Beyond Voting with Your Fork: From enlightened eating to movement building

Josh Viertel | 04.01.2012

Food First Backgrounder, Spring 2012, Vol. 18, No. 1

Beyond Voting with your Fork: From Enlightened Eating to Movement Building When I talk to a crowd of people who are new to the food movement, I often begin by asking them, “How many of you have committed an agricultural act in the last 24 hours? Please raise your hand.” In crowds of over 200 people, I usually see about six hands go up. I call on them: “What did you do?” “I watered my tomatoes.” “I mowed my lawn.” Occasionally, I’m surprised to hear that someone collected eggs from a backyard chicken coop, but most of the time, there are a few home gardeners in the audience, and that’s it.

I then ask the question, “Well, how many of you have eaten in the last 24 hours? Please raise your hand.” All hands go up. The message I’m trying to get across is simple: If you eat, you are involved in agriculture. “Eating,” as Wendell Berry writes so eloquently in his essay “The Pleasures of Eating,” “is an agricultural act.”

There is a story behind our food. And we believe it ought to be a story that makes us proud. Sadly, most of the food we eat has a story behind it that we would be ashamed to tell… Our food consistently makes us sick, causing food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli, and diet-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension. But even just hearing the story behind it can make us sick too—sick with images of manure lagoons, sick with the sight of tortured animals, sick with the smell of thousands of miles of polluted waterways, and sick with accounts of labor abuses so severe, and working and living conditions so dire, that they are sometimes hard to believe. But that isn’t the only story. There is a different kind of food out there. It is good for the people who eat it. It is good for the people who grow it. And it is good for the planet. It has a story behind it that would make us proud. At Slow Food, we call it good, clean, and fair food.

 I’m struck by the uncomfortable fact that not everyone can vote with his or her fork.

More and more people feel that we should apply our values to the choices we make about food. Sure, everyone’s values are different but, the truth is, anyone’s values will do. The problems with food and farming don’t come from people holding the wrong values; they come from people not applying the values they hold. If most people ate according to their values, most of the problems caused by food and farming would go away because no one’s values can accommodate the status quo.

That notion, that we should eat food that reflects our values, has been at the forefront of Slow Food’s thinking about how we should go about changing the food system. “Vote with your fork!” has become a battle cry of the food movement. I’m struck by the uncomfortable fact that not everyone can vote with his or her fork.

If dinner is a democratic election, and we seek to change our food system via our votes, we need to look squarely at the fact that in many electoral districts and for too many people there are no polling stations because there is only one candidate, the incumbent: fast food. And even if there were other candidates, it wouldn’t matter, because many people can’t afford to cast a vote for anyone but the incumbent.

Many people cannot eat according to their values. They have little money, they have little time, they may not know how to cook, and they have no access to ingredients, let alone ingredients whose story could make them proud. What they have access to is food that makes them sick, food that hurts the environment, and food that is grown and picked by people whose time and labor is undervalued.

Lots of people can vote with their fork. And they should. If all who could did so, then things would get better. But I don’t want to pretend that, if everyone who could vote with their fork did, problems that stem from food and farming would be resolved. Too many people cannot, and it is neither productive nor fair to pretend otherwise.