How Can We Create a True “Food Democracy”?

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

by Erica Kohl-Arenas

Oprah Winfrey has dedicated three shows to the sustainable food movement in as many years:  there’s no surer sign that sustainable food has captured the public’s imagination.

The claims being made for sustainable food are equally captivating.  According to an Oprah Magazine blog post:
“If you want to dodge obesity, avoid chemicals, and reawaken your taste buds, take a pass on industrial food and think flavorful free-range chicken; lean, grass-fed beef; tomatoes that still smell of the garden. There’s a growing movement that’s transforming what we put in our mouths.”
Eating healthfully, slowly, chemical-free, and locally are all incredibly important in our fast paced, over processed world.  But this message usually leaves out some of the most devastating health impacts of the way most food is produced in our society:  the health of industrial food workers.

In many cases, the food movement ignores the health of those closest to the food produced, and often the diagnosis is grim.

According to the National Center for Farm Worker Health, Inc., “The health status of migrant farm workers is at the same standard of most Third World Nations, while the country in which they work, the United States, is one of the richest nations on earth. Unsanitary working and housing conditions make farm workers vulnerable to health conditions no longer considered to be threats to the general public. Poverty, frequent mobility, low literacy, language, cultural and logistic barriers impede farm workers’ access to social services and cost effective primary health care.”

Aligning concerns for farm worker health with the sustainable food movement is possibly the most important strategy for changing the way that our food is produced and consumed. This alignment could also push the sustainable food movement to new heights. It would gain legitimacy across cultural and economic lines -what has been called a middle class or bourgeois “foodie” movement could become the next social movement of our time: Food Democracy for All.

Unfortunately, many of the people most concerned about local, healthy foods have historically been unconcerned – or unaware – of the problems farm workers face.

In the 1970’s when Farm Worker Movement leader Cesar Chavez launched an ‘organic produce’ campaign focusing on anti-pesticide organizing the United Farm Workers union was swamped with a record number of calls from the general public. However, according to a long time farm worker organizer, a large majority of the callers were interested in where they could buy organic produce and not how they could participate in improving working conditions for field workers.

Today the sustainable food movement is still primarily motivated by consumer health concerns rather than a broader analysis of social and economic justice in our predominant agricultural food systems. For example, in Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, Julie Guthman reveals that organic farmers are not immune to the challenges of making a profit under current market standards and land prices and are increasingly forced to adopt industrial practices that result in unjust and unhealthy labor production practices.

This alignment of individualistic consumer concerns with the broader human and economic challenges of our time will have to be crafted and promoted by people who understand the deep connections between both, as well as the necessity of addressing them together. One example of an organization that is already doing this is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida. CIW considers its work part of a global ‘Fair Food’ movement. CIW is a community based organization comprised of mainly Latino, Mayan, and Haitian field workers, but it also includes other low-wage workers, students, food outlets, and advocates from other sectors. Through its ‘Dine with Dignity Campaign’ CIW shows consumers who care about how their food is grown and processed that  withholding of pay, sexual abuse, poor conditions, and even literal slavery are all too common in the  agricultural industry. In recognition of its work the CIW was awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, the first time the award had gone to a U.S.-based organization.

Roots of Change (ROC), an initiative designed to create a sustainable food system in California, is another hopeful project to align the sustainable food movement with worker health. Yet the same year the director of ROC told me that it was close to reaching its ‘sustainability goals’ in the Napa County grape industry, journalist David Bacon was promoting his photo series picturing migrant workers sleeping in drainage ditches and tents surrounded Napa Valley vineyards. Like during the farm worker movement of the 1960’s, aligning labor rights with a broader American social movement will not come easily. It will have to be created and lived. And maybe, like me, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and even Oprah Winfrey will start to promote the idea that the convergence between the health and safety of food industry workers and the sustainable food movement is one of the most essential alliances in the coming years.


Erica Kohl-Arenas, a faculty member in Organziational Systems at Saybrook University, co-directs the Leadership of Sustainable Systems Masters Degree program.

Saybrook University is a Triple Pundit partner. TriplePundit continues to work with Saybrook University as a partner this month. We'll be hearing from faculty and students in Saybrook's innovative Organizational Systems curriculum.

The posts on this page represent a variety of voices from the Saybrook community on subjects related to organizational evolution and systems thinking. Please feel free to share them and comment!