from ‘voting with your fork’ to supporting policy change

by Alice Topaloff

1e663f6 Sustainable ag and foodie bigshots are constantly encouraging us to “vote with our fork” or our “food dollars”, implying that the first step towards a sustainable food system starts with our purchasing decisions as consumers. Recent transitions show that consumer choices have played a part in some food industry changes. For instance, major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, and an increasing number of fast food chains are going “GMO-free”, “antibiotic free”, “rbST free”, etc.
However, assuming consumers have the power to change the food system with their buying habits alone assumes that they not only have the privilege to afford more expensive food, but also the privilege to have the time to be aware, choose, buy, and cook food that could otherwise be cheap (thank you funky subsidies), convenient, and ready to make.
Furthermore, making consumers responsible places us as judges with the power of gratifying farmers ‘who do it right’ and punishing those who don’t. First, how do consumers make that judgement? Is it the role of food advocates to educate consumers and build awareness? Second, is placing consumers as judges contributing to the growing divide between farmers and consumers?
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that food advocates should walk the talk (but I admit you may find me with a slice of Casey’s breakfast pizza). However, I think our main role as food advocates is not just to build awareness but also, and mostly, to support broader systems change. Even if we are lucky enough to be able to ‘vote with our fork’, developing strategies to change laws and policies will have a greater impact on outcomes.
I believe education and awareness play an important role in systems change, and I am glad I can do that in my work with Extension. However, on a personal side, I want to be an advocate for the things I believe in. Before moving to Iowa, I was involved with “la Confederation Paysanne” (“Conf.”) in France, a labor union for farmers and farmworkers advocating for alternatives to industrial farming and supporting diversified family farms. I met Debbie Bunka, IFU’s Membership Coordinator, at a Practical Farmers of Iowa’s field day a couple of months after I moved to Iowa. She explained IFU’s mission and role in supporting family farms through education and policy work. In many ways, IFU’s values reminded me of the Conf values I was familiar with. One of the main differences that I find exciting is how the Farmers Union engages with food system workers beyond farmers (academics, local food coordinators, food advocates, etc.).
Bringing ‘consumers’ to advocate alongside farmers is, in my opinion, one of the Farmers Union’s biggest strengths. In a time when the media likes to point out the divide between consumers and farmers, I think the Farmers Union shows that consumers can stand alongside family farmers and support them beyond our ‘food dollars’.
A good example of how Farmers Union members support food system change is through the Local Foods Expansion Bill, a bill that would support farmer-led efforts to promote and expand local food systems in Iowa. Among other things, this bill would establish state government purchasing preferences to encourage the purchase of specialty crops, livestock and dairy produced by small farms (read more here).
So here’s the point I’m trying to make: to be a real advocate for food systems change, we have to go beyond ‘voting with our fork’ and work towards systems and policy change. Becoming a member of the Iowa Farmers Union is an easy first step to start doing so.