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What Voting Can Do For Food—And What We Need To Do Ourselves

Columns 2022-05-26, 10:54pm

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Danielle Nierenberg



Danielle Nierenberg

It’s been a week. Several horrific shootings in the United States, the continuing war against Ukraine, the erosion of reproductive rights, and I could probably go on. The past few weeks have been a time of gut-wrenching tragedy. And unfortunately, I’m concerned that sobering signs lie ahead for our food and agriculture systems, too.

While part of my job is to be hopeful and share inspiring stories around food, there’s no doubt that there’s already tremendous food insecurity in the world today. And we may be moving closer to seeing food crises and food riots similar to those that occurred in the 2010s amid the global financial crisis. If we’re serious about avoiding the kind of unrest that food shortages cause, we need to think hard about changing both global and local food policy.

Here’s the thing: We’re not just citizens of the world and our countries and our communities, we’re citizen eaters. I strongly connect with the Center for a Livable Future’s idea of food citizenship—being active, food-system-conscious members of our democratic society. Or at least, hopefully a democracy; we’ve seen some concerning changes over the past few years. If we want real democracy to happen, we need to listen to people like food icon Frances Moore Lappé and be engaged participants in democracy, instead of just sitting by and letting things happen.

Last week, thanks to the The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts and the Santa Barbara County Food Action Network, I was able to join the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience. There, I had the honor of speaking with Congressmember Salud Carbajal, truly one of the food and labor warriors in Congress who’s working across party lines to help farmers, workers, and eaters alike.

Whether or not the politicians we voted for are the ones who end up representing us, he said that the communication between citizens and our elected officials is vital. Rep. Carbajal told me that the stories he hears from his constituents really matter, and he takes them seriously. A lot of folks might think it’s old-fashioned to write, email, or call your representatives, senators, and governors, but it really makes a difference. Do it right now—here’s a link to contact your elected officials.

And like many of us in the food system, Rep. Carbajal has also been devoting energy and thought to the Farm Bill. Yes, it’s a messy and complicated piece of legislation. It also holds massive potential to really help farmers, eaters, and businesses in the food and agriculture sectors to do things differently. One place to start is incorporating food security and food sovereignty more strongly into the Farm Bill. I’m invigorated by an idea I’ve heard from Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists, chef Andrew Zimmern, and others: A coordinated national food policy, or even a Secretary of Food or a Food and Farm Bill to unify our national and international approaches to food. I encourage you to keep reading about this idea in the "Learn More" section of this newsletter.

In response to recent tragedies, I’ve seen many impassioned calls for folks to vote, to elect the world we want to live in. I want to talk about what voting can do—and what it can’t. Casting a ballot on election day can give innovative and food-conscious folks power to make change, but it can’t introduce or write legislation. Casting a ballot can help us see our values in government, but it can’t directly give folks food, pay workers fairly, or save them from violence. To accomplish this, we need to vote, yes, but we need to do more than vote on election day. We need to make our voices heard by those in power on the other 364 days of the year—starting today.

Being a good food citizen requires all of us to be motivated and activated.

Danielle Nierenberg is President, Food Tank, and can be contacted at danielle@foodtank.com and tagged on social media @FoodTank or #FoodTank)