Transforming our food systems

By Ana Zabala

In my first term of college, I took a class called Transforming Food Systems. Even though I may not have transformed the food system, I did transform my viewpoints radically.

Before, I firmly believed in just doing what is in my direct power. I did so, founded upon the premise that one can only control one’s own behavior, which I still believe is completely true. However, I have now discovered that one can use one’s behavior to influence external factors such as others’ behavior and ultimately, society.

I used to be completely convinced that transformation lied essentially in simple and individual efforts, such as growing food as a volunteer on remote farms in Colombia or making responsible daily life choices. I decisively affirmed that pushing for institutional change and politicizing efforts for transformation was inefficient; I thought it was a waste of energy and time because I shortsightedly believed it was “too difficult to change the system.”

Defining the problem as hunger contributes to the obfuscation of the underlying problems of poverty and inequality. Many people are indeed hungry, but hunger, like homelessness and other problems, is a symptom, not a cause of poverty. And poverty, in turn, is fundamentally a product of inequality.

However, hunger is easier to understand than an abstraction like inequality, so when the altruistic do something concrete about hunger, like charity, they can easily lose sight of the large issue of inequality. As green capitalism limits activism to individual purchasing power, food charity can contribute to the idea of personal responsibility and move us away from social responsibility. By isolating symptoms and defining them as problems, we only create more problems and move further away from transformation.

For instance, emergency food systems, such as food banks, can reassure us that no one will starve, even if nations end welfare. This is something certain legislators in the United States have used as a justification to adjust the tax system and get away with concentrating resources at the top. Poverty, however, is not being addressed and in fact, the real issue of inequality is being amplified. This is not to say that these programs have no value, though when they don’t shift their discourse from hunger to inequality, they lose transformative power and only perpetuate the status quo.

So how do addressing root causes and defining problems effectively look when talking about transforming the food system? For me, it lies in efforts for policy change because institutions are the underlying structure of society. The term “institution” applies to both informal institutions, such as cultural practices or behavior patterns important to a society, and to particular formal institutions created by entities such as the government and public services. After reading author and activist Janet Poppendieck’s work on the framing of token solutions, I completely understood and appropriated the idea of polycentric solutions. By acknowledging both the value of token solutions and their insufficiency to create structural change at the same time, we are formulating a theory of change that combines action at different levels of the food system.

If food access or food emergency programs want to have a transformative mission, they should strive to work themselves out of business. They could achieve this by shifting their discourse from hunger to inequality, and engaging in advocacy for public programs that address inequality and eventually eliminate hunger, while at the same time, acknowledging their current activity as a bandage solution that’s helpful in the short-term. In brief, they should act pragmatically in response to a short-term immediate need/symptom while thinking of a long-term goal of structural change, and considering ways to gradually incorporate transformative action into the pragmatic activities of the program.

These technical solutions must be accompanied by rhetoric that talks about systemic problems and root causes that might not be evident to the public. It is helpful to take care of the symptoms, but these will never disappear if the causes are not addressed.

There is unquestionable value in feeding the hungry, but we must not get lured into the immediate satisfaction and moral relief it gives and forget that the real problem is not hunger but inequality. Likewise, volunteering at farms in the jungle or being a responsible, ethical consumer can give me great moral relief but could dangerously help me forget that there is a whole broken system that I’m not directly addressing and that I should still be thinking about.

If I am privileged enough to analytically study the system’s failings both in academic and experiential ways, it is my responsibility to push for systemic change in a way that makes sense to me: pushing for policy change and creating new formal and informal institutions both as part of a counterframe movement such as food sovereignty and as a citizen who consciously exercises her right to vote and chooses governmental representatives accordingly. This is obviously accompanied by passive participation as a responsible consumer, which I now acknowledge as easily accomplished and limited by neoliberalism, in which one’s voice and vote is reduced to one’s purchasing power.

It is said that change starts within oneself. Thus, I started by transforming my belief system in order to transform the food system.

Ana Zabala is a resident of Bar Harbor.

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