The People’s Food System Summit

You can be a part of changing the food system!

For over 30 years, Equal Exchange has worked together with farmers and consumers to change the way that our food is grown and distributed, and to give farmers a fair shake.

On June 9th and 10th, Equal Exchange held our first People’s Food System Summit at Stonehill College in Massachusetts to explore how to broaden the food activist movement. We gathered 50 Action Forum citizen-consumers and 50 Equal Exchange worker-owners together with visiting small-scale producers to discuss a wide variety of issues. Many rich discussions took place, leaving us motivated and inspired to continue building this movement together.

Here are some of our reflections from workshop sessions at the summit!

Workshop Session Recap: “From Chavez to Human Rights: What Can We Learn about Organizing Consumers from Successful Boycotts in the Past?”
by Charlie Brandes

During his workshop session, Equal Exchange Co-Executive Director Rob Everts presented an overview of his experiences in community organizing and leading social and political movements.

Rob began the session by pointing out that while most consumer boycotts are “time-bound,” meaning, consumers are organized to protest against a specific store, company, product, or commodity for a specific period of time, the boycott either produces the change it seeks or it doesn’t, after which the organizers and consumers move on. Even though the Action Forum seeks to build a more lasting, ongoing model for organizing consumers, it seems prudent to look to past campaigns for guidance in building this model.

Rob’s story of how he was motivated to live a life of political activism and organizing by United Farm Workers members was stirring. The UFW, including Rob’s brother, had been picketing against Gallo wine outside of a liquor store that was on his way home from school. Nervous as he was about engaging consumers one-on-one about the consequences of their purchases, sibling rivalry finally got the better of his fear, and he joined the protest. Rob also talked about his relationship with Fred Ross, who was a behind-the-scenes mentor to Caesar Chavez, and ultimately to Rob as well.

After years of working with the UFW, Rob moved east to help organize hotel and restaurant workers, and ultimately founded Neighbor to Neighbor, which successfully campaigned to shut off aid from the US government to the Contras in Nicaragua. Inspired by the anti-Apartheid movement, as well as Rob’s past activism with the UFW, Neighbor to Neighbor then embarked on a boycott of Folger’s coffee. The goal was to put pressure on the (then) manufacturer of Folger’s, Procter and Gamble, to stop supporting the oligopoly in El Salvador that was carrying out a brutal civil war against its people. This ultimately brought him into contact with members of the young Equal Exchange co-op, and the rest is history.

Workshop Session Recap: “From Uniformity to Diversity in the Food System”
 by Bethany Karbowski

The supermarket shelves are not as diverse as they seem.

Annie’s Homegrown. Stonyfield. Applegate Farms, Kashi. Back to Nature. Lara Bar. Late July. Naked Juice. During this workshop session, there were gasps of “Oh no!” from the audience as we examined a food web showing how corporations like General Mills, Mondelez, Pepsi, Hormel and Hain Celestial have been hungrily buying up our favorite food brands — brands we love and have trusted to stand for the things we ourselves stand for.

“Unless you look closely, you wouldn’t know they were the same brand,” said Phil Howard, a professor in the Community Sustainability department at Michigan State University, who has been researching the consolidation trends in the food and beverage industries for years. “It looks like you have a lot of choices. There are fewer and fewer people making decisions about the food we eat.” The increasing trend has been that corporations are acquiring as many profitable organic brands as they can, trying to control the market without making these changes visible on packaging.

Why should it matter if these brands are no longer independently owned? Howard explained that large corporations often have an agenda and must answer to their shareholders. This means that well-intentioned consumers are often unknowingly supporting agendas that may not match their own values. Brands that originally had strong values and a commitment to quality, organic ingredients and sustainable practices are now subject to owners whose main motivation is frequently increased profits, not consumers. By purchasing a sub-brand of a mammoth, multinational corporation, consumer dollars are going directly into that larger organization and, without knowing it, we could be supporting things we may not actually agree with and reinforcing trends that we ultimately don’t want to see increasing.

In spite of this discouraging trend, Howard explained that “there is a positive counter trend moving towards real diversity.” There are a handful of companies, like Equal Exchange, who have chosen to remain independent despite buyout offers. Howard recommends focusing our efforts on creating alternatives and raising awareness surrounding these issues. He suggested the website “Buycott.com” whose slogan is “vote with your wallet” as a resource to help consumers determine where their money is really going, in the food sector and beyond.

By working together and looking deeper we can stay informed and choose to support brands and movements that are working towards shifting the power structure, increasing diversity in the food system and ensuring future access to healthy, affordable, food for everyone.

Learn more about Phil Howard’s research online and check out his book, Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What we Eat?

Workshop Session Recap: “Buying Clubs and Opting Out of the Corporate System”
by Tom Hanlon-Wilde

Edith Stacey-Huber and Adi Faribank discussed their experiences with buying clubs, sharing how they work around traditional grocery entities to bring food to their communities. Edith first organized a buying club in Ontario to make organic food affordable to families in her neighborhood, and eventually she brought that model to Michigan. Each of the four dozen families involved in the club is the buyer for one specific farm, in order to make it more sustainable. Participants are committed to purchasing food that’s grown locally, versus food that’s regulated and labeled. Edith overcame eight months of Michigan state bureaucracy around warehouse licensing until member families were able to purchase and store food sourced directly from farms.

Adi Faribank helped the project to grow by creating a non-corporate information system which made things much easier on the members. The community-based nature of the open source software provided a model for systems development. Adi applied his computer science learning to the project in 2003, and by 2006 it was processing over a quarter million dollars of food orders with a dozen buying clubs. By 2015, that participation jumped to $6.5 million. With the growing use by different groups Adi added back-up servers and program improvements including a user fee to the software.

The software allows families to source locally and then manage their purchases through an alternative food system tailored to each club’s needs. The major differences to the corporate food system is that there is traceability back to every farm or kitchen, the food is fresher, more money stays with the member families, and there is no food waste.

Edith strongly endorses the buying club as of a form of food activism. “I still remember the first bite of a locally sourced walnut and how amazingly good and different it was from a walnut from the grocery store,” noted Edith. Member families do have to adapt to the limited hours and there is a need to move to a business model (not volunteer) so that families who dedicate lots of time can get compensated by the families who have less time to dedicate. Edith and Adi are happy to help any group to that wants to get started. Join the Action Forum to start the conversation!

Join the Conversation!

Do you want to get involved in this movement and participate in future events with us? Join the Equal Exchange Action Forum to become a member of this growing community of activists, advocates and citizen-consumers.

Learn more about the Action Forum >

About The Author

Susan Sklar

1 COMMENT

  1. Gil Gillespie | 21st Jun 17

    This appears to have been a very informative and interesting conference. I wish that I could have been there.

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