The international food debate has exploded over the last decade, extending from the many banal and trivial TV programmes - “food pornography” as some call it - to the proliferation of local food groups, the development of ideas of “slow food”, and a burgeoning interest in all aspects of the food economy. A broader politicisation of food is evident in the emergence of some unusual political alliances and new political subjects - the gastronome, the dinner-lady and the small farmer (the last of which has reached almost cult status in the rapidly evolving food movements in the United States).
Indeed, I would argue that the movement around food in the US is one of the most significant of modern times, drawing as it does both on the traditions of the 1960s-1970s and the energy of the new social movements. Food has become - to use an older phrase now being recycled by contemporary activists - the “edible dynamic” at the heart of mainstream economic and environmentalist debates (see The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure [Pluto, 2008]).
Slow Food USA is becoming the most powerful political wing of the international Slow Food movement. It has a rapidly growing membership and a strong presence on university campuses, and is supported by an impressive range of writers and activists (such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser). The popularity of films like Food.Inc has touched a chord with a new generation; with more than 100,000 twitter followers, @SlowFoodUSA is now out-tweeting McDonald’s.
Britain’s Conservative-Liberal coalition government, in power since the election of May 2010, is pursuing a regressive health policy in regard to food. The health minister Andrew Lansley’s decision to involve fast-food chains like McDonald’s and supermarket monopolies in so-called “responsibility deals” threatens to halt encouraging initiatives to improve school dinners and tackle obesity and alcohol abuse.
Many of the new food movements have denounced the proposal. Jeanette Longfield of the food and farming group Sustain argues that this is the equivalent of allowing tobacco companies to decide on smoking legislation; the TV gardener Monty Don questions whether this is a “junk-food government. Yet the response from most of Britain’s centre-left, from the Labour Party and trade unions to assorted intellectuals, has been (to say the least) tepid. There has been little attempt to galvanise opposition amongst the growing movements, or prioritise food as an area where the government is vulnerable. Food, compared to other issues - fundamental as it is to so many of them - remains marginal for many on the left.
The appetite for change
This reflects a deeper flaw on much of the left (and here too Britain is something of a exception in relation to much of Europe). The enduring suspicions of sensual pleasure on the left reach a different sort of peak where food is concerned. The tendency to miss the unifying and egalitarian potential of food politics - and see only the divisive aspects - has led to their removal from some of the new movements.
The cultural underpinning here is partly that the left in Britain often confuses “pleasure” with “luxury” - in direct contravention of one of its heroes, William Morris, who condemned luxury as the “sworn foe” of pleasure because the race it entailed to provide goods for the rich had replaced the simple pleasures of life with ugliness and waste. Moreover, historians like EP Thompson (Morris’s biographer) and Raymond Postgate gave great attention to food in their accounts of early working-class movements; and Postgate went on to become the first editor of The Good Food Guide.
A positive sign here is Slow Food’s commitment to the “universal right to pleasure”, which draws on the energy of earlier social movements while arguing that everyone should have access to healthy, sustainable and good-quality food.
But more generally, the power of global capital and associated supermarket monopolies, the growing global divide between abundance and hunger, the conditions of workers in the food industry should all be at the centre of a sustained critique by the left about the new politics of food.
The food movement in the US has taken on these concerns, informed by post-1960s counter-cultural politics. Michael Pollan’s seminal article “The Food Movement, Rising” (New York Review of Books, June 2010) reflects on the ideas of the “back to the land movement”, Woodstock and the Diggers, to conclude that the current food movement encapsulates a similar focus on identity, community and pleasure.
The politics of food in the US also reflects the country’s deep ideological divide, where initiatives to tax soft drinks (the “soda tax”) go to the heart of the “cheap food economy” and its reliance on fast food and big global brands. At its simplest and most evocative, this politics is reflected in the idea of Slow Food Nation. This is more than a slogan, or simple opposition to fast food; it has become emblematic of an alternative way of living. After all, the idea as defined by Eric Schlosser expressed a form of domination that had entered into every “nook and cranny of American society” - implying that the alternative too needs to be be politically and culturally holistic.
The Slow Food Nation idea - originally the title of an event held in San Francisco in 2008 - is driven largely by a new generation of student activists, environmentalists, small producers and farmers as well as politically engaged foodies. A leading student movement in the country is Slow Food on Campus, which organises a range of “eat-ins”, boycotts of campus refectories selling GM or unsustainable food, and “buy-ins” of local organic produce from independent producers. These have had some success in changing catering policy but probably a bigger impact on what used to be called “consciousness raising”. Student-farmworker alliances have also had some success in gaining better working conditions amongst migrant workers.
Slow Food Campus was created by the Slow Food USA movement under the visionary leadership of Josh Viertel, a former farmer and youth food activist. Slow Food USA operates in quite different conditions from Italy, where the movement was founded; it is fast becoming the international movement’s most political arm in raising awareness of food poverty and inequality, and pressing politicians over the Farm Bill, school lunches, and other issues.
The taste revolution
There is no reason why the food movements should be the property of any ideological movement or political constituency. The politics of food has certainly brought together some unusual alliances, drawing in organic farmers, green activists, urban-guerrilla gardeners, and metropolitan gastronomes. The ecology of activism stretches wide, from (in Britain) the Soil Association and Sustain, which have forged effective alliances on the now-threatened school-food initiatives, to Slow Food UK, which has launched its own Slow Food on Campus.
Perhaps the one movement in Britain that embodies the energy of earlier decades is the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra). This group, founded in 1971, focuses on a wide-ranging set of concerns that encompass support for local beers and historic pubs with opposition to the power of big breweries and defence of the pub’s community role (an issue which relates directly to the availability of cheap supermarket alcohol and it association with many social problems). Camra’s impact in mixing politics and pleasure has brought it over 100,000 members, 200 branches, sixteen regional associations, and 5,000 volunteers who organise 150 beer festivals a year.
The politics of food and its implications for the new movements have been explored on openDemocracy (including in a series in 2003, and in later articles) and elsewhere. The distinctive feature of these movements is the links they make between politics, the economy, the environment and health.
The “edible dynamic” provides both a holistic critique of the way society is organised and a prefigurative approach to the future (reflected in the rise of the Transition Town movement which invests in local and sustainable food producers). Perhaps more than on any other subject, debates about food concern ways of living and the future of the planet, where - from from farmers’ markets to food festivals - citizens can taste what Alice Waters calls the “delicious revolution”.