Channeling the food & farm activist within
A Call to Action
by Alicia Harvie
I have a confession to make. I am an activist. I’ve written many a letter to Congress; signed umpteen petitions; regularly donated (at times admittedly paltry amounts) to charitable causes. I vote regularly. I’ve spoken with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill and have even attended a meeting in the West Wing. Yes, that West Wing.
I am no political junkie. But over the years, I’ve developed a keen passion for food and farm activism, and I don’t anticipate losing that fire anytime soon. The fact that Michael Pollan is a household name or movies like Food, Inc. and Supersize Me boast Oscar nominations suggests this passion is fairly en vogue now. But activism doesn’t and shouldn’t demand such grand gestures to be considered effective.
We all have the capacity for activism. While it’s a muscle that takes flexing, it’s possible and proper for food and farm activism to fit smoothly into our lives.
My own passion crystallized in college, where I had the good fortune of spending time with dairy farmers in Vermont for a research project. It was then I first felt an urgent need for change in our food world. I realized I’d known little of a breed of individuals who work around the clock to feed us and care for the land. Speaking with these farmers sparked a profound appreciation for a way of life threatened in today’s economy—the way of the family farm.
I suspect all activism starts with this sort of awareness. In every corner of our lives, we find ourselves inextricably linked to others. This connectedness is a burden, most certainly, and a blessing. Part of activism is cultivating awareness about all the many strands in the greater web that connect us to our economies, communities, and the earth itself. Activism means also claiming responsibility for the impacts we make in this web.
I once spoke with a chef who studied macrobiotic cuisine at the Kushi Institute, a center for natural healing in the Berkshires. Macrobiotics focuses on the yin and yang energies of various foods to bring the body into balance, a concept foreign to most eaters in the West. Employing macrobiotics in his restaurants was his own brand of food and farm activism, the way he entered the world and could change it. He told me: “Our dietary choices are a driving force for change in the world. We really are what we eat.”
Those words hit me. What do our food choices say about us? What do the very molecules of that food do to us?
If we consider that two-thirds of our population are overweight or obese, that pesticides are pervasive in our food, or remember watching a neighboring farm endure bankruptcy and foreclosure while the strip mall moves in, we may begin to understand. Increasingly, eaters are noticing the impact that food and farm policies make in their lives. And they are more aware of their power as consumers.
I see eaters taking responsibility by clamoring for items like free-range poultry, grass-fed beef, organic produce, local tomatoes, or family-farm-identified products. They are shopping at farmers markets and joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that allow farmers to share their financial risks with customers. This has little to do with altering laws or pressuring public officials. Rather it is, in Wendell Berry’s words, “understand[ing] that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”
All change starts from within. Educating yourself is the first step. Consider joining local grassroots organizations, your local Slow Food chapter, the New England Farmers Union, or even turning to organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition for guidance on issues, getting involved and getting active.
Don’t underestimate your own potential, either. We all have it in us, whether we realize it or not, to step outside our comfort zones, stretch our boundaries and fight for what we know is right. Too often we forget that our own voices are part of the solution. We leave decisions up to policymakers and economists, overlooking that we are each an expert on our own experiences and concerns. We think the answers will come from Washington, D.C., but forget we can stimulate change in our communities, in our backyards, or even on our dinner plates.
Meaningful change will take the sustained efforts of all. Whether we write a letter, attend a rally, or eat your neighbor’s homegrown food, together we must work for a food system that is just and good. So by all means, step out, speak out, and of course, eat well.