No Chinese Menu In the Voting Booth. Streamlining Voter & Candidate Thinking — FOOD is THE issue

Food Vote 2012: National U.S. Survey
Survey of community food and farm system leaders and other U.S. residents
Aug. 14 – Nov. 6, 2012

On a personal level, the act of voting — deciding one’s representative for the next 2 years (or 4 years or 6 years) — is not always satisfying or straightforward. We do not often find candidates whose positions match our own on every issue.

Nor are ballots arranged like a Chinese menu, where we can vote on a different candidate for each issue — one from Column A (e.g., jobs), one from Column B (e.g., international relations), and one from Column C (e.g., education). Nor would it be desirable or logistically feasible to have multiple representatives sharing a single Congressional seat.

This is to highlight the fact that the voting act is by definition a Yes or a No. In binary computer language, a 1 or a Zero. Representative democracy causes us to reduce a complex decision to a momentary “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” and is binding for 2, 4 or 6 years.

Voters and candidates alike have developed strategies to help voters turn a set of multi-faceted, long-term decisions into a simple Yes or No at the moment they enter the voting booth. So how do we make the best decision when we enter the voting booth?

FOOD streamlines a voter’s thought process. This is the question that in 2005 propelled this voter (at the age of 54) to start working on “local food systems” and “food policy”. Focusing on FOOD streamlined my thinking about every other issue, both in my personal life and my community life.

My co-founding members of the Evanston Food Council saw that all of our other community work was connected to the FOOD system. Our need to eat, every day, for survival and life-affirming pleasure, is the most time-consuming, resource-consuming, and most attention-consuming need that humans (and other life forms) have. FOOD is the organizing principle of our economy, society, and civilization. More than any other human activity, our need to eat (and to feed those in our care) organizes our daily lives.

Like many others around the country, many of us in Evanston, Illinois had been working on many different aspects of community resiliency for many years — living wages, health care, natural resource conservation, housing, education, family support, jobs, etc., etc. — both on a programmatic level and on policy levels. And like many others around the country, founders of the Evanston Food Council saw that on a policy level, solving for FOOD was solving for almost every other issue that we had been working on throughout our lives.

We saw a way to streamline our thinking. Some of us started to help our legislative representatives (and candidates) streamline theirs.

Has FOOD streamlined candidates’ thinking? Seven years later (and knowing that many of my colleagues had been working on FOOD issues at least twice that long), I wanted to find out if this streamlining thought process had affected the political process — specifically, in the races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. This is why I created the Food Vote 2012 survey, to find Congressional candidates who understand that FOOD underpins every other aspect of human life.

More specifically, I am seeking candidates who are actively running on a FOOD platform because I believe that they will be likely to promote FOOD justice, FOOD sovereignty, community FOOD and farm systems, FOOD system sustainability and resiliency, and FOOD peace with all humans and non-humans.

Has FOOD streamlined the thinking of all food system practitioners? Along the way, I am also seeking the community food and farm advocates and practitioners who understand their work in this leveraged manner. So, my survey asked the following questions:

QUESTION #5. Are your FOOD concerns so strong that a candidate’s FOOD-related campaign promise might be the deciding factor when you cast your vote on November 6?

QUESTION #6. If yes, what FOOD campaign promise would earn your vote on November 6, no matter who the candidate or what the other issues?

Some detailed analysis of the answers received so far is included below,

Thanks again to those who responded in such detail and with such passion.

You can still participate in the survey, through election day — November 6, 2012:

Food Vote 2012: National U.S. Survey



Total # of responses: 122

# of States Responding: 27 + Washington, DC

No responses yet from: Alabama Alaska Arkansas Delaware Georgia Kansas Kentucky Maine Michigan Mississippi Nebraska Nevada New Hampshire New Jersey North Carolina Oklahoma Rhode Island South Carolina South Dakota Tennessee Texas Vermont Wyoming

# of Congressional Food candidates identified and vetted: 1
(Cong. Earl Blumenauer – Oregon)



QUESTION #5. Are your FOOD concerns so strong that a candidate’s FOOD-related campaign promise might be the deciding factor when you cast your vote on November 6?

Yes 74%
No 26%

QUESTION #6. If yes, what FOOD campaign promise would earn your vote on November 6, no matter who the candidate or what the other issues?

68 people answered this question. In Survey Monkey’s “text analysis” these are the top six words (phrases) that were mentioned:

Farm 20
Food System 17
GMOs 15
Healthy 10
School 10
Communities 10

COMMENTS RECEIVED. Here are some of the representative and unique comments sent in by respondents. (Highlighting is mine.)

Massachusetts. “I would be very likely to vote for a candidate who would work to support food systems in a real and effective way. Who would advocate for changes in institutional policy that would create systemic change on multiple levels i.e. promoting farm to school in a way that would create new markets for farmers, expand opportunities for food service to prepare wholesome food, and create educational opportunities to engage children on healthy food issues.”

New York. “Putting more control of the food system and food economy back in local communities for good jobs, good neighbors, and good health.”

Illinois. “The support of small farms engaged in food production, beginning and minority farmers, and local food – including value added products, with not only legislation but also funding tied to such support. In addition I feel it is essential to make available resources to augment consumer education, as well as the education of farmers forming a partnership to assist in their success.”

New York. “Virtually any mention of building community-based food systems that included strengthening regional food systems, supporting a stable base of small and mid-sized farms that use sustainable practices, increasing access to healthy food choices, supporting food and ag-related businesses that create jobs in our communities and promoting local, state and federal policies that support those things, would probably get my vote.”

Washington. “GMO labeling, 50 year farm bill, end corporate subsidies.”

Maryland. “They would push for a carbon tax, which would help mitigate climate chaos, which represents the greatest peril to our future food security. They would not allow food assistance programs to be cut, but would also work to make them obsolete by helping communities create more food self-reliance.”

Minnesota. “Something about making food a topic of community and political discussion and debate. Knowledge of food justice issues and acknowledgement of the global implications and inter-relatedness. A debate about “green” energy and the problematic conflicts of using food, corn, as fuel, ethanol. This is already affecting people and the meat industry by raising the price of corn.”

Talking to candidates about FOOD: Tools and Tips

Food Vote 2012: National U.S. Survey
Survey of “community food and farm” leaders and other U.S. residents
Aug. 14 – Nov. 6, 2012
Week #2: Talking to candidates about FOOD – Tools and Tips

This survey was designed to be a tool to help people talk to Congressional candidates about FOOD in the 2012 election. Towards that end, I’d hoped to tap into the practical experience of community food and farm leaders nationwide. What techniques are people using to talk to their candidates? What works, what doesn’t?

While 58% of survey respondents have NOT talked to their Congressional candidates, 42% have. Many have generously written long comments and suggestions for connecting with candidates. I have extracted a handful of suggestions and copied them below. Hopefully they will be useful to others.

My website is also intended to be useful to people talking to candidates, sometimes for the first time. In truth, both candidates and constituents are learning about “Food and farm systems” together, especially community-based farm and food economies.

A. Food Vote 2012 survey data as of August 27, 2012
B. Comments from survey on talking to candidates about FOOD
C. Tools from my Website

Thanks to all who have responded to the survey.

Total # of responses: 111
# of States: 25
# of Congressional Food candidates identified and vetted: 1
(Cong. Earl Blumenauer – Oregon)

In your district, have any candidates for U.S. Congress (House of Representatives) identified FOOD as a plank in their election platform? In other words, does any candidate list FOOD on his/her list of issues? (website, campaign literature, press releases, etc.)

Yes 10% (After vetting, this was reduced to 1%. Some “Yes” answers cited state and local candidates.)
No 42%
Don’t know 48%

During 2012, have you personally communicated your FOOD concerns to any Congressional candidate(s) in your district?

Yes 42%
No 58%

Comments from survey respondents + “value-added” tips by D. Hillman, based on my own experience in working with government officials at all levels. Not every comment or tip will be useful for everyone. I just wanted to include a variety.

Question #10:
How can we make FOOD an election issue in 2012? How can we make FOOD an election issue in the future?
Please share experiences, problems, successes, and suggestions that would help other voters and non-voters make food a campaign issue.

1. CALIFORNIA. Stay away from the “fear” card (crisis, emergency). Show practical, everyday ways candidates and officials can help.
“While the state of food affairs in this country can be framed as a dire, urgent issue that requires immediate action (it does), I believe that depicting an issue as an emergency situation sometimes overwhelms voters who have little to no education on the subject. Therefore it would be good to point to organizations and communities that are working towards fixing the problem and say they need help.”

Value-added tip: Before meeting with a candidate, do a “quick and dirty” community food assessment: Just make a list of all the groups, organizations, businesses, people who are working on your local food & farm economy. You may be surprised how long this list is. From farm to table to compost — possibly back to farm. The candidates will be surprised, too, at how many people and groups are concerned about food and farm issues. Once the candidate has that list, he/she now knows what a “community food and farm system” is.

2. WASHINGTON. Non-partisan, inclusive framework.
“FOOD has to be framed in a non-partisan, inclusive way to appeal to ALL people, and I’m not sure the exact way to do this except with more education, a focus on health especially childrens’ health, FOOD (good, fresh, healthy food) as a basic human right. Since it seems like an issue the left generally takes up, frame our FOOD crisis in more conservative terms such as personal responsibility or supporting small business, etc.”

Value added tip: Make new food friends. If you’re setting up a meeting with a candidate, bring a multi-faceted group with you. If your group is mostly Democrats, find a couple Republicans who are concerned about food issues; invite them to join your meeting. If your group is mostly urban consumers, find some constituents who have rural farm connections; invite them to join your meeting. If your group is homogeneously white, find some people of color who are working on community food issues; invite them to join your meeting. If your group is one religious domination, consider creating interfaith connections; invite Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, pagans to join your meeting.

3. ILLINOIS. Non-partisan, inclusive framework: Linking sectors, populations, candidates’ issue areas.
“Linking the discussion to jobs and environmental policy. Jobs for rural conservative areas and environmental/sustainability efforts for urban liberal areas. Healthcare costs and the role that promoting healthy fresh sustainable food consumption can play in bringing down health care costs is also an important approach.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown: worth investigating.
“Many candidates and elected officials already have key focus areas, one angle should be finding those out and then developing the linkage between that issue and food, and then engaging the candidate through that perspective. The building up Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown as a champion of local food systems and rural development is one that should be investigated and possibly replicated. There are legislators that champion food issues but they are usually in the coastal area in traditional liberal areas Sherrod Brown is an example of a leader that was developed in a swing state.”

4. CALIFORNIA. Open-ended discussions.
“When groups have compelling food-related stories, I favor inviting 1 or more politicians to have a free-ranging discussion. Ideally, the end result will not be pre-determined, It would be more likely to succeed in buy-in from all parties, if people discussed visions, and obstacles, and came up with collaborative requests.”

Value-added tip: In a friendly, open discussion, the power of the moment is much more effective than a canned speech. Engage with candidates like they are just people — because they are. No haranguing, no begging. Everyone at the FOOD table is a confused adult — including candidates and current office-holders.

A sure sign of a successful, soul-connection meeting is that you learn something — even as you’re trying to educate a candidate.

5. HAWAII. Tap into personal connections.
“I have asked this same question myself. Although I don’t know any candidates or their families personally, I think personal connections are key. People listen to and trust their family members and close friends more than acquaintances and strangers. So, those who have personal access to candidates and their family members can help educate these people (about food issues and the importance of food as an election issue) by inviting these people to an event – at home, wherever – that includes a presentation on the subject (like attending a potluck and watching The Future of Food, for instance.)

“In Hawaii, we were headed towards fluoridated water throughout the state, and the governor’s wife ran a tv ad in which she publicly endorsed fluoridation. A dentist who knew the governor’s wife personally, saw the ad, was horrified, contacted the gov’s wife and educated her, friend-to-friend, about the dangers of fluoridation. The wife listened to her friend and quickly changed her opinion. She stopped endorsing fluoridation, shared what she’d learned with her husband… and our state remains fluoride free to this day.”

Value-added tip: Learn about the candidates and look for personal connections that can be used honorably.

Staffmembers of candidates and of government officials can be very helpful, in numerous ways. Often a staffmember may have a specific or general food concern. Get to know them, be helpful to them if you can.

6. NEW YORK. Emphasize multi-faceted nature of food and farm work — not a single issue agenda.
“Candidates should take on FOOD because it is a winner on health (which saves the country money), it is a winner on jobs and the economy (because money stays in communities and food economies are very productive and fair), and it restores community that every American wants (we are living in a time of divisions and alienation, and everyone feels it).

Restoring community.
“Food as a political issue is ultimately about community. The oldest traditions stress the importance of breaking bread together. But right now our food system is broken, and as a result our communities are broken. Not only is our nation broken, divided between red and blue, rich and poor, but our individual lives are broken without the support of our neighbors. Diet-related disease is an issue Americans should not be facing, especially to the epidemic degree we see.

One mind: food producers, food workers, food consumers.
“Food must take the producers as well as the consumers into the policy equation. Food producers must live in the same communities as food consumers. We also need to recognize the food producers living among us, like the people who work in food processing factories, or who drive trucks to bring food to different towns, or to fishermen, or to migrant workers in the fields working under slavery conditions, or to migrant workers on fish processing factories in the middle of the ocean. One of the reasons we cannot get traction with food is because we forget about the tens of millions of Americans who produce our food. When we forget them, they have no interest in joining our movement, and politicians just see our movement as one interest group among many, instead of a true people’s movement united by the universality of growing, sharing, and eating.”

Here are some “Food Systems 101” tools on my website that may be useful in talking with candidates:

Resources and Tools
Making Food a Campaign Issue

  • Levels of Candidate Engagement
  • Crafting a Plan

National Links and Snapshots
Learning about Food Systems in General
Short downloadable documents, such as:

  • Food Systems 101 Questions
  • Food System charts
  • Principles of a healthy food system
  • Indicators of a healthy food system

Snapshots of Illinois: A Local Food System in Progress
Downloadable documents of aspects and stages of building a local food system, using Illinois as an example. Can be used as templates for other geographies. Documents include:

  • Congressional District briefing paper
  • State food system networks
  • State local food legislation overview
  • FAQ sheets for state council and county council
  • Municipal food assessment: People, Projects, Businesses, Policies