Food activism: What’s the catch?

By Abby Volkmann ‘13Environmental Columnist

Last Friday I had the exciting opportunity to hear UC Santa Cruz professor Julie Guthman reflect on the nature of the current alternative food movement, which works to build more locally based, sustainable, and self-reliant food economies (think farmer’s markets, organic food, community gardens, etc).

Guthman’s lecture showcased the extent to which food politics has captured the nation’s attention. She argued that contemporary food activism, while not ill-willed, ignores deep social injustices that have developed as a result of our nation’s food production and consumption. Food activists desire a physical connection to the movement (getting their hands dirty in the soil) but are disinterested in the bigger, over-arching political ties. Guthman advocates a top-down approach to activism, targeting issues of pesticide control and methods of food production over providing alternatives to the consumers in food deserts, which are areas lacking access to healthy produce.

I agree with Guthman that policy should play a greater part in the solution to food injustice. Statutes such as government subsidies on organic and local food in low-income communities and Proposition 37, which would pressure the industrial agriculture industry to stop the proliferation of genetically modified foods, would confront these issues on a greater scale than individual activism. However, while our nation waits for the government and corporations to instate these changes, I optimistically believe activists’ efforts to bring affordable, local, organic, and non-GMO foods to low socio-economic status consumers are valuable. While there should be no pretense that action targeting the consumers rather than the producers will solve the problem, people should not be criticized for making choices that work within our current agricultural reality.

Newly established community gardens in food deserts may not captivate the attention of the residents of area’s lacking physical and economic access to organic food, but it is a noble goal to improve healthy food options for people in these areas. I think Guthman’s critique of the alternative food movement is too cynical and her theories too widely applied to food deserts everywhere. As she suggests, community gardens may not take off in inner city, predominantly African-American communities for a number of reasons (e.g., connotations of slavery), but perhaps they are a sound solution in food deserts in different areas or with different demographics.

In time, I hope to see change that will target the social injustices propagated in the production and consumption of our nation’s food, but for now I commend the work of activists involved in the alternative food movement.