Citywatch: Occupy Movement Identifies Food Movement Common Inspiration and Options

By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city. 

Protesters at the recent Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo credit: CNN)

Move over, Bill Shakespeare. The whole world is no longer just a stage, and we merely players with our entrances and exits.

Today’s world is otherwise occupied, as people in over 1000 centers around the globe play their role, take their entrances and exits around platforms, portals and places— the Three P’s of 21st century movement politics—as in Occupy Wall Street. The city-based food movement is based on many similar principles, so city officials and food advocates should take a close look and wave their jazz fingers when they see an idea that can be adapted.

In the interconnected and webbed world created by the Internet, platform-providing, rather than content-promoting, organizations have come to the fore—as in Google, Yahoo and Facebook, some of the biggest, most powerful and richest businesses in the world.

As social movements catch up, community-based power will gravitate toward organizations featuring platforms, portals and places, rather than specific content—which is why the people who lament the lack of content in various occupations are out of it. Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones.

Platforms are about opening discussions, not closing them and about providing options not mutually exclusive options. Ours is a movement of ands, Vandana Shiva has said, and that abundant and-ness is what makes the platform format so foodworthy.

The world has been edging toward platform mentalities since 1991, when US president George Bush the Elder proclaimed a new world order, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He didn’t identify any rising  competitors to unrivalled the global power of the US government. He certainly didn’t foresee the Internet, coincidentally emerging at the same time,  which offered abundant and shared information as a means to move toward parallel power as distinct from competing power.

A further coincidence: the 1990s is the period when the modern food movement, the last of the great social movements to take shape during the 20th century, took off—or rather, webbed off.

Most grassroots food organizations since 1991 have been platform-based, rather than content-specific. Rather than coalescing around specific pre-defined issues, organizations, they tended to serve as forums for open-ended discussion and hosts of initiatives and experiments. I’m thinking of organizations such as Community Food Security Coalition in the US, Sustain in the UK, and Food Secure Canada.

Food policy councils, the fastest-growing institution in local governments across North America – from three to 150 since the early 1990s—have all presented themselves as tables that make room for everyone—the metaphor and subject coincide nicely—thanks to portals for engagement around a wide range of collaborative projects. Just as the Internet made information sharable and abundant, so food councils made local initiatives sharable and abundant.

Despite this new platform-oriented trend among food organizations of the 1990s, most early activists, including myself, carried over our old mindsets from pre-platform days. This explains why so many of today’s food orgs are cursed with such uninspired and  non-descript names that produce no ring in the ear or mind. There’s no food organization with a name that matches the energy, catchiness or welcoming platform-style invitation of Yahoo or Google. There’s no  Chowhound, Great Eats, Come for Dinner or Real Grub. Any effort to have a name with a ring sooner or later bounds down over the need to specify food sovereignty or security or whatever. So we can all learn to loosen up and get with the program of platform organizing.

Platforms provide what York University environmental studies professor Deb Barndt calls “space” or “space for resistance”—space which need not be located in a specific location, thanks to the Internet.

When space does coincide with location, it becomes Place, which has also enjoyed an enormous boom in usage, often in conjunction with local food enthusiasms. Local food commonly refers not just to a specific negative—fewer polluting miles travelled from California to New York, for example, Local food is a positive, a place and cultural terroir and set of relationships—in a word, platform—that local food expresses.

Catching the mood, the Toronto food strategy of 2010, which I had a hand in developing, is called “Cultivating Food Connections.” It is specifically designed to ignite energy to create opportunities, rather than specific programs.

In my view, the work of the next era of new social movements will be pre-occupied (pardon the pun) with platform-construction and portal- offering rather  than content-specificity.

Community food centers are the big project of Nick Saul of Toronto’s Stop Community Food Centre. The developing Canada-wide movement for community food centers offers a platform for food-centered social development that each neighborhood will adapt to its specific needs and possibilities and spell out for itself.

Toronto’s FoodShare, which is more a hub than a food center, opens its doors to a wide range of individuals and organizations that empower people on low incomes to partner with others to to share opportunities food generosity and abundance make possible.

Likewise, Toronto-born Local Food Plus sees its big idea as certifying and promoting local and sustainable food while building “collaborative infrastructure”—relationships that bring former opposites (city and country, food producer and consumer, for example) into an endless variety of partnering relationships.

The Internet and social media have facilitated such developments over the last 20 years, at the same time that what might be loosely called “failed states” have made them necessary.

Failed states was originally coined by US diplomats to refer to countries where the state lost its monopoly over coercion and control to the likes of terrorist or gangsterish groups. Noam Chomsky and others have successfully turned the term back on the policy establishment of wealthy nations.

To my mind, wealthy states of Europe and North America have proven themselves incapable of using their monopoly over coercion and control to assert public interest regulation over bankers and other profiteers. Nor can they use their command of legislation, wealth and power to respond to such obvious, fundamental and compelling hazards as global warming, child obesity, global hunger or youth unemployment.

Leaving aside bailouts for bankers and others among the world’s “one per cent” of super-sized wealth,  governments of the world subsidized the fossil fuel industry last year to the tune of $409 billion, according to the United Nations International Energy Agency. Such astonishing commitments of public money are not mere inactions in the face of global warming. They are strident actions that subsidize global warming. If such is not the  behavior of failed states, what is?

The Occupy movement is just the platform needed to promote public discussion on such matters. Those with a taste for action as well as talk might think of developing local food-based platforms, portals and places where such matters can be discussed around the table over a meal.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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