The Community Food Movement: Seven big challenges
The community food movement: a series about the emerging social movement around food…
THE COMMUNITY FOOD MOVEMENT, the fair food movement… call it what you will, there is a nascent but discernible churn going on that is slowly but surely building a social movement around food. Not just any food, and certainly not supermarket or fast food, but food that is nutritionally fortifying, often organic but not always so, food that is local in the sense that most of it is consumed in the same region it is produced, and food that pays a good return to Australia’s small farmers and food processing and distribution businesses.
Many strands stemming way back to the 1970s have come together to form this emerging fair food movement. Food fears stemming initially from the chemical additives incorporated in mass market food products date back to the origin-time of the movement in the Australia of the 1970s. Nutrition and associated health impacts of food became more prominent in the 1990s and were later joined by new fears around technological innovation in food such as the use of GMOs.
A more recent trend has been the focus on access to good food for all — food security — and the economic impacts of our food system, especially the effects of the dominant supermarket duopoly in Australia and its role in determining just what is offered to Australians as food. Not long ago, the supermarket duopoly’s poor treatment of the Australian farmers that supply it has brought it notoriety (and here).
When we look, what we find emerging today a countercurrent, a social movement around food that favours smaller producers and distribution channels, fair returns to farmers, nutritional value and community initiative in do-it-yourself food production.
For this movement to multiply and prosper, for it to spread across the nation, there are a number of challenges to be met to take it from the early adopter phase into early mass adoption.
1. Defining the movement
We often think that we are talking about the same thing when we are not. What does it mean when we talk about the community food movement? It turns out that we sometimes mean different things. Adding to the confusion is the amorphous structure of the movement itself.
If we want to bring a little more cohesion and commonality of purpose to the community food movement we are going to have to describe in a little more detail what it we are talking about.
There are different ways to define the movement and all are correct to some extent. Is the community food movement:
- only non-commercial community-growing and food distribution systems like home and community gardens and food swaps?
- inclusive of those activities plus the social enterprise, not-for-profit food initiatives like community supported agriculture and food co-operatives; these have the sale of good food as their primary goal and to enable that they adopt a business model of operation
- should a definition of the community food movement include all of the models mentioned above plus the small business, for-profit entities with a social goal such as making available good food; these are sometimes called ‘social businesses’
- should a definition include commercial education entities such as organic gardening and permaculture education providers?
- what about local government initiatives that educate people in how to grow food and about exchange through the collaborative economy?
- what about including food advocacy organisations even though they do not produce or trade in food? do they fit the definition of what constitutes the community food movement?
I list these questions because different definitions of the community food movement have included some of the above but not all of them. There are varying definitions of what is inside and outside the movement.
An inclusive answer would say that all of the above form a rather loose community food movement. We could also say that they seldom act in common, although some of them have a level of cohesiveness through their organisations. We could say with some accuracy that many of those entities remain unaware that, together, they constitute a de facto, though presently nascent, community food movement.
2. The challenge of becoming self-aware
There are numerous local and regional food initiatives around the country. They span a diversity of activity — food security lobbies, food sovereignty groups, online systems linking food producers and eaters, community food gardeners, food swaps, home food gardeners, educators, food cooperatives and community supported agriculture distribution schemes, organic buyers groups and more.
What these initiatives do not have is a collective self-awareness of themselves as a national social movement, however signs that there is some self-awareness are evident in social media postings. As yet, no single organisation has risen to focus solely on developing a leadership role in the movement although some like the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance aspire to that.
Whether any single organisation could provide leadership is questionable, given the diversity of organisations that make up the incipient movement. Some have said that while diversity is good in principle it is also a barrier to shared action and to developing a self-conscious social movement around food. This is because the different initiatives and enterprises within this incipient movement are mostly self-focused — their focus remains firmly on their part of the community food movement.
…Other than the 16 percent of Australians who are so food insecure they don’t know where next week’s meals are to come from, how people spend on food is like a vote for the type of food they prefer…
It is the consumer end of this community food movement where the power lies. Innovative farmers might develop new approaches to food production and new farm business models but people have to be willing to pay the sometimes higher prices they ask. In a society in which low food prices are considered a good thing that’s always going to be something of a challenge though not an insuperable one. We see that when people act on values such as supporting small scale family farmers, organically grown food and food from the region where they live. Doing this is a values-based approach to food choices and there remains considerable space into which to expand this approach, but doing that will require organisations that have a consumer, primarily urban (because it is in cities and larger towns where most Australians live) approach.
Other than the 16 percent of Australians who are so food insecure they don’t know where next week’s meals are to come from, how people spend on food is like a vote for the type of food they prefer, how it has been produced and through what type of distributor it is sold. A community food movement that is conscious of its scale and power could go far in influencing people on how and where they spend on food and their freedom of choice in doing that.
3. Define a set of commonalities
Identifying what interests these diverse food enterprises have in common will be necessary for effective advocacy.
There are at present only a few organisations with potential to do this, however recent research into the community food movement suggests there remains a long way to go before this is achieved.
What could force this recognition of common interest as a basis for effective advocacy would be some kind of crisis. This probably remains the most viable stimulus to action, as has been shown time and again in other areas.
4. Avoiding excessive localism
Localism is good because it brings the global down to a manageable level at which we can take action. But it comes with limitations.
…even if action at the local level is successful, it will be of little broader use if it is not communicated so those elsewhere can gain inspiration to take similar action…
Let’s think of localism in terms of the old ‘think global, act local’ saying. Behind this saying is the belief that local action can solve big challenges by tackling their manifestation at the local level. This latter is the belief of the Transition Towns movement. Critics point out that even if action at the local level is successful, it will be of little broader use if it is not communicated so those elsewhere can gain inspiration to take similar action.
Getting people to take local action on an issue could influence global issues in ways that are desired. Attract sufficient early adopters of an idea, Everett Rogers model of ideas diffusion says, and the idea becomes unstoppable, moving over time from the early adopters into the social mainstream. The path taken by organic food, that started on the social fringe in the 1970s to grow into a mainstream food industry today, is an example.
…Organisation at scale is necessary to achieve greater goals of common interest…
It is when local stays local that it is less useful. Had a farmers’ market association not been set up to connect farmers and advocate their common interests, all we would have would be a distribution of isolated farmers’ markets rather than their being given representation and voice through their association. That is, we would have a disconnected bunch of farmers markets left to their own devices. Organisation at scale is necessary to achieve greater goals of common interest.
This suggests that the best kind of localism is a connected localism. When it comes to the community food movement it is this connected localism that is important because it contexts local food initiatives within a broader movement.
It is achieving that where the big challenge lies. People’s interest often stops with their particular projects in their particular place. It requires a different way of thinking to make the mental leap — or to find the time — to become part of a bigger food movement and play a role in that.
Working against this is the low value and the negativism with which many regard lobbying and its attendant politics. It is is one of the brakes currently limiting the capacity of the community food movement to become more self-aware and to do something to protect and extend its interests. Rather than think global, act local, we need to think global and act globally as well as locally.
5. Avoiding Hubris
Hubris — presumption without evidence — is a characteristic of smaller, closely-connected organisations. It introduces the Immersion Delusion effect.
That effect comes from working closely with people of similar outlook and goals, and working within a particular organisation or practice. It comes from immersion and leads to the sometimes mistaken belief that the organisation or practice is more widely known and adopted than it is in reality.
An example: not so many years ago, some participants in the permaculture design system would make the claim that ‘everyone knows about permaculture’. They were members, often active members, of permaculture associations, and permaculture ideas and practices were their everyday experience.
A colleague and I put this to the test when teaching local government organic gardening and permaculture introductory courses. Participants were a broad cross-section of the region, spanning those who were financially comfortable to social housing tenants and including a wide age range and both genders, though the bias in attendance was towards females.
…Those attempting to build a cohesive community food movement thus benefit from stepping outside their echo chamber of common belief and finding out how their organisations are perceived by the public…
We found that permaculture was a term far from universal. When people had heard it they understood it not to be a comprehensive design system but a type of gardening. I believe there is wider understanding of permaculture today but that it is still not a universal term.
Personal relationships developed within an organisation can lead to the ‘echo chamber effect’ through which people bounce the same signals back and forth to each other, reinforcing them. At worst, this can lead to resistance to new ideas coming in from outside, resistance to the corrective feedback that what they are doing needs improvement and resentment of criticism no matter however valid.
So it can be with people working in community food system, fair food and food advocacy organisations. The Immersion Delusion effect can manifest as a positivistic hubris that is not born out in reality.
Those attempting to build a cohesive community food movement thus benefit from stepping outside their echo chamber of common belief and finding out how their organisations are perceived by the public. This could yield realistic insights that could only improve what they do.
6. Inclusiveness not exclusiveness
A social movement around food would need to accept whoever puts themselves up as a participant. This would become important were any single organisation to put itself forward as a leader.
Organisations, when setting up, sometimes define who is inside and outside their boundaries. The amorphous and diverse practices making up the community food movement would best be left to say whether they were a part of it rather than have some gatekeeper decide whether they fit into their organisation’s definition.
There is an element of self-management in this proposal, however it might be that were the movement to seek greater coherence, self-management might be the best and most inclusive way to go. The alternative takes us back to the bad old days of hierarchies and top-down lobbies.
In other words, the community food movement should be self-defining.
7. Adopting the right organisational structure
Any organisation seeking to represent the emerging community food movement needs to adopt an open, democratic and participatory structure because those characteristics are generally what is sought by participants in community-based organisations. They form their ethos and the expectation.
Advocacy groups need to take care not to overburden or alienate volunteers. Maintaining a large website is demanding of time and skill. So, too, is maintaining online membership records system. Organisational leaders need consult with members filling support roles before recruiting new people or making decisions to assist.
Organisational leadership needs to maintain frequent communications with members so as to make attractive the idea of doing work with the organisation and so as to remain open to good ideas coming from members, not just from the executive team.
Members need to feel involved and valued and not part of an organisation that practices managerialism — in which an executive makes decisions for members — but feel they are members of a participatory organisation.