Organic Consumers Association

The Push/Pull of the Food Movement by Anna Lappe
The Push-Pull of the Food Movement
by Anna Lappé
Conscious Choice, October 2003

Coming home today through thick New York City heat, I pass a sign tacked to
a telephone pole for a new farmers' market. A few blocks further, past a
community garden tucked between looming brownstones, I pick up my
community-supported agriculture (CSA) share and pile my bike with
strawberries, carrots, and a bunch of basil that leaves a scent trail all
the way home. Tomorrow I'll get the rest of my week's food from my local
co-op and in a few minutes I head out to meet Bryant Terry, founder of a
non-profit group that teaches youth about healthy eating.

The farmers' market is one week old, the garden is one of 500 now protected
by the city, a year ago the CSA (where I invest directly in a local farm and
receive fresh food weekly) didn't exist, the co-op has experienced its
largest expansion in history, topping 9,300 members -- and Bryant Terry?
He's not alone. In dozens of U.S. cities people are re-building local food
networks, from Slow Fooders preserving artisanal cheeses to hip-hop
activists mixing up environmental justice and food democracy.

Moreover, in a nine-country journey with my mother, the author Frances Moore
Lappé, we saw a parallel emergence from the foothills of the Himalayas to
central Brazil. In every community, we met people building food democracy,
reclaiming their food traditions and plant diversity and embracing healthy
food as a right -- not a luxury.

Factory Farms & Retail Giants Reign

This is a far cry from what's happening at the very same time: our food
system is moving toward ever more concentrated power, with a few companies
controlling every aspect of food from production to retail. (In the U.S., we
now have so few farmers that our national census no longer has a line for
their profession.)

How can both these observations be true? It is easy to grasp either/or; it
is harder to get our minds around both/and. But the truth is we are moving
in two directions at once.

Walk into any U.S. supermarket and you are bombarded with seeming abundance.
Yet nearly half the typical 30,000 supermarket items are brought to us by
just 10 corporations and an estimated one of every 10 dollars we spend on
food is going to just one -- Altria (the former Phillip Morris).

Food processing is also concentrated. University of Missouri professors Mary
Hendrickson and William Heffernan tell us that by 2002 the top four U.S.
beef packers made up 81 percent of the market, the top four pork processors
and producers 59 percent, and the top broilers 50 percent. From a farm
family herself, Hendrickson explained: "Twenty years ago we could drive up
in our truck with 23 hogs. Today, even 200 is considered a small load."

Hendrickson and Heffernan also do the math on the retail industry. The top
five biggies, with Wal-Mart at the top, now command 38 percent of the
market. They use this power to charge fees to distributors and manufacturers
for putting their products on the shelves and even to compensate for
products that don't sell, totaling $9 billion annually. Ultimately, we
stomach the bill.

This concentration affects us in more ways than just adding a few cents to
the price of potato chips. It affects the very fabric of rural community. In
Hendrickson's 350-person hometown in Nebraska, "we're lucky, we still have
one small market," she said. "In most of rural America, you drive 45 miles
to get to the nearest store." More dramatically, many rural areas are now
wracked with drug and alcohol problems commonly associated with cities and
suicide is a leading cause of death among farmers in the U.S.

Concentration among food companies has had political consequences as well,
with industry lobbyists shaping everything from nutrition guidelines to what
gets talked about at American Dietetic Association (ADA) meetings. At a
recent ADA gathering, workshops included: "Developing Consumer Messages to
Battle Portion Distortion and Fat Frustration," sponsored by the National
Cattleman's Beef Association (They wouldn't have any stake in getting us to
think differently about fat content, would they?). The ADA Web site includes
such informational pitches as "Flavor Enhancement...For Taste and Health in
the Later Years" about the benefits of mono-sodium glutamate, sponsored by
Ajinomoto (which happens to be the world's largest MSG producer).

According to Professor Marion Nestle, head of New York University's
Nutrition and Food Studies department, this corporate power has had
disastrous, sometimes even deadly, consequences on food safety. In her book
Safe Food, Nestle describes an American Meat Institute (AMI) injunction in
the 1990s against a Food and Drug Administration requirement to label meat
with cooking instructions for the prevention of foodborne illnesses. The AMI
argued the labels would unnecessarily frighten the public. The injunction
held. Nestle reports that the week of the court's decision, "three children
in Texas died from eating ground meet contaminated with E. Coli O157:H7."

One of the most far-reaching examples of corporate influence has been the
sudden and widespread introduction of genetically modified organism (GMO)
foods with no consumer demand and little public understanding. (A few years
ago pollsters found most Americans thought they'd never eaten GMOs foods,
though they were already in 60 percent of supermarket foods.) GMOs now grow
on 96 million acres in the U.S., nearly 9 million acres in Canada, and
millions more in 14 other countries, yet only a handful of companies
benefit. Five -- Dow, DuPont, Syngenta, Aventis and Monsanto -- control
three out of every four GMO patents issued in the past 10 years.

Taking Back Control

But this is only half of the story. Alice Waters, founder of the renowned
California eatery, Chez Panisse, and earth mother of organic cuisine, tells
us: "Saying I'm going to make a choice about the way I eat...this is a giant
step. This decision can send you down a beautiful path -- a delicious

With more consumers across Canada and the U.S. taking this "giant step," a
quiet revolution is underway, one that embraces a local, organic, and
democratic food system. Ann Gillespie, from the Vancouver-based Farm
Folk/City Folk Society describes the impetus behind the emergence of food
movements, "There is a growing sense that we're losing control of our food.
People want to take that control back, to buy local and know where their
food comes from."

The signs of this other direction are everywhere. In the past decade,
farmers' markets have increased by 79 percent in the U.S. CSAs have grown
from an idea in 1985 to more than 1,000 across North America today.

As I write this article, I read that New York City has banned junk food from
school vending machines and plans to trim fat from its 800,000 school
lunches served daily. No more Snickers, Mountain Dews, or Twinkies. With the
Centers for Disease Control claiming 20 percent of New York City third
graders and 21 percent of sixth graders are obese, this decision comes none
too soon.

I learn, too, about food policy councils emerging from Berkeley to New York
City, about a town in Iowa prohibiting the sale of non-organic produce in
town limits, about voters in North Dakota who have made it illegal for any
corporate entity to farm land in the state. And thanks to the eye-opening
investigative work of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Marion Nestle
(Food Politics, Safe Food) we're learning there's more to our food than
what's on the end of the fork.

Thirty years ago when Chez Panisse had just opened, my mother's Diet for a
Small Planet had just been published. Back-to-the-landers were starting to
trade granola recipes but researchers were also beginning to predict the
consequences of industrial farming. The evidence wasn't in back then.

Today, decades after the introduction of chemical pesticides, the evidence
is all too real. In the U.S., agricultural run-off has created an almost
8,000-square mile "dead zone," roughly the size of New Jersey, in the Gulf
of Mexico. When North Carolina was hit by massive flooding in 1999,
spillover from hog-farm "lagoons" -- large pools of waste from factory farms
-- contributed to one of the state's worst public health crisises in

Our food system has radically changed our bodies, too. The Organization for
Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that 31 percent of Americans
are obese -- a figure that rises to 61 percent, if one includes the diseases
related to overweight and obesity that claim the lives of more than 300,000
a year.

For all of these reasons -- from the personal to the global -- many more of
us are taking steps to help move us in a healthier, more sane direction.

Getting the Connection

Andy Fisher was an urban planning student in Los Angeles 10 years ago when
the riots rocked the city. Seeing the grocery stores burning and the growing
lines for food, Fisher started thinking about urban planning in terms of
access to healthy food. In a year-long study with fellow graduate students,
Fisher explained, "We saw how grocery stores literally abandoned South

That was his seed. Fisher, now 40, began bringing together people who had
never been in the same room before: anti-hunger activists, community
gardening folks, and family farm activists to talk about how to build urban
food security -- ensuring access to healthy, affordable, culturally
appropriate foods for everyone. He helped write legislation that became the
federal Community Foods Projects, which now gives $5 million annually to
community-based efforts and he launched the Community Food Security

Today, the Coalition has 250 members and is a key link among people working
to connect farms to educational food service programs, bring gardens into
schools, and improve access to healthy foods in inner cities.

On the other side of the country, in Brooklyn's low-income, predominantly
African-American neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, 29-year-old Bryant
Terry is making these connections, too. Last year, while working with
low-income youth, Terry became increasingly frustrated that no one was
talking about the food the kids were -- and were not -- eating. So the
Memphis, Tennessee, native decided to create "b-healthy!" a non-profit
agency educating young people of color about healthy eating and the politics
of food.

Terry often begins workshops by asking the kids to think of every food
advertisement they see in a typical day. "They come up with 50 in five
minutes -- and they're not ads for broccoli." No surprise, really. From 1991
to 2000, advertising on food doubled from $6 billion to $12 billion
annually. Terry says, "I think of this bombardment as a form of psychic

His workshops are conscious-raising and they're practical, with cooking
classes using whole foods and organic produce. "I celebrate what may seem
like small wins, like getting them to drink water." Terry explains that the
young people he meets rarely drink water, unless it's in Kool-Aid or

When I went to the b-healthy! graduation for its first class in a bustling
downtown Manhattan youth center, three of his students served me a delicious
organic smoothie. It was a far cry from a Slurpee.

Back on the West coast, Malaika Edwards, Brahm Ahmadi, and Leander Sellers,
three community organizers in their 20s, also started acting on their
frustration over the limited access to food in their community. Though
30,000 people large, West Oakland has only one grocery store (with 50 to 100
percent mark-ups) and 36 liquor stores!

The three launched the People's Grocery -- wanting to create a model that
could be helpful for other North American inner cities where access to food
is often a critical issue. What Ahmadi calls a "movement-based business,"
the People's Grocery, now a year and a half old, provides health education
and job training, has created community gardens and connections with local
farmers, and is launching a mobile market (think: "Mr. Softee" meets an
organic food co-op). "Organics and GMOs can feel far removed for young
people in our community," Edwards says, "but when we ask if anyone in their
family has diabetes or asthma and 80 to 90 percent say yes, they see the

"We're part of a growing food justice movement looking at the roots of
hunger -- asking why isn't there access?" Edwards explains. Ahmadi adds:
"And we're empowering our community by building an economic base using food,
because it is so universal and so intimate."

Edwards often leads tours of the community gardens. "No matter the age or
mood," she says, "everyone leaves happy. It's like natural Prozac."

I'm not going to argue we'll see change overnight or that Wal-Mart will go
away anytime soon. (With five of the ten richest people in the world from
the Wal-Mart founding family, that seems even more unlikely). But we also
must believe our eyes, ears, and taste buds, as our society heads in two
directions at once, we can choose. We can turn in the direction of hope,
choosing a path that is healthy for ourselves and our planet. Each of us has
that power.

Anna Lappé co-authored the national best-selling Hope's Edge: The Next Diet
for a Small Planet and co-founder of the Small Planet Fund. She regularly
speaks on food, politics, and globalization. Learn more at

© 2003, Dragonfly Media

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