Act: Inspiration

Connected Critics: Branding for A People-Centered Food System

January 25, 2019

Pick ten people you recognize from this list, and tell me two things they all have in common:

Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader, Tommy Douglas, John Lennon, David Suzuki, Cesar Chavez, Jack Layton, Nellie McClung, Bishop Tutu, Pete Seeger, Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Seuss, Mr. Rogers. (Most of you will only identify ten because three on the list are Canadians, and few people, especially Canadians, know “famous” Canadians.)

First, everyone on the list has been a deep critic of unjust institutions, behaviors and belief systems. Secondly, they all knew how to connect their sometimes-confrontational campaigns to deeply-held beliefs held by the best selves of the great majority of their contemporaries.

King’s “I have a dream” speech is a classic of this genre, reminding Americans of their own country’s commitment to freedom. Every advocate on this list had the same skill. They all used the power of communication to speak the local version of universal truths to power. More significantly, they won power for universal truths.

They were all the kind of social critics that political philosopher Michael Walzer calls “connected critics.” Here’s how one reviewer summarized the perspective: “Connected critics, Walzer maintains, argue from the edge, but not from the outside. They do not burn constitutions. They offer amendments. They speak in the idiom of their fellow citizens and remind them of the ideals they fail to live up to. They write not out of anger but disappointed love.”

My hope with this column is to connect city food activists to this tradition, and to pry food advocates away from self-sabotaging traditions of alienated and oppositional critiques, which by and large dominate the advocacy of today’s activist community. (For Walzer’s evaluation of oppositional mentalities, see here and here and here.)

More technically, since this is part 2 of a two-part column on the need to “brand” food movements, I hope to explain why connected criticism needs to become a unifying theme at the heart of every city food movement’s brand. I’m not talking about countering “Coke is the real thing” with “local food is the really authentic thing.” I’m talking about rooting food advocacy in inclusive, accepting and welcoming food relationships, cultures and places. Something that builds on the motto of my hometown city of villages: “Toronto: you belong here.”


Let me try to conjure up a picture of connected criticism by asking you to imagine having dinner with a stereotypical North American neighbor who dislikes veggies only slightly less than he dislikes the foodies he believes want to pressure him into eating more veggies.

How about inviting him over for a (craft?) beer and dinner of (whole wheat?) spaghetti and hearty sausage-based sauce – a standard recipe for which includes a red and green pepper, garlic, zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes, and several herbs.

You can connect with this person as a friendly neighbor who may well share a similar vision for the neighborhood and the school your kids go to. In terms of those conversations, it doesn’t really matter what your guest thinks about veggies or foodies. In terms of healthy diets, your guest is enjoying his five recommended daily servings of veggies.

In this visualization exercise, you created a setting for connected criticism. This particular setting may be too picture-perfect to ever be perfectly true. But food offers an abundance of opportunities to get very close to this in reality – certainly a lot closer than people of conflicting opinions can get on other issues, such as immigration or economic or social policy or environmental issues.


So here’s my call to action. Local food advocates should take full advantage of local food opportunities.

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Food is fundamentally a people issue, a human relationship issue. It’s about people talking during a meal. It’s about creating welcoming, inclusive and convivial relationships that make mealtime pleasurable. It’s about turning strangers into neighbors. It’s about reviewing the day with kids. At its best, it’s about conversation, not arguments. It starts with a toast or grace expressing gratitude for all those who contributed to the meal and wishing everyone well, and ends with a thank you, with guests helping with the dishes.

That’s not the side of food that gets talked about or supported or decided on at senior levels of government or senior levels of Big Food corporations. Governments and corporations don’t deal with the people side of food. That’s why I’ve developed and promoted “people-centred food policy” – so we can carve out that area of food that relates to food and people in society, insulate it from the politics and polarization of Big Government and Big Food corporations, and highlight it in the way we present ourselves in our communities, schools, and local politics. Local governments should take over the people side of food that has been neglected by senior corporations and governments. (For a brief summary of people-centered food policy, see here.)

When we deal with such issues, we deal with differences and disagreements as people who are connected, and we couch our criticisms in language and emotions suited to the fact that we will continue to connect in other settings where we wear different hats. That means we can safely “table” or postpone a decision that may be resolved through life rather than argument—as when someone who thinks they hate vegetables enjoys a meal that has five servings of vegetables. It means we can talk in the concrete, not the abstract. It means we can disagree constructively along the lines recommended in the argument-solving manual, Getting to Yes.

In short, local food advocates should not allow themselves to be branded by the deals and conflicts that dominate the sides of food centered around supply chains and nutrients. We should be branded by the strengths we bring to people-centered food policy – working with food to milk it of every ounce of goodness and human kindness it can bring out in people, and working with people to use food practices as a foundation for economies and communities.

I hasten to add that I support militant food policy advocacy where that is required. I believe militancy is often required around food issues related to food mechanics – either the supply chain that takes it from seed to table to garbage can or compost heap, or the energy cycle that provides people with nutrients and fuel. Food activists and actionists dealing with these ranges of issues need to be branded as effective and spirited campaigners.

But at the local level, there are more opportunities to come together as people. That’s also where the people impacts of food are most forcefully felt, as well as most visible, and most capable of evoking humane empathy. That’s where we need to be known for our people skills and our ability to bring people together.

Humans evolved physically to depend on food as the only way to acquire all the nutrients our complex bodies need. Likewise, we evolved socially to live in mutual benefit relationships that meet those needs for the greatest benefit to all. At this time, only food movements – alas, not many people embedded in governments and corporations – have the commitment to unlock these skills and allow these traditions to flourish.

The advocacy we bring to food at this local level should be in line with constructive and “connected criticism” and “actionism” (community businesses, social enterprises, and non-profits actually providing needed food goods and services, as explained in this book).


The branding we work to deserve should promote recognition and appreciation of this vital offering of local food movements.

One way to manifest this branding is through local food charters, such as the Toronto Food Charter, which I co-authored. This charter, unanimously-adopted by City Council in 2001, provides a brief statement as to Toronto’s core values around food policy. This charter came out of a community consensus based on a year’s public hearings and partnerships. The list of agreed-upon goals was based on “backcasting” – agreeing on a vision of what would be good and right (all children having access to quality food, for example) without specifying the way any particular program should be funded or the timetable for its introduction. (This was a method I adapted from Sweden’s Natural Step.

Another way to manifest this people-centered branding is by local governments supporting food policy councils to pursue ways of moving on a local government (city, region, and board of education) agenda of democratic (see this video of a speech by former UN commissioner Olivier de Schutter) and people-centered food policy. The Toronto Food Policy Council includes Toronto Food Charter goals as part of its terms of reference.

I think creative branding is one way to build the skills and earn the confidence to lead that kind of civic action on food.

Ed. note: This post originally appeared in Wayne’s newsletter of 23 January 2019.

Feature photo by Markus Spiske 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 Read more.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, change-making, Communication