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Now What? Seven Priorities for the Food Movement in the Age of Obama and Why Young People Will Lead the Way

by Anim Steel

“Is a sustainable food strategy on Obama’s menu?” asked Derrick Jackson in a December 30, 2008 Boston Globe column.  Don’t depend on it, he concluded, despite some pretty encouraging signs from the Obama camp.  The new president will face serious “blowback” from the agribusiness industry, he noted.  That’s a lobby that Michael Pollan described as the second most powerful in DC.

So if Obama doesn’t lead the way, who will?  And even if he proves to be a champion of sustainable food policy, what will bridge the enormous gap between vision and reality? What will force revolutionary change all the way from Capitol Hill to the corner store?

The answer: a dynamic, diverse, and dedicated social movement that can respond to opportunities, capture the public’s attention, and exercise serious political muscle.  And increasingly, that means youth. 

After six years of working at The Food Project in Boston—and even more years studying how social change happens—I believe we are entering a new phase of the food-justice-sustainable-agriculture movement. A new administration, a new economic reality, and a new five-year period before the next Farm Bill certainly help to mark this new phase. But it’s also defined by the natural lifecycle of social change efforts, which typically begin with a few pioneers, resistance leaders, and forward thinkers: the wellsprings. Eventually, a critical mass of organizations and networks appears: the wellsprings become many streams.  In the third stage, networks of networks emerge: the streams flow together into a mighty river.  This is the stage in which major social change—changes in both people and structures–becomes possible, and this is the stage we are entering now.

So what should we focus on in this next phase?  What are the ingredients of success that we can draw from both history and current affairs?

1. Self-awareness.  What we think about ourselves and the problem we are tackling affects how we approach it, who we see as our allies, and where we draw lessons from.  At this stage, one of the greatest dangers is that we will continue to operate in silos: that local food activists will forget about migrant laborers; that food justice advocates will be quiet about the dire need for new farmers; that foodies will celebrate chefs but ignore the nation’s food deserts and hungry people; that public health professionals will fail to find allies in the movement for green collar jobs.

I think we need to take a big picture approach, one that honors the specific interests and concerns we represent but begins with a view of the entire system—both how broken it is and how much good we could do if it were fixed.  Perhaps the biggest picture of our movement comes from author and sustainability visionary Paul Hawken.   From his vantage point, we are the “food wing” of a larger, global movement for social and environment justice, one which is not yet recognized by the media—or by the movement itself—and has the experience of indigenous peoples at its heart. (I think Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming is an important book to read)

This lens is helpful for many reasons.  It illuminates the underlying trends and the unexpected connections—between climate change and our food deserts, for instance—that can make us more effective communicators.  It reveals how the work of reforming the food system and dismantling racism are intertwined.  It helps us understand our full power and potential.  And it helps to clarify the tasks ahead by pointing us towards the most useful models. (I recommend a short article from the Berkana Institute about how “systems of influence” emerge: as isolated efforts get connected, nourished, named, and illuminated:

Perhaps, most importantly, it affirms the need for us to become “movement people,” as they said in the sixties, an identity that encourages us to take the craft of social change seriously, to recognize our brothers and sisters in struggle, and to think critically about our path.

2. Collective goals. As a movement matures, activists learn what the most effective targets are and when it makes sense to collaborate (it doesn’t always). I recently met a 90 year-old African-American woman, a lifelong activist, who told me about her efforts in the 1940s to desegregate cinemas in Cleveland.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that a federal civil rights bill became the focus of much of the movement.

As for the food movement, there is one target that looms over all the rest: the Farm Bill.  It influences so much of our agriculture and food policy that it is the logical focal point of our organizing efforts, and the sooner we start to plan for its reauthorization in 2012 (or thereabouts), the better chance we will have to fundamentally re-structure it and, hopefully, to rename it: the People’s Food Bill.

3. Targeted pressure. The 2007 Farm Bill represented some progress for the movement—more groups worked together than in the past—but it also fell far short of what many had hoped for.  One of the things that could make a difference next time around is even more pressure on key lawmakers.  We will need our own “surge” of citizens to join the existing action alert networks of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Rural Coalition, the Community Food Security Coalition and others. More boots on the ground–more people to write letters, make phone calls, visit their legislators, and make them accountable to us.

4. Public Opinion. Targeted pressure will be necessary but probably not sufficient to create major policy change—especially given the strength of our opposition.  We should also be building a groundswell of public opinion to support us.  Public opinion didn’t matter as much when the movement was just gaining a foothold because there were fewer ways for it to be channeled, but it will matter much more in the next three to seven years.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that communication within the movement ceases to be important; it’s equally vital.  It means that we become aware of different audiences.

While our issue is just barely beginning to pierce the public consciousness, we are still a long way from helping the vast majority of people outside “the choir” see why changing the food system is relevant to them.  Michael Pollan’s recent letter to the president was a great step in that direction, essentially saying that if you want to do something about health care, climate change, and energy independence, you’ve got to do something about the food system.   The key for us now is to keep experimenting and evolving our message, to take the craft of communication seriously, and to keep our different audiences—and what matters to THEM—in mind. “It’s not what you say,” political strategist Frank Luntz says, “It’s what they hear.”  From my point of view, Van Jones and Green For All are doing a brilliant job of raising the profile of green jobs because they are doing all of that (”the green collar economy: one solution to our two biggest problems, the economy and the environment”; it speaks right to what people already care about).

5. Momentum on many fronts. Having one or two major targets doesn’t mean that work should stop in other areas.  Quite the opposite.  For starters, it doesn’t take a Farm Bill for us to grow more of our own food right now; indeed, the most important part of this movement—its real genius—is the people-driven transformation of the vacant lots, farms, and kitchens in our communities. And it doesn’t take a Farm Bill—although federal regulation certainly helps—to force corporations to respect land and people right now; they respond to our buying habits and boycotts.  Furthermore, a drive for change in one dimension can often build capacity to tackle another, bigger one.  And a diversity of campaigns, from the very personal to the political, is helpful since people need different points of entry into the movement and different ways to stay involved.  The degree to which all this diverse activity leads to a major breakthrough is the degree to which we can connect the dots: how well we manage our databases, sequence our events, and tell a cohesive story (back to communications!).  Look at Even closer to our issue, look at the Energy Action Coalition, which unites young people from a range of organizations in the clean energy movement.  In their own words, their work “focuses on four strategic area: communities, campuses, corporate practices and politics.”

6. Diversity. It’s not just our campaigns that should be diverse.   “Monocultures aren’t healthy in agriculture, and they aren’t healthy for the movement either,” Winona LaDuke, explained at Terra Madre last October (I am paraphrasing; she was much more eloquent). “You need us,” she said, referring to the relationship between her majority white audience and indigenous people. “We’ve been doing this for 500 years.”  This is not just about demographics and inclusion,” as the word “diversity” may too strongly imply.  This is also, as the recent Food Justice Manifesto put it, about transforming “relations of power and privilege to become relations of equality.” Among other things, that will mean people of privilege actually giving up some of their power.  As someone with both class and education privilege, I find this to be perhaps the most challenging and important idea I am wrestling with relating to the movement and my place in it. The Manifesto says much more on this point.  It also paints an important picture of this movement, and for both reasons, is a must-read: (

I’ll just add this to the dialogue: A couple years ago, a graduate student visited The Food Project. He was studying what he called “expressive change” organizations.  They are rare, he said, since they are entities that actually live the change they are seeking in the world; communities that both seek a social change outside of themselves and express that change within.  Thinking about our power relationships, is this another way to describe what we want? Not to be just a social change movement, but an expressive change movement?

7. Agility.  In this stage of a movement, the ability to respond quickly to changing conditions—crises, opportunities, the twists and turns of federal legislation—is much more important than it was before. And this is where our self-image also comes into play.  If we view ourselves as bounded by the nonprofit-philanthropic world, we will probably limit our effectiveness. Would we be honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. if he had spent more time writing grants and identifying measurable outcomes than focusing on tactics and strategy? Foundations that are interested in large-scale systems change (and hopefully, most remain focused on the important grassroots work in communities) can help by understanding that we are entering a particularly fluid stage of the movement and by aligning their criteria with things that will really matter.  At the same time, we need to look beyond foundations for support.  Going to “the people” will also force us to hone our messages and make sure that our work is of true value to the community.

When we get clear about what the ingredients of success are in this next phase, it’s not too hard to see why young people are likely to play such an important role.  As a demographic, young people—people in their teens, twenties, and thirties—are…

•    …Often more willing to take risks, think differently, and reach across boundaries than adults.  That makes them quicker to become “movement people” and to embrace a more expansive view of the movement.  This young generation, in particular, grew up in the age of the Cosby Show, and has different experience of race than older ones. (I am on the cusp.  My parents, a bi-racial couple from the midwest and Ghana, met when it was still illegal for blacks and whites in many states to marry.  I was raised in the reverential shadow of the Civil Rights/Black Freedom movement, but only really experienced that struggle as history.)
•    …More physically concentrated in schools and tend to have fewer life distractions (e.g., children, aging parents) than older folks.  That often means they can mobilize more quickly around collective goals and can be major source of targeted pressure. (There are 34 million high school and college students in the US.  What if even 1 percent of them were mobilized to contact their legislators?)
•    …Highly attuned to new technologies, new language, and new modes of communication (e.g., MySpace, Facebook). That, plus the fact that they are not entrenched in jargon means that they are often more effective communicators .  Indeed, young people are drivers of popular culture.
•    …A powerful economic block, both through their individual purchases and through their institutions (schools, and colleges); there is a reason that so much food advertising is aimed at them.  If they choose to, they can take a lead in transforming the practices of institutions and corporations.

This isn’t just theory.  History shows that young people often play a critical role in social movements, especially in the later stages. In April of 1960, three hundred college students gathered in Raleigh, NC to determine how they could build on the success of their sit-ins.  The organization that emerged, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was instrumental in creating the climate of crisis that paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine the civil rights movement—from SNCC to the Freedom Rides, to the Little Rock Nine—without the organized energy of youth.  (Martin Luther King himself was just 26 when he was drafted into the movement in the early 1950s).

Even more to the point, young people are poised right now to play a major role in the food movement. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student Farmworker Alliance have already forced the fast food industry to the negotiating table for the first time in 30 years.  The Real Food Challenge is taking aim at $4 billion worth of college food spending; in effect, getting schools to divest from industrial agriculture and invest in a fair, green food economy. And a new generation of leaders has been nurtured by the Rooted in Community network, the Food Project’s Cadre program, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute’s internships, United Students for Fair Trade, the Black Water Mesa Coalition, and others.

If they seize the opportunity, an organized group of young people could inject this movement with some vital energy.  United across lines of race, class, and geography, they could be the force that gets us to a tipping point. To truly harness the unique perspectives of young people, such a group or coalition should remain largely independent of more established organizations (even if an established group did serve as a fiscal sponsor).  To ensure that it’s around for the long haul, it should also be careful to develop new leadership and to include non-students.  It’s worth noting that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee dissolved within seven years as its initial leaders went on to graduate school or other endeavors.

Not only could young people play a critical role, they should.  They have the greatest stake in the future. As Josh Viertel told Slow Food’s International Congress a year ago, “There is bad news and good news about the youth of America. The bad news is that this is the first generation in America to have a shorter life expectancy than it’s parents.  The good news is that there is a group of young people who are determined to change that.” Another reason we need young people is that they may be the best guard against one of our biggest obstacles: the greenwashing of the industry with unjustified and confusing claims about nutrition, the environment, and social responsibility.

For both youth and adults, it will be important to adopt a mindset of “patient urgency.”    A sense of urgency should be easier since we really are fighting for our survival.  The recent Food Justice Manifesto is infused with this spirit. It’s a spirit we need to maintain, especially as we work in new arenas.  When your issue has been marginalized for a long time it can be surprisingly hard to claim your rightful place at the table.  Even the dynamic leaders at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1847, where the women’s suffrage movement was born, hesitated to put the right to vote on their agenda because they expected the idea would draw great ridicule. (It did.)

On the other side of the equation, a measure of patience is important to deal with the serious conflicts that will arise, particularly within the movement and particularly in this third stage, when the stakes get higher and the backlash from entrenched powers begins, Every social movement—from Indian Independence to the Gay Rights Movement—is a story of fierce debate and disagreement when it is viewed from within; it comes with the territory.  It’s how we deal with our disagreements (with rigor and love versus blame and silence) that determines whether or not they become a source of strength or weakness.

Patience also a good quality when dealing with our expectations about the movement and it’s trajectory.  As much as there is to learn from history, this movement will be its own thing.  It can’t and won’t look the same—it’s bound to surprise us—and that’s another reason that youth, who are most attuned to the present and future, will naturally lead the way.  Secondly, the movement probably won’t even feel like a movement for a while—at least not in the way that most of us expect it to based on our history text books and Hollywood training.  Myles Horton, cofounder of the Highlander Folk Center and a leader in both the labor movement and the civil rights movement, was very aware of the ebbs and flows of a movement.  In 1961, he described the later stage this way:

People learn faster and with more enjoyment when they are involved in a successful struggle for justice that has reached social movement proportions, one that is getting attention and support outside the movement, and it’s socially big enough to go far beyond the individuals involved. It ’s a much bigger experience than anything you’ve had before as an individual. It’s bigger than your organization, and it’s qualitatively different, not just more of the same. I want the struggle for social and economic justice to get big and become so dynamic that the atmosphere in which you are working is so charged that sparks are darting around very fast, and they explode and create other sparks, and it’s almost perpetual motion. Learning jumps from person to person with no visible explanation of how it happened….

I don’t think we are there yet—the learning perhaps, but not the attention and support from outside.  But I believe we will get there.  While our movement is relatively young, its roots are old—they stem from the deepest truths of nature and human nature.

Several years ago, a brilliant young leader from Vancouver, Alice Miro, told me about her “40 year plan to change the world.” It has stayed with me ever since, and I think it captures the spirit of our new phase: urgent and patient, dreamy and realistic, ambitious and specific, outward-looking and self-aware, youthful and wise.

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