Worrying About the Food Movement

Willis Jenkins

There is no more iconic image for the food movement than the farmers’ market. The image of neighbors meeting across crates of field-fresh produce is a rebuke of nearly every opaquely profitable link in the vast mercantile chain that distances farmer from eater – fields sown with biotech “solutions,” government subsidies to “big ag,” ruthlessly efficient industrial processors, food products intricately keyed to the neurology of craving and irrationalities of consumer choice. To the citizen who is uneasy about the conventional food economy, a farmers’ market appears to offer relief.

Yet I worry that a fondness for farmers’ markets may distract otherwise conscientious consumers from more difficult reckonings with the relation of food and markets. Has the food movement allowed us to think that we can eat our way to justice? That perhaps the best thing we can do about the malnourishment of people and land is enjoy some local heirloom tomatoes?

I ask that question of my own affection for farmers’ markets, and for local heirloom tomatoes in particular. I’ve read enough about the connections between conventional tomatoes and human trafficking of farmworkers to avoid them in the supermarket. When I can’t grow enough for myself, I look forward to buying them at the weekly market in my neighborhood. And, indeed, I regard that experience as more than niche provisioning. I think about it as participating in an alternative food economy that does a better job at nourishing citizens, supporting farmers, and caring for land. But I wonder if that is too easy.

In the U.S., farmers’ markets have made a remarkable resurgence over the past two decades. One mark of their success lies in the way conventional supermarkets have begun to mimic their images. Global food marketers now seek the appearance of authenticity by emphasizing the provenance of their ingredients and labeling items as “craft” and “artisan.”

Icon of Social Criticism

The attraction runs deeper than a shift in culinary aesthetic. The farmers’ market also serves as icon for many currents of social criticism. In response to American malnourishment and child hunger, for example, some reform projects seek more access to field-fresh produce. New initiatives are establishing farmers’ markets and community gardens in food deserts and working to get local produce into subsidized meals and food banks.

The farmers’ market as icon of social criticism carries over into academic books on social justice and sustainability, where an appeal to its alternative economy illustrates some possibility of challenging global capitalism (including in my own recent book).

One reason for this interest is that farmers’ markets seem one of the few places that citizens can exercise meaningful influence over economic relations otherwise determined by globalizing structures of capitalism. When citizens organize exchanges that honor reciprocity or celebrate landscapes, they have a chance to reorder a part of the economy to serve common goods. A farmers’ market may then perform a broader political hope: making markets work to feed people in ways that nourish earth and society.

However, there is a danger to letting enactment of an alternative economy substitute for broader reforms of market capitalism. Frustration with the absurdity of the conventional food economy may discourage hope that any reform is possible.

Observe how the “feed the world” slogan of industrial agriculture justifies faster global flows of food commodities and more intensive technologies, even while U.S. grain producers are happy to let 40 percent of the American corn crop feed our cars. Cynical capitalism that offers world hunger as rationale for agricultural production that feeds the cars of the affluent certainly dispirits reform efforts.

The Loudest Signals

Nonetheless, there are important ethical lessons that the food movement could learn from the way the conventional food economy moves. One lesson lies in the implication of missing demand. Grain will continue to fill empty gas tanks before empty bellies as long as the demand of drivers is better organized than that of hungry people. The reason that vineyards cover the earth when there are malnourished children on every continent is that those children can’t send a stronger demand signal.

The reason for perverse demand signals is simple and political: We permit stark inequalities to exist and allow them to have dire consequences. So a first lesson for the food movement is this: Complaints about agricultural priorities amid malnourishment must address the economic inequality shaping those priorities.

For example, responding to American food deserts should not stop with efforts to bring community gardens and farmers’ markets into those areas. The primary reason food deserts exist is that the people living there are poor. Food and water flee poverty and run to wealth. That is simply how markets respond to demand, and it makes for a systemic trap: Affluent people generally pay less for healthier food and safer water, while poorer people must pay more for worse food and riskier water.

The consequences often increase inequality: Hungry children cannot pay attention in school, parents of children with waterborne diseases cannot go to work, and so on.

A second ethical lesson comes from the supply side, and lies in tension with the first. Because environmental governance remains underdeveloped, many of the ecological costs involved in producing food are not reflected in its price. Most food is too cheap, in that sense, because its price does not reflect the real costs of producing it.

For example, the price of beef would be much higher if it included the cost of its impacts on nitrogen and carbon cycles. (Most visibly, the “dead zones” in the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico remain an unmeasured, unaccounted cost of livestock production.) The remedy requires a political commitment to make prices reflect ecological costs.

Foodie Hipsterism

A neighborhood patch of homegrown tomatoes and a farmers’ market might even make things worse, insofar as such projects imply that the major problems with our food economy are matters of individual choice. They might make it seem that empowered people should decide to grow food more conscientiously and make it more available while poor people must learn to make better food choices. But that just moralizes a dysfunctional institutional market, substituting hip foodie consumerism for serious politics.

At their best, however, attempts to strengthen alternative economies can be a start toward a politics that confronts poverty head-on. The food sovereignty movement is a good example of how local food reforms can energize broader demands for the end of systemic impoverishment.

What goes on in countless church basements is another: making food pantries and soup kitchens sites of culinary embrace and humanizing beauty. These projects may never transform daily democratic politics, but they surely can rise out of the Saturday basement and into prophetic sermons and collective witness.

The icon of the farmers’ market gathers real and lasting power only if it pushes attention beyond itself. It must stir a prophetic restlessness to bend market relationships toward friendship and convivial economy. It must inspire citizens to look beyond consumer choice toward an ecologically sane and pro-poor politics.

Food is a defining issue of our time. The future of food is the future of soil, the future of economy, and it will go a long way toward determining the human relationship with earth. The food movement faces a big question: Will it be the site where inequality is addressed, or where it is merely reproduced?

Willis Jenkins is associate professor of religion, ethics, and environment at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Future of Ethics: Sustainability, Social Justice, and Religious Creativity (Georgetown, 2013).