How Foodies Can Understand Capitalism and Farm-to-Table Justice
Our food system can be a place for systemic transformation through an alliance between the progressive and radical wings of the food movement.
A new book aimed at the socially conscious food activist explores how our food system can be a place for transformation through an alliance between the progressive and radical wings of the food movement.
As advocates for a just food system, most of us try to live by our beliefs. Shopping at the farmers markets: Check. Buying local and grass-fed: Check. We rail against Big Food, yet don’t dare, or bother, to look too far beneath the surface when we shop at Whole Foods or order from the organic aisle of Fresh Direct. We are walking, kale-stuffed characters out of Portlandia, better-intentioned than informed. After all, what are we really doing to change the system?
If this undercurrent of low-level guilt is one you’ve experienced, you might be a target of Eric Holt-Gimenez’s new book, A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat. The book, by and large, delivers on its goal of serving as a political economic toolkit for the food movement. It’s Capitalism 101 for the socially conscious, would-be food activist.
Holt-Gimenez, who is executive director of Food First, describes the rise of the capitalist food system from the first societies to domesticate plants and animals to the financialization of the farm and rampant corporate consolidations. Our food system, he argues, is one in which a few global companies now control every link of the food chain—from the land on which mega-farms are developed to food retailers. With each new merger, these monopolies drive more rural farmers off the land, increasing economic and environmental injustice.
But A Foodie’s Guide does offer up some hope and includes a call to action, as well. Holt-Gimenez believes our food system can be a place for systemic transformation through an alliance between the progressive and radical wings of the food movement—marrying things like community-supported agriculture and food hubs with the food sovereignty movement.
He believes these broad-based alliances, pulling in disparate groups such as women and people of color and what he calls the food proletariat, can mimic the once powerful alliance that existed between unions and the radical Left that agitated for change in the 1930s.
Yet even Holt-Gimenez admits that bringing down a capitalist system that now appears to be at its peak can seem daunting, as it did to him when he worked with a peasant-led agroecology movement in Latin America in the 1970s.
Bridging theory and action, as grassroots organizations such as Indivisible have done, requires organization at the local level and engagement in party politics. To change the food system from within, we need to understand the complex set of policies that uphold it: the U.S. Farm Bill.
Johns Hopkins University political science professor Adam Sheingate, who has written about the evolution of the Farm Bill, sees it as “a political regime in decay.” Traditionally the bill addressed the needs of both rural farmers and urban dwellers. It offered fat subsidies to farmers, represented increasingly by single-crop lobbyists, and a federal nutrition program to address hunger among the urban poor.
But as critics of the industrial food system have gained traction—raising health and environmental concerns from the Left and calling for cuts in SNAP nutrition assistance from the Right—cracks and fissures, Sheingate says, have appeared.
A decaying regime, he says, whether viewed through the lens of the Farm Bill, or the mechanisms of the increasingly predatory capitalist structure through which it operates, opens up opportunity for resistance and change.
The concept of “food democracy” as an antidote or form of resistance could be useful, Sheingate suggests. He defines this as the condition in which people actively participate in shaping the food system in ways that extend beyond their behavior as consumers. The question it raises, however, is to what degree can consumers be motivated to push for food system change? Or is consumption just too easily co-opted by capitalism?
First, let’s look at the idea of voting with one’s fork. We like to think that opting for grass-fed beef, skipping meat altogether, or going vegan are all forms of resistance. But to Sheingate such practices are more feel-good than change-making. “Voting is already a limited form of political engagement,” shaped by wealth, education, and race, he says. Voting with one’s fork simply reproduces those inequalities. The idea that consumption is based on choice is a lie; the poor, he says, “can only buy the cheapest, least healthy foods.”
Pushing back against a capitalist food system is within our control, even if it means just small daily acts.
Similarly, Holt-Gimenez writes that institutions and movements we might think of as effective, and perhaps even progressive, largely serve to prop up the status quo. Anti-food waste initiatives, for example, have accepted the capitalist tradition of overproduction rather than working to prevent excess food from flooding the market in the first place.
Meanwhile, Big Philanthropy—embodied in the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations—along with the USDA, World Bank, and the IMF believes in the power of technology and entrepreneurship and promotes capital-intensive agriculture and global markets as a way to end poverty and hunger. Like the Green Revolution that exported the U.S. industrial agricultural model in the mid-20th century, the ultimate result of such practices, Holt-Gimenez asserts, is to drive small farmers off the land.
A better path of resistance, both Holt-Gimenez and Sheingate agree, is activism at the grassroots level. Local food policy councils—born of corporate and federal systems’ inability to address inequities on the ground—have become a bright spot in the food justice movement. These organizations can work to address issues ranging from urban agriculture to improving food and climate resilience. The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins counts 280 food policy councils across North America.
As the FPC movement has shown us, pushing back against a capitalist food system is within our control, even if it means just small daily acts. “When I plant a garden in my backyard, am I engaging in an act of resistance?” Sheingate asks rhetorically. “When I go to a farmers market in Baltimore, one of the more diverse places in the city, am I overcoming the hypersegregation of the city? Does that constitute an act of resistance?”
One clue to where to go from here, Sheingate suggests, may come from trying to understand what it is about food that makes it different from other platforms for political resistance. There are other anti-capitalist movements growing in cities across the country, Sheingate points out, “but I don’t see people coming together and forming knitting circles as a way to change the world.”
Food is a kind of paradox, he concludes, on the one hand, a hyper-concentrated system that is the epitome of capitalism, yet on the other, one whose very excesses and injustices have created cracks and fissures that show us the possibilities for a different, more just, system.