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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.”

Nov. 2019 Note: These resources are outdated so I have removed the links.
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