Top 3 ways Seattle can take our local food movement global

(Photo by Ivan McClellan )The hundred mile diet and eating organic are great. But foodies should think deeper if they want to make a real difference.  

Here in Seattle, we might not do Vitamin D, direct eye contact, or burritos particularly well compared to say, New York or San Francisco.

But one thing we’ve got down is the collective enthusiasm for local food. It seems you can’t grab a bite anywhere in this city without passing some nod to the movement, whether it’s the sustainable sourcing from any of the hundred farms less than two hours drive from Capitol Hill, the kale plants growing in medians in South Lake Union, or the P-Patches scattered throughout the city.

According to Wenonah Hauter, that’s all very nice, but we may be missing the point.

Hauter, Director at Food and Water Watch, a national not-for-profit advocacy organization, passed through Seattle a few weeks ago to promote her new book, “Foodopoly”, a provocative exposé on the business of food and the future of food activism. The book’s title points to the rapid consolidation of the food industry into a handful of powerful corporations to whom our policymakers defer, controlling legislation meant to adequately feed families, support farmers, and conduct ethical trade.


(Promotional video for Hauter’s book Foodopoly)

When Hauter visited last month, Town Hall was bursting with Seattle food-ies eager to hear the powerhouse food activist and organizer wax philosophical on one of our favorite topics.

Surprisingly, her talk was less choir-preaching and more choir-pushing. That is, pushing our commonly held beliefs on what is really going to change the food system.

Her main message?

Farmers Markets, CSAs, and local food hubs are excellent steps towards a fair food system and instrumental in building community. But food activists need to think deeper about the national and global intersections between trade, business, labor, and agricultural policy, if they really want to make a difference.

Corporate Interlock of Food CompaniesEven with all of our enthusiasm for local food, which has recently seen a thriving life in Seattle, the number-crunching in “Foodopoly” paints a grim systemic picture.

Sadly, income from small farms like the ones we love in Seattle are merely a drop in the behemoth bucket of the “big agriculture” industry: commodity crops of soy, corn, and wheat that amount to little more than the stuff of big macs. The companies who control the production of this food still control too much, and affect too many.

“If we really want to change the food system, we need to change some of the rules”, says Hauter. “This is more than just about voting with our forks”.

Global implications of a ‘Foodopoly’

If local food efforts alone cannot solve global problems, then our work as advocates must reflect that. The socio-economic turmoil stemming from a defunct food system has ripple effects around the world, where companies exploit cheap land, cheap labor, and lax environmental standards to produce the food we eat every day.

Today, we have twice the amount of food being imported into the US as there was ten years ago, rocking local market prices in the developing world. The United Nations deemed 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, but will that make it the year that poor Bolivians and Peruvians can no longer afford their own staple grain?

At the same time, the US overproduces nutritionally void commodity crops, dumps them on foreign markets through free-trade agreements or international aid programs, and in turn, local farmers in the developing world cannot compete with free-falling prices in their own countries.

The release of a recent interactive project by Oxfam is mirroring exactly what Hauter suggests food advocates should be moving towards: combining the fight for international rights abroad and ethical food at home, in a call for policy change. Oxfam provides a direct link between the American brands that define our food and the international faces behind them, from Nestle bottling scarce groundwater in Pakistan, to Coca-Cola facing child labor allegations in the Philippines.

Oxfam's Behind the Brands project aims to help consumers identify big food companies records on different environmental and labor matters. www.behindthebrands.org
Oxfam’s Behind the Brands project aims to help consumers identify big food companies records on different environmental and labor matters. www.behindthebrands.org

The project, “Behind the Brands”, allows consumers to search through recognizable brands like Minute Maid, Corn Flakes, and Nescafe. The tool exposes the brand’s parent company, and ranks them on issues like land and water conservation and treatment of workers in the developing world. The project calls on consumers to hold companies accountable for their actions abroad across the supply chain to produce the food we eat.

But wait, I thought Wal-Mart went green?

Mega-companies in the food industry are jumping on to the latest trend in business, corporate social responsibility. CSR is a definite paradigm shift in the right direction, but it has garnered skepticism around the authenticity of some of the biggest corporations in the food industry.

Companies like Pepsi and Wal-Mart have been accused of greenwashing their businesses, rolling out little more than a well-polished PR stunt to appease those concerned with environmental and social impact. Hauter likened the food industry giants’ efforts to support nutrition and hunger programs to tobacco companies contributing to health programs, a fledgling attempt to counteract their own actions.

At the end of the day, giant companies like Wal-Mart do have the power to change the rules of the food system, to lead the way in paying fair wages, provide company transparency in actions in the developing world, and reducing a global carbon footprint. We must demand that they do.

So what can Seattle do to globalize our food activism?

A 2006 Seattle Metropolitan article called Seattle a place ripe for local food to “expand from a trendy niche to a viable model for a new food economy”.

In 2013, with our progressive consumer base, proximity to farmland, support from policymakers, and penchant for cloth bags, Seattle might well be a one of the best places in the country to eat locally and advocate for local food.

So how can we, as Hauter suggests, both eat and act our food politics?

1) Farm Bill Advocacy

Farm laborers harvest asparagus in Eastern Washington. Many of the low-wage migrant laborers that harvest our fruits and vegetables depend on food stamp programs that are on the chopping block in the proposed version of the Farm Bill (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Farm laborers harvest asparagus in Eastern Washington. Many of the low-wage migrant laborers that harvest our fruits and vegetables depend on food stamp programs that are on the chopping block in the proposed new version of the Farm Bill. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Way back in July I wrote about the tension in Congress over the Farm Bill and the tension in congress over passing it. We’ll guess what: the original proposed bill with a host of improved programs and reforms is still stuck in the other Washington’s gridlock, resulting in an extension of the current bill until September 2013.

Seattle has been a national leader in this fight for the most influential piece of legislature dictating our food system, covering hunger and nutrition programs, land conservation, and international aid. The Seattle Farm Bill Principles, initiated by Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin, state six key areas and specific implementation plans which cover health-centered food programs, sustainable agricultural practices, and more.

Other organizations, like Community Alliance for Global Justice, focus on grassroots organizing. CAGJ has food justice and trade justice projects, a book group, community dinners and more for Seattleites to plug into, in addition to facilitating public education on The Farm Bill and food policy, and producing this amazing cookbook.

The bill is set to resurface in Congress in the coming months. Now is a crucial time to lobby our senators on the issues we want to keep at the top of the Farm Bill agenda.

2) Build Connections With The Faces Behind Your Food

Two women process millet for their extended family in their rural village of Alego, in Western Kenya. About one-half of Kenya's total agricultural output is non-marketed subsistence production, a way of life that is dwindling with the powerful global effects of the American food aid, manufacturing, and distribution system. (Photo by Bryan Kopp)
Two women process millet for their extended family in their rural village of Alego, in Western Kenya. About one-half of Kenya’s total agricultural output is non-marketed subsistence production, a way of life that is dwindling with the powerful global effects of the American food aid, manufacturing, and distribution system. (Photo by Bryan Kopp)

Building coalitions with farm-worker justice, international development, immigrant justice and trade justice efforts will help build a movement that touches on all pieces of a fair food system.

AJWS and Oxfam recently teamed up to issue this report on why US food aid reform might look better as farmers in the developing world start growing food to feed themselves. Anyone can access their petition and a form letter to address legislators on the issue.

Locally, the Washington Fair Trade Coalition represents over 60 local groups advocating for a just global trading system, spearheading campaigns support fair trade policy, and conducting an oral history of how global trade policies have affected Washingtonians.

According to a 2007 report by the Employment Security Department of Washington State, the average farm laborer in Washington makes roughly $17,400 a year. Farm laborers are largely foreign-born (72%), and are exempt from many of the labor protections like overtime pay, minimum wage, and healthcare, so immigrant rights organization play a major piece in food justice work. OneAmerica, The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and others in Seattle focus on national policy and legal advocacy for immigrant communities across the country. Out in Yakima, where many of our crops are grown, the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing supports farm laborers with housing, community lending, and other day-to-day resources.

Labor advocacy organizations like as Jobs with Justice have local chapters in Washington working on a campaign to support Wal-Mart workers in demanding fair working conditions. In Seattle, a group of Wal-Mart employees organized themselves to during the recent openings of Wal-Mart stores across the state.

There are countless ways to connect to each of these organizations, from donating money, to volunteering in an organizing role, to keeping tabs on their policy updates, action alerts and petitions. Whatever you do, building coalitions with these causes is a way to strengthen to food movement and get a fuller picture of the food system.

Finally, the potluck still reigns in Seattle. Eat for Equity is a national network of community dinners that raise money for grassroots organizations here and abroad, using local and ethical ingredients. A Seattle branch has recently begun, hosting their third dinner this Saturday to benefit the Life Long AIDS Alliance, which provides nutrition and health support to those living with HIV/AIDS.

3) Ethical Consumerism

Carrots at the Phinney farmer's market. (Photo by Jason Walsh )
Carrots at the Phinney farmer’s market. (Photo by Jason Walsh )

Yes, buying the right food still matters, especially when it comes to everyone’s favorite internationally produced vices, chocolate and coffee. Seattle boasts some of the most reputable fair trade brands and companies such as Theo Chocolates, and Caffe Vita and Kuma Coffee.

Hauter today owns a small farm with her husband, only a short drive from Washington D.C. She has seen firsthand how the enthusiasm for CSA’s has allowed her farm to survive while growing produce using sustainable methods. If this tiny reality eventually gave way to a system of medium sized farms using organic methods to adequately feed the country, as Hauter envisions, things might look a lot different on a global scale.

Despite Seattle’s robust farmers market scene between April and December, there are still times when we must import, or face a banana-less bowl of Grape-Nut’s Flakes. Grocery stores like the PCC and Central Co-op have well-maintained relationships with farms in Mexico and California who are dedicated to fair working and trade conditions. They also advocate on global food policy issues, such as this letter to Hershey’s speaking out against slave labor in the cocoa industry.

We should take pride in our city’s place in the locavore movement. We should keep growing kale in medians, knowing the names of our farmers, and supporting so many of the amazing local food programs Seattle has to offer.

But while we eat local, let’s think global, too.

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