Occupy the food system: education and policy

I received quite a bit of feedback on my last post, Local Food: Lets Get Serious Now, which calls for a personal commitment to supporting the emerging local food system.  While most readers agreed that buying local was an important means of changing the food system, a few thought my unwillingness to “sleep outside in a public park” myself demonstrated a lack of commitment to the movement.

In my post, I applauded those young people (and old) who took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations, but I really don’t think all protesters need to “march.”  Eco-philosopher and social activist Joanna Macy reminds us that there are three dimensions to significant social change (which she calls “The Great Turning”).  They are:

  1. Actions to slow the damage to Earth and prevent harm to its beings (such as lobbying and protesting, blockading and conducting vigils, whistle-blowing and documenting problems).
  2. Analysis of root causes and the creation of alternative structures (such as education, policy and new organizations and businesses).
  3. Shift in Consciousness (perhaps the most powerful – and a topic for a future blog).

The Occupy protests have largely focused on action and public awareness.  And the December 4 Farmers March in New York City for example, helped focus attention on inequities in the global food system.  Unfortunately mainstream media did little to cover the story but this video does a nice job of presenting some of the major issues.

While some of us are out marching in the street and sleeping in public spaces, others need to be working on the “creation of alternative structures” to the current food system.  Small organic farms, community supported farms, backyard and community gardens, and all of the many organizations that work to re-localize the food system are critical to the continued emergence of alternatives to the corporately-owned industrial food system.

My hope is that the Occupy Movement energizes more people “vote with their food dollar” and buy local.  And while this sort of personal commitment is necessary, it is not sufficient to create lasting change in the global food system.  We need education and policy change too.  I hope the “occupiers” will continue to bring energy to the local food movement by joining one of the education or policy organizations currently working to support a more local and sustainable food and farming system.  There are many such organizations.

At the international level, la Via Campesina, is a significant voice for peasant agriculture and family farms.  I’m particularly attracted to their claim that peasant agriculture and small family farms can feed the world while reducing carbon pollution.  The banner above was from a protest march at the Climate Conference in Durban on December 5, at which time they called for all governments to “stop industrial farming that promotes pollution and climate change through high levels of use of petroleum based chemicals and to support agro-ecology.”

At the national level in the U.S., I’m attracted to the National Farmers Union (I belong to the New England chapter, which is a member-driven organization, committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, fishermen, nurserymen and their customers through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors and civic engagement).

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is another policy group, with local and regional working groups throughout the nation.  The “SAWG’s” (regional Sustainable Agriculture Working Groups) have been particularly effective.  Many of us prefer to work close to home in local or regional groups, such as the Northeast’s Food and Farm Network which was created by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

Each of us should find an organization we can support and join.  One that I helped to found is the local organization called CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.  If you don’t have one in your area – start one!

Perhaps we can take inspiration from the Victory Garden movement or the Women’s Land Army, which grew food for people at home during World War II.  There are many groups “pitching in” at the neighborhood, community, regional, national and international levels working to transform the food system.  If the authorities continue to take down the tents and move protesters out of the public parks, rail links and ports (military power always sides with economic wealth), I hope some of the occupiers will continue the struggle by joining with the education and policy organizations that have been working on these issues for years.

There is more than one way to “occupy the food system.” 


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.

11 thoughts on “Occupy the food system: education and policy”

  1. Couldn't agree more. In Dorchester, we're founding one of Boston's first winter farmers' markets–the only one to accept EBT/SNAP (food stamps)–as an initial step towards establishing a full-service food co-operative. I've worked locally with diverse, often low-income communities and internationally with a variety of Haitian groups on related issues: access to healthy food and clean water. We have to attack these problems from all side–marching/demonstrating is one, but others include giving voice (or time or resources) to those who lack it, analyzing policy, delivering concrete recommendations to decision makers, conducting comprehensive and culturally competent outreach through every channel possible, etc. A crucial part of occupying the food system is, in fact, not occupying, but making space for and devoting time to those who have no room to breathe, no healthy food stores to shop at, no parks to play in, and little or no money to buy food with.

  2. I so agree with all that you have to say, John. I especially appreciate the way you describe a variety of ways in which we may make an individual choice as to how we are each able to support this movement that calls for social change at the most fundamental level. The struggle is not easy, because we have to challenge the deeply embedded public perception that the only efficient way to conduct any sort of business, including the growing of our food, is by employing ever larger and more technically oriented companies and methods. My hope is that people such as myself who are unable to camp out or involve themselves in heavy physical labor, may at least lead by example, shopping locally, supporting local farms, and passing on the word about educational sources such as this one.

  3. Local production is one translation of the term swadeshi, which Gandhi called the heart of satyagraha, non-violence. Swadeshi was a daily activity that produced something. His practice was the spinning wheel for an hour a day but a garden or a small orchard could be a swadeshi practice as well.

    Gandhian economics could start with and through local agriculture.

    Here are all the notes on my readings in Gandhian economics: http://www.globalswadeshi.net/forum/topics/notes-http://www.globalswadeshi.net/forum/topics/sarvodhttp://www.globalswadeshi.net/forum/topics/gandhihttp://www.globalswadeshi.net/forum/topics/inclushttp://www.globalswadeshi.net/forum/topics/gandhihttp://www.globalswadeshi.net/forum/topics/essayshttp://www.globalswadeshi.net/forum/topics/essays

  4. The first part of the food movement was connected to the peace movement of the sixties and seventies. Where all natural, granola, spouts, yogurt, whole grains, grass fed, natural fibers, food coops, commune farms etc. got started. The problem was knowledge/education of alternatives in production wasn't ready to quickly progress. Peace and love then was drowned out by corporate disco, lights. flash, indoor interaction, polyester, malls, fast food. The boom of the feed-lot mentality for farming and society.

    Progressive farming practices development went underground from the mid seventies until the beginning of the nineties. Many of us sought out people with money and farmland that would allow us to try our crazy ideas. They supported us to travel the country seeking out old tyme farmers who would share their wisdoms on growing things the right way within community and the history of everything going wrong. Trying to get help from universities in the eighties was near impossible. The fact that Wall st. occupies our Land Grants was and still is a problem.

    Into the nineties new practices went public again and gained success and momentum. The gains in The last 20 years have been really quite amazing. Our practices are getting very scientific in the most natural sense. We need access to the students and facilities at colleges/universities to progress if we want true sustainability with on farm practices and for the greater system infrastructure.

    Good food for everyone is the very base. Without it, everything else falls apart and has repeatedly in history as it is now. We will beat Wall st. with our new food movement. Occupy a garden next spring!

  5. I agree with your thoughts, John, and believe each of us can contribute in our own way, suiting our talents and nature. I am not particularly attracted, myself, to street demonstrations, but do like to contribute through writings and working with organizations. I am indebted to the activates who do demonstrate since they draw attention of a segment of the public to the movement. In my case, for example, I am working with the Pioneer Valley Biochar Initiative to promote a technique vwhich has the promise of increasing agricultural productivity while decreasing atmospheric pollution. I believe such activities more effectively directs my talents to the effort. We all need to contribute in a way we can do best.

  6. John, you are spot on in this piece, as is the reply of E_Bourgeois. I am from the 70's era too and many of us have done our marching. As many of you have pointed out, there are other ways to be effective as a changemaker. Everything you are doing John, is an example of such, and I do hope that as the Occupiers fan out from their encampments, they will come join those of us who work in a different venue for change. Love all your writings.

  7. Couldn't agree more. I was on a bus to an action in DC recently and one woman I met talked about the people we leave at home in the "engine room". I liked that concept. I think it only serves to hurt us if we don't see the value each person can provide. Whether you're getting slammed for *not* camping out and attending actions, or your actions (at demonstrations etc) are seen as useless by those who prefer to participate in a different way. We need to come together and capitalize on what each person can contribute.

  8. Moderately competent bandwagon jumping. East German judge gives you only a 2.1 however and that for expressionist nonsense, not form or content.

    This isn't a contribution or action. It's tenured Boomer place holding sold to Millennial special snowflakes.

    The rest of us have starvation to stave off, which requires producing things that cast a shadow rather than talking and posturing. But at least it keeps you all busy while the grownups are doing real work. And it lets special snowflakes feel superior to working class people while claiming to be progressive. At the end of the day what is more important than that. Oh right, getting foundation grant money and more degrees!

  9. Yes, John! As you taught me and I bear in mind daily, the ills of society are sum of individual actions and you can't expect others to act as must be done unless you change your own actions first. You and me making the choice recycle a bottle or buy local is a necessary first step to everybody doing that, and structure play a vital role. They can keep people–and hence society–trapped in destructive practices, or shift to encourage more sustainable ones. That means, John, that you're making a tremendous contribution. America needs people like you in every region, but, of course, you can't expect people to be active unless you make that decision yourself! Keep up the good work; this is a critical field and valuable contribution. Chris Potter – '08 Mary Lyon RAP

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