn’t much different than asking my mom to wear four wheels and a motor so she can be what she can theoretically be.

Like most real movements, food movements are movements-in-becoming. People join for various reasons — like some people joined the anti-war movement to avoid getting drafted and killed, some join a union because they want more money for themselves, and so on. The test is: what happens over a series of experiences, and what happens to gradually transition people forward.

I believe we need to acknowledge and honor the uniquely forceful spirit that brings people to food movements — a spirit once shared by early labor, women’s and equality movements, before they accommodated to dominant institutions.

Food movements are often referred to as empowering and transformative. They have an appealing existential quality that attracts many people who are not often attracted to traditional protest-based social movements.

This existential quality speaks to the deep fundamentals of the human condition — below the surface level of issues dealt with by mainstream politics or established health, labor, equality, civil rights and environmental organizations.

One way to name this existential quality is to describe food organizations as movements of liberation, not resistance.

Unlike resistance movements, food movements are not defined relative to their opposites.

Unions are a classic case of resistance movements. The reality of their situation is summed up in well-worn phrase: “every company gets the union it deserves.” Unions of civil servants, truckers, construction workers and mass production industries vary according to their employers. Likewise, advocacy organizations dominated by legalistic understandings respond to the legalistic terrain they fight in. Advocacy organizations centered around diseases and environmental ills respond to the evidence claims of their opposite numbers.

Food movements, by contrast, have not yet settled on their common enemy — unless it be, as the famous cartoon had it, that “we have met the enemy, and it is us.”

Indeed, food movements, by and large, are not protest movements. They are solutionary!

People identify with food movements because they want to solve a problem — either by shopping at a farmers market, or eating in a certain way, or managing their food scraps in a certain way.

They start by asking what they can do as individuals. That’s how 99.9 per cent of people in the Global North look at food issues. Almost everyone sees food as an individual and personal, not a political or social matter. If food movements are at all representative of the population, all their members start their food movement activity believing that, and they believe that for quite some time after. This idea has been drummed into them in a thousand ways over thousands of time.

That’s why food systems, food system, food structure, food movements and food movement are nowhere in everyday speech. “There isn’t enough data for #foodmovement as of now,” Hashtagify just advised me.

Accepting food movements for what they are lays the basis for a politics of intervention, not criticism. I personally celebrate the recognition that there is personal agency and power in food. We can shop in certain ways. We can eat certain foods. We can be responsible with our waste. But we can also do more, and more effectively, when we also influence policy. The function of interventionist food leaders is to build bridges and make them inviting.

My personal belief is that the existentialism in food movements is best understood as the antidote to the culture that has been dominant since World War 11 and the rise of the modern food system — the materialistic, mechanistic, productionist, standardized, synthetic, instrumental, human-centered and amoral culture of Modernism. (Tell me what you really think about it, Wayne!! Hey, this may sound strident, but I successfully fought the urge to say donaldistic!)

I try to spell out the implementation of that culture in both editions of my book, The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food. As I see it, Modernism has dominated the conscious and unconscious thinking of most non-Indigenous peoples across the Global North since 1945. Modernist assumptions were shared across the political spectrum from the far right to the far left, and have survived every trend, including neo-liberalism, virtually intact.

On almost every issue, the spirit behind food movements is contrary to, at odds with, and disruptive of Modernism. There are few avenues of engagement between food movements and Modernist-inspired institutions. Consequently, food movements have not yet been captured by Modernist institutions, be they corporate or political.

For example, few leading figures in food movements are activists — people who protest established government and corporate practices, and demand they be corrected. By contrast, leaders of food movements are often what I call (after one of my mentors, Michal Sacco of ChocoSol) actionists. The actionist approach of food movements is to be, or to create, the change they want to see.

Social enterprises are one vehicle for this. Farmers markets are another. B-corps are another. Community, allotment and backyard gardens are another. Food policy councils are another.

Watering holes are another. Food movements are to be found drinking craft beer, eating around food trucks, picking up food boxes at a CSA, hanging out in restaurants, keying in their computers at independent coffee shops, baking bread at a community oven. Their meetings don’t have a formal agenda or a lecturer or panel, but people are meeting nonetheless.

How sad that lives are wasted in such lifestyle politics, their critics say!!

Although Hoey, Sponseller and Winne are right to point out the practical obstacles to more politicized forms of protest, it also needs to be said that this “deficiency” is a precious asset as well as a limitation. (My wife, Lori Stahlbrand and I have written an academic article on the culture of food protest, which can be found here.)

I urge food movement thinkers to recognize and celebrate the spirit of “species-being” (to use a favored phrase of a 19th century foodie). I don’t call food movements lifestyle movements. I think of them as life-craving movements. (See for example here.) I celebrate that spirit, and savor the fact that food is, as of now, a project of human liberation, not just resistance.

My own cause du jour in this regard is Seed Voyage, which taps into an active hobby of some 50 million North Americans — if that number doesn’t offend people keen on food becoming a mass movement. That’s how many serious backyard gardeners there are on the northern part of one continent.

Aside from the personal pleasures of growing and eating food from backyard, allotment or community gardens, I count 21 “public good” benefits that might turn the gardening hobby into a gardening lobby. (Come back in a week or two, and I’ll have the link on that presentation posted right here.)

I have at least five more pages to go to wrap up my thinking about the uniquely unstructured structures of the food movement, but fear that would exhaust your hospitality and attention. Someone else will have to write yet another book or article on this theme, so I can review it and dump that material that’s been discarded for now. Or someone can invite me to give a speech on the topic.

Warm thanks to Hoey, Sponseller and Winne for giving me so much thought to rant about!!!

Photo by Joseph Greve on Unsplash

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and blogs to promote the macrobiome and people-friendly food policy.

Tags: building resilient food systems, food policy, sustainable food movement