Survival Pending Revolution: What the Black Panthers can teach the US food movement

Raj Patel | 07.01.2012

Food First Backgrounder, Summer 2012, Vol. 18, No. 2

Over the past decade, the US food movement has grown to become a potent force for social change. Precisely because of its success, the movement now is being called to shore up the status quo. Revisiting some radical roots suggests ways that the food movement can end hunger in America, rather than becoming just another band-aid alleviating poverty.

It’s no accident that the food movement grew widely after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. With the criminalization of dissent, it became increasingly difficult to confront corporate capitalism through other politics. As Michael Pollan has noted,

Food is the place in daily life where corporatization can be most vividly felt… By the same token, food offers us one of the shortest, most appealing paths out of the corporate labyrinth.

Under the Bush regime, environmentalists, social justice campaigners, anti-capitalists, and organic foodies found a government, media, and general public far less responsive than a decade before. Membership of umbrella groups like the Community Food Security Coalition swelled, with a proliferation of food organizations, consultants, academics, and activist groups throughout the US.

Part of the success of the movement has been its largely nonsectarian, big-tent approach, committed to the idea that food should be available to all, and that, above all, food is a domain in which something can and ought swiftly to be done. Indeed, it’s the very success of community farms, gardens, feeding programs, kitchens, and food banks that has helped recruit a new generation of activists into a movement that seems to offer transcendence from the “old politics.”

To inoculate ourselves against the dangers of being co-opted into the very food system we have spent a decade criticizing, we need food politics.

Yet it’s the movement’s practical success that puts it in a precarious position today. At the time of this writing [fall 2011], 50.2 million Americans and one-third of female-headed households are food insecure. Food prices are rising, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and a Republican Congress has ambitions to amputate social programs from the body of government in the name of fighting inflation. In the resulting vacuum, community organizations have been pressed, with government’s approval, into providing service to the poor. It is easy to see the appeal of this community development approach for the present administration: it smacks of the self-help ethos, involves vanishingly small resources and can be encouraged without at the same time having to admit the existence of poverty.

To inoculate ourselves against the dangers of being co-opted into the very food system we have spent a decade criticizing, we need food politics. I don’t just mean policies mediating the interactions between the government and the private sector of the corporate food regime. I’m referring to politics as an ideology, as a positive system of beliefs, analytical principles, and values that informs practice.