Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

A fruitful discussion of Food Democracy

A big thanks to all who came out Monday night and joined us in what was a lively conversation on Growing Food Democracy: Connecting Global Lessons to Local Action. I was thrilled to see such interest and to meet so many people in the Bay Area so deeply engaged in the work of building a just and sustainable food system.

For those who couldn’t make it, a few highlights:

To start us off, I proposed the concept of food democracy as an organizing principle and method to advance food movement goals. Food democracy emphasizes the right and responsibility of people to engage in making decisions about our food system. So it isn’t just about voting (whether with one’s fork, pocketbook or in a voting booth). Food democracy, says activist-scholar Neva Hassanein, requires active engagement by ordinary people who identify the problem, set the agenda, stage the debate and creatively experiment with solutions.

Food democracy requires active engagement by ordinary people who identify the problem, set the agenda, stage the debate and creatively experiment with solutions. Neva Hassanein

Robert Gottlieb kicked off the panel discussion, locating the food justice movement in the context of its historical antecedents in the environmental justice movement. He noted that organizing today faces particular challenges: we don’t have much in the way of public understanding or support for social movements; the labor movement has been seriously weakened; and the very idea of an engaged public sector is under attack. However, what he finds extraordinarily promising is the power of food as an entry point to talk about things that matter most to many of us. Food as an entry point can help us broaden the movement as we seek transformational change.

Next up, Navina Khanna of LiveReal declared, "Food justice is not just about gaining access to food, but rather access to decision-making power." Navina grounded the discussion in people's organizing and the everyday practice she witnesses in the Oakland community, while emphasizing the leadership in the food justice movement that has always come from people of color, Indigenous people, and youth. And she pointed out the structural racism that exists as the ever-present reality and context of our movement and organizing efforts, reminding us that the Black Panthers were among the original leaders of the food justice movement in the U.S.

Food justice is not just about gaining access to food, but rather access to decision-making power. Navina Khanna

Raj Patel described the global food sovereignty movement as about putting democracy back into the food system. The most effective way to do this, Raj explained, citing La Via Campesina—the worldwide family farmers movement—is to end all forms of violence against women—including social and political disenfranchisement. Raj added that agroecology is also an important pathway towards food sovereignty. Much more than a way of farming that happens to be able to double food production, agroecology fosters social and political change by shifting our relationship to our resources and to one another. Yet still, the food movement needs to do a better job, he argued, at articulating what exactly it is we want, in more practical terms than simply calling for justice and sovereignty.

What do you think?

Probing questions from the floor yielded more food for thought:

It seems like we already have a movement, said one person. Why is it so hard to make change?

How can more women (who often face multiple duties between work, family and social activism) be empowered to be a greater force within the movement?

What are the possibilities and limitations of social networking as a tool to power this movement?

We’ve got lots of beautiful solutions to inspire us at the local level, but corporate power still constrains this movement from transforming the food system. What is the most exciting stuff happening now that challenges that power here in the U.S?

As I left the Women’s Building Monday night, with so many inspiring exchanges still echoing in my mind, I was thinking how we needed at least another hour—or rather, a week, or probably in fact, a year—to dive deeper into the conversations that were started. And then I thought, well why not? What if we start a Food Democracy Series of public conversations that can build on each other and allow us to delve more deeply into some of the thornier challenges facing us?

Let us know what you think. If we launch a Food Democracy Series, what topics would you like to see discussed? Who would you like to hear from? Post a comment below and let me know!

Many thanks to the co-sponsors of our event, whose support we deeply appreciate: California Food & Justice CoalitionFood First, Live Real, People’s Grocery and the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative.

Picture of Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii

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