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PacificEdge | July 26, 2017

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The Community Food Movement: Can Silicon Valley reinvent the fair food movement?

The Community Food Movement: Can Silicon Valley reinvent the fair food movement?
Russ Grayson

The community food movement: a series about the emerging social movement around food…

 

THE FAIR FOOD MOVEMENT is diverse and fractured. It is made up of small organisations each pursuing their own goals that in some cases are too lofty for poorly-resourced groups to achieve, while elsewhere other organisations are going about achieving them.

We might understand the fair food movement through its segments:

  1. Community organisations and individuals that often focus on small scale, practical initiatives such as growing veges and fruit at home or in community food gardens. There is also buying through food co-ops and organic food buyers’ groups. These initiatives are local in focus and they constitute the grassroots of the social movement around food. This is a broad movement but that broadness, that diversity, has limitations when it comes to reach and influence because the different systems and organisations are not closely coupled. It Is not a well interconnected movement.
  2. Social enterprise and small business focuses on using business models to make things happen. Examples of social enterprise in the supply of food here in Australia include Brisbane Food Connect, CERES Fair Food in Melbourne and Ooooby in Sydney.
  3. Food advocacies apply pressure at the political level, often through use of social media as well as through conventional advocacy channels such as fora, intervention in elections and direct lobbying of politicians.
  4. Academics and some writers talk about food systems in trying to understand what it that others are doing.
SA-market-2

The social movement for safer, tastier and fairer food has brought renewed interest in buying from produce markets. Photo: Adelaide Central Market. ©Russ Grayson

All of these examples are part of a social movement around fair food that has been building since the 1990s but that has really taken off only in the last ten to fifteen years. As a NSW government assessment of the community food movement found earlier this year, the community food movement exists but it has evolved as fractured and leaderless, a observation reiterated by a woman in a leadership role in a Melbourne social enterprise assisting community gardens and community food in social housing estates, when she spoke at a Sydney University seminar on community food systems earlier in 2015.

As well as the fracture between individual organisations operating in this social movement around food, the movement is fractured into larger chunks. There’s:

  • the part of the movement that grows its own food in home and community gardens, what we can call the DIY production segment that produces some of what it eats and that occasionally distributes a small surplus through the food swaps that come and go
  • the small farms chunk made up of primary producers selling to the small specialist food businesses, selling direct-to-eater at farmers’ markets and to the community supported agriculture social businesses; this is the basis of the ‘local food’ movement
  • the small business chunk that includes both for-profit and nor-for-profit businesses and that
  • those specialist retailers, fresh food home delivery services, farmers’ markets, food co-operatives and organic fresh food buyers’ groups; this sector is the physical and commercial link between farmers and urban people and is thus known as the ‘distribution’ segment
  • the advocacy chunk made up of organisations, usually incorporated associations, that lobby and educate around the values of the community or fair food movement; this sector does not produce or deal in food; ideas, publicity, education and politics are its focus and it works to further establish the movement as a social and economic entity and to push for regulatory and legislative means to ensure its prosperity.

About terms

A word about terms. The movement has become known as the ‘community food movement’ because it started in the community rather than the business sector of society and because it specialises in supplying a general preference for food that is fresh or minimally processed, grown mostly within the region where it it eaten and is often, though not ways, produced by organic farming and processing methods. That organic status may be organic as officially certified by an organics certification agency of uncertified organic that is often sold as ‘chemical free’ or some similar terms because many small farmers cannot afford the cost of official certification.

It was food advocacy organisations that coined an alternative to the ‘community food’ term — “fair food’. Here the fairness is about a fair economic return to farmers, a preference for an Australian-owned food processing and distribution industry and an Australian-first preference in the food retail market. This places it at odds with globalised food markets although it is not completely opposed to the export and import of foods. The terms have become interchangeable with ‘fair food’ the preferred label when it comes to the politics and economics of food.

Complicating the fair food movement is a tension between the need for participating farmers to obtain a living income and the reality that something like 16 percent of Australians experience food insecurity at some time. They don’t know where next weeks’ meals are to come from. For some, this is a persistent reality. They cannot afford the higher cost of organic food, thus supermarket prices and specials remain particularly attractive. It is in this way that food security complicates the call for social and economic justice for farmers and complicates the call for fairness in food.

These are some of the divisions within what is a broad social movement. Would this broad though diffused movement around food, then, benefit from adopting a more defined approach that focuses on an umbrella issue that also goes towards achieving the particular interests of individual groups? And how could the Silicon Valley approach help with this?

Venues like Adelaide's Central Markets are popular places to shop for food and link regional growers to urban markets. Part of their popularity stems from their persoanlised shopping experience that stands in marked contrast to the supermarket's industrialised shopping experience.

Venues like Adelaide’s Central Markets are popular places to shop for food and link regional growers to urban markets. Part of their popularity stems from their persoanlised shopping experience that stands in marked contrast to the supermarket’s industrialised shopping experience. Photo: Adelaide Central Market. ©Russ Grayson.

Lessons from the Valley

…The idea of asking Silicon Valley opinion was to derive insight from the successful approaches taken in technology development…

Silicon Valley might seem a strange companion plant for the community or fair food movement. A little thought, though, suggests that the innovative approaches and open thinking that has characterises parts of the tech industry

might be transferrable to reinventing our food system.

This was the question for participants in a remotely conducted conversation, ninety minutes edited down to eleven online, organised by the Reinventors Network in the US. Among those participating were food writer and advocate, Michael Pollan, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, Ali Parvoti, the Union of  Concerned Scientists‘ Ricardo Salvador and others from the US fair food milieu including a farmer and people from food-based NGOs.

The idea of asking Silicon Valley opinion was to derive insight from the successful approaches taken in technology development. It is often useful to bring in ideas from different areas as they can offer new insights and, perhaps, new ways to get things done.

A single, achievable focus

… to drive the fair food movement forward would require a coalition of food advocacies, food practitioners and educators …

Creating a single, achievable focus is the starting point of any successful social movement. Ali Parvoti said the food movement focuses on many things, however the Silicon Valley approach would bring a different mentality to the issues in that it would offer simple, elegant, focused and tangible solutions. He was talking about the need for a cohesive approach by the presently-multi-focused fair food movement.

To create the needed cohesion to drive the fair food movement forward would require a coalition of food advocacies, food practitioners and educators getting together to create some kind of shared, national entity. This was started some years ago on a region-level basis first by Food Fairness Illawarra and a short time later by the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance.

The first to attempt this nationally has been the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. They attracted public interest and both they and the Sydney alliance achieved some initial successes, with the Sydney alliance attracting participants from the nutritional health and community sectors. Nationally, advocacy has drifted to Melbourne and that city seems to have the greatest level of interest in social issues. National organisations are poorly represented in Sydney and other capitals although there are regional organisations that are tentatively part of the national advocacy group.

Organisational willingness the first priority in building the movement

…Working against building some kind of national, common goal is the tendency for people with common interests to create new organisations …

The first requirement in creating a cohesive drive for the fair food movement is organisational willingness, and harnessing that depends on working out where mutual advantage lies. It’s like mutualism in ecosystems where strength and resiliency is increased through commensal relationships, sharing the same space but not being interdependent. Economic philosopher Adam Smith said something similar, about how pursuing self-interest creates social good.

Working against building some kind of national, common goal is the tendency for people with common interests to create new organisations rather than seek their interests through an existing organisation that could be adapted to accommodate their goals, and so be strengthened. The fractionalisation that results facilitates a specialist focus but it potentially dilutes the movement as a whole. What you can get is a bunch of small organisations with much in common, with each individually pursuing their own goals but less effectively than they could were they to work through a smaller number of organisations and strengthen them though adding their knowledge and skills to the pool.

What we are talking about here is the way that a larger number of small organisations or social media sites can diffuse constructive effort at the larger or national scale rather than concentrate it through a small number of sector-wide organisations.

We see this demonstrated on Facebook where you find numerous organisations and individuals covering much the same territory but with little coordination between them to give the ideas expressed there some impetus.

Focusing on what’s common between organisations as the basis for cooperation and setting aside that which isn’t would seem the way to go in seeking cohesion.

A national food policy

Speaking at the Reinventors Network’s online conference, food writer Michael Pollan favoured developing a national food policy for the USA. He says government has national health and agriculture policies but no food policy. A food policy, he said, would address health, landuse, foods security and food safety, all of which are uncontroversial. For the social movement around food, advocacy of a national policy would offer focus, drive and political momentum aimed at the reform of the present system.

 

…According to Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur, Ali Parvoti, the food movement needs a focus on winnable, short term solutions…

 

Pollan said that federal incentives for farmers to produce certain commodities distorts the market, and, consequently, there is no free market around food in the US. An open market system would be guided by consumer demand.

An open market not distorted by government subsidies, industry preferences or the protection of established food undustries or business models would guide farmers in what to produce and how to produce it, however it is potentially what those tech entrepreneurs participating in the Reinventors event would call a ‘disruptive technology’ because it would call into question government subsidies to farmers, economic policy and cozy market arrangements such as the supermarket duopoly dominance of the Australian grocery market.

Just as blogging disrupted the comfortable world of the old media of newspapers TV and radio, and just as Uber is disrupting the taxi industry, a free market led by consumer preference could disrupt the food industry. While it might call into question some government policy around agriculture, trade and food, the type of policy it would call for is that which protected the freedom of the market segments to pursue their goals, whether those be a market that includes labelled processed foods or that of the organics industry. The differences in market segments such as these would be played out through public education.

Like code from a start-up

…the food movement needs a focus on winnable, short term solutions…

At th Reinventors, seminar, ideas flowed like code from a Silicon Valley start-up:

  • there is potential for political gridlock in developing national policy on food, said one of the participants
  • another said that national food policy should focus on good diet and that would provide the focus for agriculture
  • climate change could leverage action, as one-third of the carbon in the atmosphere was once in soil, and we can fix that
  • then there’s the 40 percent of food that is wasted.

Perhaps most important for any attempt to provide a policy focus for the food movement, and this applies in Australia too, was the comment by one of the particiants that policy is too intangible a thing for people to focus on. According to Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur, Ali Parvoti, the food movement needs a focus on winnable, short term solutions.

With Australia’s federal proposal for a national food plan scrapped, and inspired by a Canadian example, early in 2014 the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance started to take an interest in state food policy in the form of state government acts of parliament — essentially, local food acts.

This idea seemed to have gained some traction in Victoria and there appeared to be interest in Tasmania, however reception in NSW was cool although around eight years ago the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance was advocating for state government policy of this type.

There was no response from other states and territories. The NSW response reflected the different focus of food organisations and their constituencies in that state. In NSW, it’s food security-focused organisations consisting predominately of nutrition, health and community workers that has taken leadership on fair food issues while in Victoria it is organisations working in food sovereignty that are prominent. Interest among food advocacies in state food policy appears to have declined.

Policy too remote

…much will depend on how the proposal is positioned in the public marketplace for ideas …

The statement in the Reinventors Network video about policy being unattractive is right.

If the idea of state food acts of parliament is to gain traction it will have to be made into a sticky idea the focus of determined, state-based campaigns to popularise it. When it comes to recruiting people and existing food organisations, much will depend on how the proposal is positioned in the public marketplace for ideas and on how those organisations could realise their aims through the proposed acts of parliament. Cooperation and collaboration will be indispensable.

There’s still the question about how a food advocacy would attract participation by those small, often localised groups whose members are likely to share the Australian attitude that government and policy are things remote from everyday life and are best ignored. You can go out and make a food garden, you can go join a food co-op, but what can you do about making food policy happen? It seems too specialised and too distant from the everyday, the realm of specialist political elites and consultants.

It’s this question that will have to be worked out if the fair food movement isn’t to risk walking the same path as those small political groups that have devolved into fractionalisation and irrelevence.

If a decision is taken to pursue either another attempt at a national food policy or state-based acts of parliament, and if the social movement around food wants a say, then it’s going to have to attend to that which Michael Pollan and Ali Parvoti talked about — building a coalition around an achievable focus and coming together into a cohesive entity to achieve it.

Watch the Reinventors video: https://m.youtube.com/watch?list=TLHqXdf3Ss5VE&v=ElOy-yXln60

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