Today, activism exists at every point in the food supply chain: how it’s produced (unsustainable farming practices; unsafe working conditions and exploitation of undocumented immigrants and prison labor; abuse of animals), who gets to produce it and how it’s sold (racial disparities in lending and investment; the corporate advantage of scale; misrepresentation and erasure of minority cultures) and who gets to eat it (poverty and hunger; neighborhoods lacking access to fresh, healthy food; moralizing over how food stamps are used). Some of these issues have been championed by high-end chefs, who in our obsessive food culture command a certain reverence, although their public exhortations tend to be more celebratory than confrontational — embracing seasonality and farm-to-table dining, for example — and stop short of policy recommendations. That might be changing with the pandemic: The Spanish-born José Andrés, who runs restaurants in Las Vegas, Miami and Washington, D.C., and who has provided disaster food relief for millions in the wake of hurricanes and disease, recently criticized the government for failing to end hunger due to a lack of “political will.”
But much of the deep work is happening out of sight, in grass-roots efforts like the community gardens that Karen Washington, 66, has built in the Bronx, which started in 1988 with a single garbage-strewn lot across the street from her home. She didn’t have a grand plan — it was enough at first just to have transformed an eyesore into an oasis she called the Garden of Happiness, and to be able to share fresh vegetables with her neighbors — but she soon found herself joining forces with other urban gardeners to fight the city’s attempt to evict them and auction off these once-neglected and now thriving sites for development. (In the end, conservation groups stepped in to buy some of the lots.) She has since cultivated many gardens and drafted policy proposals for government officials, but the heart of her work is still local, done in and for her community. During the pandemic, she went around the neighborhood checking that the elderly had enough to eat, and much of her harvest has gone to food pantries and soup kitchens. “If we’re cooking, we cook a little extra,” she says.
At the same time, she knows this is only a stopgap solution. “For so long we’ve been beholden to charity,” she says. “Food is given out; we stand on line. No one asks, ‘Why are we on the line?’”
THE FIELD OF food activism is so vast, it’s inevitably fragmentary, with many constituencies, from migrant blueberry pickers in Washington state, choking on the smoke of wildfires in summer, to Black urban farmers in Atlanta, contending with a racial legacy of land dispossession, to taco truck and halal cart operators on the streets of New York City who lost up to 80 percent of their sales at the start of the pandemic and were excluded from government relief because they deal mostly in cash, with limited documentation, at the fringes of the official economy. Many found themselves down to their last few dollars after working for years, sometimes 14 hours a day, and had to turn to food pantries to survive. “It’s shameful,” says Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, 30, the deputy director of the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center in Manhattan, which has a staff of six to advocate on behalf of around 20,000 street vendors, “that the people waiting in line for food are the people who’ve spent their lives serving food to others.”
Yet, since the 1980s, the primary message of the food movement to reach the broader public has been not a call to arms but rather a vaguely feel-good mantra: to eat more healthily by shopping at the farmers’ market and buying organic, unprocessed, non-mass-market foods. Certainly these strategies help the environment and support small businesses, but this sometimes seems like just a side benefit, with the emphasis on personal wellness, as if the only way to persuade people to “vote with their fork” on behalf of laborers or the planet were by appealing to their self-interest. It points to a tension in food activism between trying to influence individual acts of consumption, in hopes of bringing about incremental change, and taking direct political action. “The belief that we will change things through individual market choices is a way of not questioning the market itself,” says Eric Holt-Giménez, 67, an agroecologist and the former executive director of the Oakland-based think tank Food First. “We tend to concentrate on the romantic — the small farmer growing organic vegetables — when all this time we could’ve been fighting for parity and antitrust laws.”