Mark Winne makes me feel like a newcomer to the food movement. He’s been at it 47 years, compared to my measly 25. He also makes me feel like a latecomer to city-based food policy councils. He pretty well jumped off the Mayflower to start the Council in Hartford in 1993, and I sauntered along in 2000 up in Toronto.
For 15 years, I’ve counted on him to double the number of old geezers at a conference who take joy from working at movement-building. We compete in making bad jokes at the wrong time. We’re equal in the number of food movement books we’ve written (three each). Both of us can count on one hand all the hundreds of dollars in wealth we’ve amassed from our work in the community food security movement.
I’m delighted to introduce Winne’s latest book -- Stand Together or Starve Alone: Unity and Chaos in the U.S. Food Movement. (Find out about it here.) I consider it the most important book going on today’s food movements.
It’s very much a personal testament. I once saw Winne work Congressional halls in Washington and came away wondering how he was able to command such respect from people he had little in common with. He gets along well with many different kinds of people.
Winne is a people person. I call him a practitioner of what I define as “people-centred food policy.” (Check that out here and here.) The community in “community food security” is second nature to him. He’s kept it a bit of a trade secret, but Winne actually coined the term community food security at a 1993 meeting to establish what became the Community Food Security Coalition. I tell the story of that in the 2008 (first) edition of my book, the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food. “I put the ram in the ramadamadingdong,” he told me.
It could be that his extroverted personality, well-honed social skills and community mindset make him impatient with food organizations that lack his good neighbour policy toward nearby food organizations. It sticks in his craw that food organizations don’t often help each other out or work together on their many areas of common cause and interest. If leaders of food causes can’t find common ground with people who are close to them, what chance do they have of working with people who aren’t close to them?
Though Winne is a thorough-going Connecticut Yankee (in the best New England sense of the word), and though his book targets an American audience focused on national food policies, his book is a seedbed for city food advocates in all countries. I read his book through my city lens, and invite you to see how his book can help city-based food organizers everywhere.
THE OPPORTUNITY COST OF ORGANIZATIONAL SELF-ABSORPTION
It’s hard to find a more important challenge than the one Winne identifies. I don’t deny that food leaders are holding together overworked and underfunded organizations which demand all their time and energy. But there’s a huge opportunity cost to their “every group for itself” approach. That line may work during an emergency when one boat is sinking. But it doesn’t apply to a fleet that’s setting sail with the wind behind it.
The isolationism practiced by food movements forfeits the chance to bake a bigger pie, create wholes that are bigger than the sum of their parts, and mobilize allies at crucial moments when the number of bums on seats at a meeting or the number of canvassers knocking on doors makes a difference. In Canada, we’ve taken to calling food a “whole of government/whole of society” issue. Isolationism undermines that perspective and promise.
The price of fragmentation is a food movement that punches way below its weight. Watch the gap: check the proportion of the population that feels something should be done about child hunger, that buys organic whenever possible, that buys local whenever possible – the numbers are always high. Compare those numbers to the proportion of the population that asks political candidates for their stand on food issues, participates in an election in order to support a candidate with strong food credentials, or who like the Facebook site (if there is one, which would be rare) promoting general food causes in a particular city.
There is no excuse for this gap, and the size of this gap is the justification for Winne’s book.
Winne wants to see the rising of a tide that will lift all boats, and I believe that can happen if we change our ways.
THE WINNE TAKEAWAY
What can be taken away from Winne’s book?
I think the what is to be done section is very positive, helpful and practical. It identifies skills that food activists and actionists (my preferred term, because it refers to people who work to create the change they want to see, not just protest things they don’t like) need to acquire.
In my view, the book is a catalogue of do-process, the do’s we need to do to get our due.
I would add a few suggestions of my own to adapt his list to the possibilities of city life, the social media and consumer activism, all of which subjects can be amplified in Winne’s next edition.
My proposal is that city groups see themselves as a joint venture. I prefer that to Winne’s beating the drum for “collective impact.” Joint Ventures or JV are all the buzz in electronic marketing circles these days and for a very good reason. The Internet facilitates decentralization into small, specialized and niche-based businesses and non-profits because it makes information, advertising, communication and coordination services available at a very low cost.
Organizations that set up Joint Ventures relish their focus but also understand that there still remain services and offerings that can be provided more cheaply and effectively if there is a common bulk order. Lots of businesses are doing JVs. The trend is sometimes referred to as “co-opetition.” So far, very few non-profits or NGOs have caught onto the trend.
I think cities and local governments are great places to pilot new Joint Venture initiatives among food organizations. It’s easier to meet one another and the people we want to influence face to face at the local level. And certain problems are understandable as common problems at the local level. When Jesus said “Whatsoever you do for Least, you do for me,” he was addressing a population that saw the suffering of the dispossessed and disadvantaged right in front of their eyes every day. The suffering of others was not an abstraction. It was in their face. People in a locality can feel the corrosive power of such suffering. We connect at a more human level in local places. That’s one reason why food banks, pantries and homeless shelters thrive at the local level, just like service clubs. There are 61,000 food pantries in the US and 3000 in Canada – just to gain a sense of the numbers of people and organizations that can be engaged once we start to work together.
On top of the general suggestions Winne makes, here are five Joint Venture projects that might get the ball rolling at the local level:
Pitch in to cover the part-time job of launching a Facebook site that will feature major events (Annual General Meetings and public lectures, for example) of every organization – a United Way of communications
Pitch in to sponsor a mid-term survey of city and county councillors’ votes on all food-related issues
Pitch in during elections to sponsor all-candidates meetings on food-related issues
Mobilize behind one consumer campaign that is at the tipping point during a particular year or time of year. This year, for example, getting rid of plastic straws is at a tipping point, and we can create momentum to demand personal, business and government to end the dumping of a billion plastic straws a day into landfills, lakes and oceans.
Jointly sponsor a public meeting to have the local government join the 163 local governments around the world that have signed onto the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact.
As such actions demonstrate the surging power of collaboration, begin moving toward the formation of a local food policy council at the civic or regional level. A food council would put a government-paid staff behind the project to bring food organizations together, and demonstrate the benefits of civic food action to all voters
I thank Mark Winne for prodding me to think of such joint city ventures. I am sure many other people will have their own reasons to thank him for a life well lived, and thoughtfully dedicated to food security that benefits the entire community.