To Make Food System More Fair, We Need To Know More Than Just Farmers

When the local food movement emerged in the early 2000s, it had a list of social ills it was trying to solve – like obesity, food insecurity and the struggling rural economy.

But now that local food has gone more mainstream, there’s criticism that it doesn’t go far enough in using food to achieve social goals. Critics have said some portions of the movement have—either purposefully or accidentally—excluded people, making local foods too expensive or hard to access.

Colorado State University sociologist Michael Carolan says in order to form more effective and fair food movements, we need to think much more broadly about how food gets from a field to our plate, and the people involved. In his new book, “No One Eats Alone,” Carolan introduces a cast of characters who give insight into how our food system currently works, and how it might be tinkered with.

On the book’s title

Carolan: I decided upon ‘No One Eats Alone’ because on the one hand we always talk about how much we’re isolated from others when it comes to eating and how we always eat in the car and never together around the table, with family and friends. But as I discuss in the book our food system—or the term I use, ‘foodscape’—is very populated with people. And we often forget that.

There’s a lot of people who make up our foodscapes. You have to do more than get to know your farmer. That’s a common discourse that we hear.

There’s farmers, there’s eaters, but there’s also immigrant laborers, there’s also food scientists, and the list goes on and on. And that’s what I try to demonstrate in this book is all the people that are part of our food system.

On using ‘foodscape’ instead of ‘food system’

Carolan: For me, when I hear people talk about food systems, they often reduce it to a commodity chain, where it’s producers, it’s distributors, it’s processors, it’s retail and it’s consumers. What I try to document in the book is that our food system is populated with a lot more than what’s captured in the classic commodity chain.

And I also don’t like the term “consumer.” I often use the word eater or the term “food citizen.” Because “consumer” represents a very narrow element of who we are as people. As consumers we’re really just interested in getting the best deal. But as citizens we’re also people who love, who care, who convitiate with others and it’s just a more all-encompassing term which I think better represents who we are as eaters, beyond just those of us in the supermarket looking to get the best deal.

On the local food movement

Carolan: We often mistake spatial distance for being social distance. What I mean by that is there is all this discussion about getting people around the table or making food systems more compact — such as in the local food movement. But that ignores the fact that you can have a very bikeable food system and still have a food system where people don’t really know each other and don’t talk to each other. Let alone take the time to get around a table and eat with each other.

And so one thing I’m really interested in is how food systems or foodscapes—how we do that might actually introduce some element of empathy into our lives. I discuss in this book some evidence where some of these local alternative foodscapes—by getting people of different socioeconomic background together—are actually generating within these individuals some empathy towards people who are not like themselves, who may not think like themselves. So I’m really interested in looking at food systems and foodscapes—alternative ones in particular—as maybe being a way of healing some of these social and political rifts as well that plague our society.

On ways to use food to create change

Carolan: We need to be careful about figuring out and finding one-size-fits-all solutions. I don’t think we can say any alternative food movement—including farmers market, CSAs—will all have the same societal effects in this regard. What I did find is that those foodscapes that allow people of different socioeconomic backgrounds together to interact might actually introduce some empathy.

Now, one of the critiques of some local food movements is that it just reproduces as what’s sometimes referred to as ‘whiteness’ and that’s people of similar backgrounds, similar skin colors, similar ideologies and class, getting together in these scapes and not really interacting with anybody different at all. And so I think we need to be international when we create these alternative foodscapes to make sure we’re doing it in a way that’s accessible and welcoming to people of all different socioeconomic backgrounds and only then can we expect to see any sort of social healing happening.