Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

CONFIRMED: U.S. “food democracy” folks are super-ignorant about democracy

First, a clarification. Of course I don’t mean ALL “food democracy” folks in the U.S. are ignorant about democracy. For one, I don’t know all the food democracy folks in the U.S., and never will. It’s a big country and I’m 70 years old. After 16 years in the food & farm movement, I’m only half-way through Illinois.

Second, not all “food democracy” folks identify as such. Over the last 16 years, many food & farm activists have told me that they’re not interested in “policy”. It took Slow Food more than 20 years to recognize that all the problems they’d been trying to address since 1986 were caused by bad public policy (especially, but not only, bad U.S. policy).

Third, many people who I might describe as “food democracy” advocates — and who recognize themselves in that term — prefer other names for their work, such as:
— food sovereignty
— food & farm justice
— community food security
— local foods
— urban agriculture
— food & farm system practitioners
— ??

Nevertheless, fourth, I personally do not know of any food & farm project (program, non-profit, business, etc.) in the U.S. that doesn’t eventually have to address public policy. Which always comes down to democracy: Who’s at the decision-making table, who isn’t, according to what rules are decisions being made, and who’s making the rules?

So, my focus in this blogpost (primarily an archive of a recent email conversation on the food & farm listservs) is food & farm folks who talk about democracy without (1) any evidence of understanding the mechanics of democracy or (2) any awareness of the food & farm movement’s gift to participatory democracy—food policy councils (FPCs). Number 1 happens largely because most Americans grow up thinking we live in a great democracy (spoiler alert: see Second Rate Democracy), learning all sorts of slogans and catch phrases, without experiencing real democracy in action and without thinking beyond voting every two years. Number 2 happens because (a) someone might be new to the food & farm movement, but mostly (b) for more nefarious reasons. See Section D.

I try to be kind — both to myself and others — when pointing out the depth of the problem. Unfortunately, kindness doesn’t get the attention that brutal honesty does. So, I guess it’s time to be brutally honest: Most U.S. food democracy folks who promote democracy don’t have a clue about real democracy. We are not just ignorant. We are super-ignorant.

CONTENTS
A. EMAIL #1: “Real Organic Project & Real Democracy: Conference for Food Policy Councils”
B. EMAIL #2: Response proves my point
C. EMAIL #3: I reiterate my point 
D. I don’t expect a response

A. EMAIL #1: “Real Organic Project & Real Democracy: Conference for Food Policy Councils”

To:
Dave Chapman, Real Organic Project (Maine farmer)
COMFOOD (Tufts)
Food Policy Networks (Johns Hopkins)
Regeneration Midwest (12-state coalition)

I always look forward to Real Organic Project’s newsletter — always food for thought, always entertaining (in an educational way). Yesterday’s newsletter was no exception, especially to those of us who’ve concentrated on the “democracy” part of food-and-farm democracy. Here’s the link for those who missed it: Two Wolves and a Lamb Vote on What to have for Lunch.

I have three comments (with links for future investigation):

1. USDA National Organic Program — “the best model of participatory democracy in our government”??
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read this statement (attributed to a “new friend”). 

I don’t know if your new friend has been active in the food & farm movement. Without going into details about NOP, USDA, the organic label as a marketing tool, etc., I would simply refer her to my next comment (#2) — about the 39-year old “food policy council” movement and the FPC conference scheduled for September. 

In my opinion food policy councils are the food & farm movement’s direct contribution to participatory democracy. We’re all still learning, but the basic idea is growing, flourishing, adapting. I expect great things to happen vis-a-vis REAL democracy at the September conference.

For the record, I have co-founded two FPCs (on very different models, local grassroots & state-sponsored). I also helped to draft an ordinance for a third FPC which was aborted by the county health department that commissioned it, without explanation (corruption in Cook County, Chicago? no, really?).

Moreover, everywhere I look in the 2021 U.S. food & farm movement, I see nascent democracy groups — farmers markets, cooperatives, community gardens, etc. In my mind, if they work on public policy they’re FPCs. And frankly I don’t know of any U.S. food & farm project that doesn’t work on public policy.

2. Power of Food — first-ever national conference for food policy councils (FPCs)
Sept. 20-22, 2021
Kansas City, MO

The first FPC was created in Knoxville, TN (1982) and is still going strong, now a partnership between the city and the county. 

It’s interesting to compare your map of ROP farmers & fans with the map of FPCs in North America as of 2019. See attached FPC map.

Personally, I believe that FPCs at every level — local, county, state, regional — are the future of REAL democracy in the U.S. Just like we have school boards at every level. Not that school boards are known for their democratic process, but that’s part of the conversation if we want to live in a REAL democracy. 

3. Real democracy
My webpage has some very readable, scannable information on real democracy:
— a working definition
— some core reforms for the U.S.
— gaps in our civic knowledge (our ignorance about major aspects of governance and reality are obstacles to creating a real democracy)
— transition models
— etc.

I hope this is useful information. Hopefully, when people hear the word “food democracy” they’ll start thinking “food policy council” — where democracy is designed to happen (even if not every example is perfect yet).

PS re Democracy and USDA — “Good Greens” in USDA Midwest office (FNS — Food & Nutrition Service)
USDA deserves credit for pioneering an interesting model of participatory democracy, a networking event that runs out of the Midwest office of USDA FNS in downtown Chicago. Unfortunately the pandemic put a stop to in-person meetings, but conference calls and newsletters continued through Feb. 2021. I believe that Good Greens is on a temporary hiatus. Here is info. on the history of Good Greens as well as some brief analysis as to why it classifies as “participatory democracy” — even though no votes were ever taken on specific policy proposals. 

a. Most recent iteration of Good Greens
—Official description: GoodGreens is a collaboration facilitated by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Midwest Region to share resources and best practices that support local food systems, highlight new and emerging food models, provide connections to USDA grants and resources, and increase consumption of healthy, locally grown foods.

—Logistics: 
*Monthly meetings open to anyone in Midwest region (currently 7 states: OH MI IN IL WI MN IA)In-person + conference call capability
*Monthly newsletter: agenda for meeting, summary from previous meeting, tons of resource links (USDA grants & programs, other grants & programs, opportunities, etc.)

—Sample newsletter Feb. 2021

b. History of Good Greens
Good Greens began in Cong. Bobby Rush’s office on Chicago’s south side in 2007 or so. It started as a collaboration between Alan Shannon (Public Affairs Director, USDA FNS Midwest office) and Anton Seals (Rush’s Chief of Staff) to facilitate grassroots access to information about USDA grants, processes, etc. People may recognize Bobby Rush as a leader in the Black Panthers (co-founder of the Illinois chapter). He has been in Congress since 1992.

So far as I know Good Greens has always been open to anyone in the Midwest region, even when it was held in Cong. Rush’s district office. (I attended at least one meeting there.) At some point (partly because of the group’s popularity), meetings were moved to the downtown USDA FNS Midwest office where it provided a central location and remote technology for the growing Midwest “local food” movement to get connected and network.

c. Aspects of participatory democracy in Good Greens
—Open to anyone in the jurisdiction (7 Midwest states)
—Shared information about grants, programs, jobs, etc.
—Paid for by public money
—Facilitated by people who personified public service (Alan Shannon, Anton Seals)
—Opportunity for anyone to introduce themselves, introduce projects, make connections, bring up issues, etc
—Commitment to remote access (via conference call technology)

Ever since I understood that Good Greens was filling a huge void in the U.S. democracy infrastructure, I have been advocating for a “Good Greens” group in every USDA regional office. To be sure, Good Greens never voted on anything (so far as I know). The void that it fills is one of real information, real connection to real officials, peer-to-peer connection, and the sense of inclusion — no one is excluded.

B. EMAIL #2: Response proves my point

From: Dave Chapman 
Subject: Re: [COMFOOD: ] Real Organic Project & Real Democracy: Conference for FOOD POLICY COUNCILS (September)
Date: June 8, 2021

Thanks, Debbie. As I tried to say in the letter, if the National Organic Program is the best model for real democracy, we have a problem. But I respect my friend’s effort, which is heartfelt and enduring. I think that all oars can help to move our ship, much in the model of Paul Hawken’s blessed unrest. Unfortunately, we are rowing against a powerful motor pushing the ship in the other direction. It is a powerful motor, but they just might run out of gas.

As Michael Pollan said, we don’t have a food movement until we can light up the switchboards. My thanks to all of you for working so hard to light up the switchboards.

C. EMAIL #3: I reiterate my point 

From: Debbie Hillman 
Subject: Re: [COMFOOD: ] Real Organic Project & Real Democracy
Date: June 11, 2021

Thanks for the responses to my email about FOOD POLICY COUNCILS and REAL DEMOCRACY. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

If I may, I’d like to emphasize my point with a rhetorical question:

If someone — e.g., a food & farm writer like Mark Bittman or Michael Pollan or Paul Hawken or a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture like Tom Vilsack — talks about democracy and they don’t follow or write or talk about FOOD POLICY COUNCILS, why should I take seriously what they say about “switchboards” or “voting” or “building community” or “power”?

To use Dave Chapman’s metaphor, Food Policy Councils ARE the “oars” that can make the most effective headway (towards food & farm democracy) against the “powerful motor pushing the ship [the country, the world] in the other direction”. Even if the motor does run out of gas, we still have to get to where we’re going; we still need the oars. We still need the best practices and critical mass, etc., that FPCs are developing. 

To reiterate: 
— Food Policy Councils have been around for 39 years (gaining the most traction since about 2000)
— The design of FPCs is to include EVERYONE who eats & farms — and everyone in-between
— There is an active listserv dedicated to supporting local, state, and regional FPCs (Food Policy Networks, which is the same organization hosting the Sept. conference, Power of Food).
— Many people on COMFOOD are also on the FPN listserv. 
— FPCs are not some hidden, esoteric knowledge (unless someone has pre-decided that they’re not interested in “policy” — all too common in the U.S. and all too common in the food & farm world)
— FPCs come in many different shapes and sizes, with many different names

Compared to following Food Policy Networks or participating in food policy councils, is there a better public place to learn about, share best practices, and reach the critical mass necessary to implement real democracy in the U.S. food & farm system?

Sorry to be so blunt, but any U.S. adult who promotes “lighting up switchboards” and “voting” as necessary and sufficient to real democracy hasn’t been paying attention for the last 4+ years—not to mention the previous 32 years (going back to 1985, the year I mark as the beginning of the national local food movement — the rural-urban, farmer-consumer coalition symbolized by the first Farm Aid concert).

P.S. There are many, many organizations in the U.S. that work on real or better democracy. I recommend many of them.

For example, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation is a terrific one that is a partner on the upcoming America Talks event (kicking off the National Week of Conversation). See the attached announcement. [announcement not attached in blog] Or go directly to:
—  America Talks
— NCDD — www.ncdd.org

Food & farm cooperatives are another place to learn and implement real democracy, but not at a large, jurisdiction-wide scale unless we turn every town, city, county, state, etc., into a worker/voter-owned cooperative. Hmmm, food for thought….I wonder if the 30,000 adults of voting age in my hometown (Evanston, IL) would vote for that.

D. SOME FINAL THOUGHTS ON DEMOCRACY in the U.S. food & farm movement

Subtitle of this section: I don’t expect another response — but it would be nice to get an acknowledgment of my point or a disagreement with an explanation or a definition of democracy 

I reiterated my point (in Email #3) because it’s pretty clear that at least one of these is true:
— my email wasn’t read carefully
— my emails are known to be long (this one, Email #1, actually wasn’t, but reputations precede)
— my point wasn’t understood
— we’re trained to give lip service to democracy without knowing what it really means—or even taking the time to define it
— despite the lip service to democracy many Americans act like anarchists (no government is better than self-government) or solo practitioners (an oxymoron in a collective)
— people just don’t like the word “policy”
— people don’t have time to discuss things (in which case we really need to discuss democracy)
— men are not interested in what women have to say, especially about politics
— women shouldn’t waste their time trying to explain grassroots democracy to men
— as Bill Watterson famously suggested (in the Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary book), most ignorance is willful
— Americans are in the habit of talking without thinking or listening
— turf wars — among individuals, among non-profits

My intention with my original email (Real Organic Project & Real Democracy) was not to suggest that food policy councils as promoted by Food Policy Networks is the ONLY way for food & farm activists to participate in democracy. My original point was to remind my food & farm colleagues that FPCs are the participatory democracy model “homegrown” by North American food & farm activists. At the very least, a nod of the head, some other acknowledgment or sharing would be collegial. And if some food & farm folks see problems with the FPC model, it would be helpful to learn why or hear some explanation.

My P.S. to that email — about the Good Greens initiative in the USDA’s Midwest office (Food & Nutrition Service) — described another way to promote and participate in democracy. My second email also had a P.S. that mentioned (a) the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (which is not a food & farm organization), and (b) food cooperatives (which are food & farm organizations). Food & farm cooperatives may be understood as FPC-like themselves as well as being members of actual FPCs. 

Finally, I’d like to end with some caveats about FPCs. Just because something is named a food policy council doesn’t mean that it practices real participatory democracy. Two examples from personal experience:

— I was invited to be a member of a council in a large city. I attended meetings for a year or two. Most meetings consisted of the chairperson holding forth for 1-2 hours (like Fidel Castro or Donald Trump) while everyone else was forced to just listen. I finally commented that the council had never voted on anything or made proposals (and what the hell were meetings for anyways). The chairperson said, “Oh, we don’t do that votey thingy.” Yes, I sent in my resignation a couple weeks later; apparently they didn’t do the participatory discussy thingy either.

— I co-founded a state FPC, through a legislative process that started with a 2-year task force (which could also be thought of as an ad hoc FPC). Unfortunately, the anti-democracy forces started even before the first task force meeting when one of the three co-founders suggested that we pre-choose the task force chairperson (a dean at a major university). I’m happy to say that the chairperson election was not a shoe-in, but the damage was done. The dean was elected chairperson and went on to demonstrate little or no interest or skill in democracy. Worse were the numerous ways in which the dean violated both general democratic principles and the approved principles of our task force.

In the context of this blogpost — ignorance of democracy — I think it valuable to highlight some specifics:

Over the course of two years, the chairperson violated:
—good meeting protocols on numerous occasions (not following the agenda, ending meetings early without prior notification, etc.)
—minor task force decisions by ignoring his commitments to implementation (e.g., a promise to talk to a potential funder, a promise to draft an organizational chart for the permanent council, a promise to draft language extending the state’s Extension mission to include “local foods”)
—the primary task force decision by secretly drafting his own task force report (with another task force member)

Hopefully some historian of the 21st century local food movement will stumble across this blog, especially if he or she is wondering what went wrong. He or she might think, there was so much promise, so much energy, so many people putting in so much good work in such a variety of projects — farmers markets, urban agriculture, seed saving, food hubs, farm-to-school, composting, FPCs, cooperatives, community fridges, etc., etc. If this local food & farm movement doesn’t “take”, there will no doubt be a variety of reasons. One reason will surely be the missing commitment to the mechanics of real democracy.

Time for a more robust conversation about 
— what democracy really is (and isn’t)
— how to hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable for real democratic process
These conversations should be held within the U.S. food & farm movement as well as in all our civic conversations about public policy.