A Call for Food Movement Cooperation

Mark Winne has 45 years of experience in the food movement, starting in 1971 as a college student when he successfully raised $300 to start a local breakfast program for low-income children. Since that success, he has overseen the Hartford Food System, co-founded the Community Food Security Coalition, serves as a Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future, and is a popular speaker and author of several books.

His most recent book, Stand Together or Starve Alone, deals with the need for more cooperation and collaboration among food movement participants.

Winne’s book starts out discussing the problems facing the food movement.  More than 12% of Americans are food insecure or have very low food security, compared to 10% in 2000, while over one-third of adult Americans are obese. And while increasingly farmers markets, farm to school programs and more state and local governments are involved, there’s a lack of progress on the number of people relying on supplemental food sources. After SNAP grew from 26 million to 49 million during the recession, over 40 million people remained on the program in 2018, partly a result of so many US workers living on wages so low that almost one-third of all Americans are eligible for one or more federal nutrition programs.

Through numerous examples, Stand Together or Starve Alone also illustrates that a lack of exchange and interface between groups in the local food movement is an issue. Organizations serve their organization’s mission rather than working for a larger common vision and they tend to protect their borders, marking their turf. Also, with the American culture of individualism, Winne argues that we must do a better job of collaborating and cooperating.

Particularly with uncertain support from the current administration, we asked him for insight on improving collaboration within the organic industry. Here are our questions and his thoughts.

You discuss the perils in the food movement of players becoming more sanctimonious with what’s good and what’s evil. How can organic industry players do better with relationship building? 

Like many of the major components of the food movement, the organic movement has sub-divided itself, then sub-divided again. As a young hippie in the late 1960s, I never felt any angst over buying something called “organic.” Now fights break out in food store aisles over what’s really organic. Time to declare a ceasefire and talk about what we agree on, such as climate change and healthy food for all.

You provide a great tally of the data overload people in the food movement receive regarding digital notices of meetings, list-serves, and huge increase in books and blogs dealing with the food movement., documentaries  and food conferences. How can we better handle this deluge of over-information?

I recommend good work team management and strategic planning. Designate one person as the “scanner in residence” who quickly considers new information and its relative importance to the team. Conduct brief strategic planning every six months to evaluate new information, including changes in your “marketplace.” You want to be nimble but also consistent with your mission and vision.

Regarding the Local Food movement, which is big in organic, you cite how local is getting bigger but having an authentic connection to a farmer is a declining motivator. Provide some suggestions for the organic industry regarding the local food movement?

Since less than two percent of us are farmers, we identify less with their challenges; we shop at a farmers’ market more for its social and festive attributes than to buy “local.” The organic industry should reverse this trend by emphasizing the growers’ stories over the organic “purity” of the food. Without that story – the face behind the food – we might as well buy all our food from factory farms.

Your concluding recommendations encapsulate some of the visions and benefits of organic agriculture, particularly about producing healthy food, ensuring prosperity for farmers, providing living wages and safe working conditions, and securing the benefits of a sustainable, climate-resilient food system. How can the organic sector get its story out effectively to grow its influence in the wider food movement?

The organic sector faces the same problem that all food sub-movements face – they became slaves to their mission and forgot the vision. I got excited about local and organic food as a way to change the world, not to serve the interests of a single organizations, and healthy eating advocates. Look for public policy opportunities like the U.S. Dietary Guidelines to make sustainable and organic agriculture part of their recommendations. //

Linda Richards is a free-lance writer who writes frequently for the Organic Report