By the People, for the People and Toward a Stronger Nation
To more fully understand the concept of democracy, we can look to some past U.S. presidents. Abraham Lincoln defined it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” Harry S. Truman further recognized that “secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix.”
By extension, “food democracy” describes a fair and transparent food system in which people have informed choices and control in determining what and how they eat. It’s what happens when we view people as citizens, rather than consumers, and treat food as a human right, reports the Oakland, California-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN).
Kelly Moltzen, a registered dietitian in Bronx, New York, and member of the Franciscan Earth Corps, defines it as having the freedom to make choices about the integrity of our food from farm to plate, so that we can support the health and well-being of ourselves, the Earth and all organisms that inhabit the ecosystem.
Food Sovereignty Feeds Independence
A PAN report on food democracy describes food sovereignty as the international equivalent of the U.S. movement to re-localize control over our food and farming. It’s rooted in regenerating historically autonomous food systems with, for and by the people.
John Peck, Ph.D., executive director of Family Farm Defenders, in Madison, Wisconsin, explains that the term “food sovereignty” was coined about two decades ago by the globally active La Via Campesina, comprised of family farmers, farm workers, fishing folks, hunters, gatherers and indigenous communities around the world.
“At its most basic,” Peck says, “Food sovereignty is about reclaiming local democratic control over our food/ farm system from corporate agribusiness.” This way, “Everyone has the right to decide what is grown or raised in their community, whether animals are treated humanely, if family farmers and other food workers are paid a living wage and can collectively bargain and whether people have access to safe, healthy food—as well as the right to know what is in their food, how it is produced and where it comes from.”
Peck believes that if we want a cleaner environment, healthier people and more vibrant communities, “We need to be citizens that care about bringing democratic accountability, social justice and ecological integrity to all aspects of our food/farm system.”
Local Food Strengthens Communities
In their report, Deepening Food Democracy, the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), in Minneapolis, describes how U.S. food and farming has increasingly become concentrated, consolidated and controlled by the few. Local food enthusiasts want to take back their food system from industrial, corporate masters that lobby for legislation which denies citizens the right to know how their food is produced or if it contains genetically modified ingredients (GMO). The growing local food movement is as much about returning power to communities, food workers, farmers and farm workers as it is about producing and distributing healthy, sustainably grown food, reports IATP.
Anthony Flaccavento, an organic farmer in the Appalachian region of southwestern Virginia, has been working on national food and sustainable farming initiatives for nearly 30 years. In a recent Food Sleuth Radio interview, he described the resulting tremendous, multiple positive impacts of strong local economies, noting that a strong local food system is usually at their center.
“Once you have vibrant, diverse local economies,” says Flaccavento, “you have better health, lower crime and incarceration rates—and more civic participation.” Basically, a more democratic food system could help fix many of the maladies ailing our nation today. The steady growth of farmers’ markets, farm to school programs and food policy councils prove that Americans are hungry both for clean food and an enhanced sense of community.
While Flaccavento appreciates conscious consumers that support local food providers, he emphasizes, “Just acting locally isn’t enough. We need to re-engage with bigger social and political debates, as well.”
Growing Vegetables and Democracy
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Jenga Mwendo knew she had to leave her high-powered job in New York City and return to her hometown in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. “My parents raised me to contribute,” Mwendo explains. “My first name means ‘to build’ and my last name means ‘always progressing’.”
~Rose Hayden-Smith, author, Sowing the Seeds of Victory
In 2009, Mwendo founded the Backyard Gardeners Network (BGN), a local nonprofit organization that restores and strengthens what had once been a thriving, closely knit, self-reliant community, rich with backyard gardens and citizen engagement. Residents went to work, recognizing the potential of community gardens to revitalize their neighborhood and bring affordable healthful food to residents, many of them suffering from obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The BGN both revitalized a community garden and converted a blighted lot into a Guerrilla Garden, where people of all ages gather to grow food, share stories, embrace their cultural heritage and learn how to become responsible citizens.
“We bring people together and make decisions collectively,” says Mwendo. “The garden is for our community, by our community.” Understanding the value of involving children and teens, she adds, “Kids know they will be loved here. This is a nurturing environment.”
Like Mwendo, Stephen Ritz, a top 10 finalist in the Varkey Foundation’s Global Teacher Prize, is reaching youth through food. Based in New York City’s South Bronx, one of the country’s poorest school districts, he and his students are growing vegetables in school, thereby improving children’s diets, health, school performance and future potential. “We are contributing to food democracy by making sure every child we touch, regardless of income, zip code and skin color, faith or nation of origin, has access to fresh, healthy, nutritious food that they help grow,” says Ritz.
So far, his Green Bronx Machine community has raised 30,000 pounds of vegetables. “We’re growing justice,” Ritz announced in his March 2015 TED Talk. “My favorite crop is organically grown citizens—graduates, voters and students who are eating [better] and living healthier lives!”
Kitchen Gardens Nourish the World
Roger Doiron is the founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International (KGI), an online global community of some 30,000 people in 100 countries that are growing some of their own food. He spearheaded First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House Garden. Doiron’s campaign to bring a food garden back to the White House (presidents John Adams, Jefferson and Jackson all had edible gardens) began in 2008, went viral, took root and the rest is history. Today, the first lady continues to champion garden-fresh food to improve children’s health.
From his own 1,500-square-foot garden in Scarborough, Maine, Doiron and his wife harvested 900 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables worth $2,200 in a single season. “Talented gardeners with more generous soils and climates are able to produce even more food in less space,” he says, “but maximizing production is not our only goal. We’re also trying to maximize pleasure and health.”
Doiron believes, “Quality food is central to well-being and is one of the best ways to unite people of different countries and cultures around a common, positive agenda.” He’s convinced that kitchen gardens will play a critical role in feeding a growing population faced with climate challenges. On July 4, his organization celebrates Food Independence Day as a way to recognize the role of home and community gardens in achieving self-sufficiency.
Saving Seeds, Saving Democracy
Jim Gerritsen operates Wood Prairie Farm with his family in Bridgewater, Maine. He’s dedicated to using organic farming methods to protect the environment and food quality, provide ample harvests and foster good jobs for the next generation of young farmers.
As president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, Gerritsen led a lawsuit against Monsanto in 2011, challenging the validity of seed patents. In a Food Sleuth Radio interview, he explains, “Patented seeds cannot be saved and replanted. To take that right away from farmers was a terrible mistake on the part of the Supreme Court.” Seed ownership belongs to the people; our seed resource is part of our common heritage. “Genetic engineering was an invention to take away from the commons the ownership of seeds,” he continues. “Regaining control of the seed supply is one of the most pressing battles we have in agriculture.” Gerritsen encourages everyone to plant an organic garden using organic seeds and to advocate GMO labeling.
“Let’s let transparency reign, which is a hallmark of a democratic system,” he proclaims.
Melinda Hemmelgarn is a registered dietitian and award-winning writer and nationally syndicated radio host at KOPN.org, in Columbia, MO (FoodSleuth@gmail.com). She advocates for organic farmers at Enduring-Image.blogspot.com.
National Count of Farmers’ Market Directory Listings
Nationwide tracking of farmers’ markets that listed fewer than 1,800 in 1994 now numbers nearly 8,300 20 years later.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Food Independence Resources
Bioscience Research Project BioscienceResource.org
Corporate Accountability International StopCorporateAbuse.org
Fair Food Network FairFoodNetwork.org
Food Co-op Initiative FoodCoopInitiative.coop
Food First FoodFirst.org
Food & Water Watch FoodAndWaterWatch.org
Food Policy Councils MarkWinne.com/resource-materials
Food Sleuth Radio KOPN.org
Food Voices: Stories from the People Who Feed Us FoodVoices.org
Kitchen Gardeners International kgi.org
National Family Farm Coalition nffc.net
National Farm to School Network FarmToSchool.org
Oxfam America “Behind the Brands” BehindTheBrands.org/en-us
The Seed Library Social Network SeedLibraries.org
Seed Savers Exchange SeedSavers.org
Table of the Earth TableOfTheEarth.com/eat-local-simple-steps/
Union of Concerned Scientists ucsusa.org
From Food Consumer to Food Citizen
Now is the time for all good men and women to become food citizens. Making the transition from being a mere consumer to community citizen requires addressing a set of questions geared to lead to food truth and justice for all.
• Where does my food come from?
• Who produced it?
• Under what conditions was this food grown or produced; were workers treated fairly and animals humanely?
• What’s in or on my food; am I eating pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, genetically modified ingredients or additives?
• What might be the unintended consequences of my food choices for farmers competing against big agribusiness and striving to do the right thing?
• How might my choices affect the environment and future generations?
• What local, state and national policies stand in the way of a fair and transparent food system?