Changing the framework from consumerism to activism

Written by Kyle Ching
Fall 2016

You can simply stop participating in a system that abuses animals or poisons the water or squanders jet fuel flying asparagus around the world. You can vote with your fork, in other words, and you can do it three times a day.

– Michael Pollan

This ideal of consumerism that Michael Pollan espouses in his New York Times article “Voting with Your Fork” and in pretty much all of his writings, is probably not new to most people reading this blog post. It is the basis of the current mainstream food movement. The burden is placed on individuals to change their purchasing habits or else they are voting for exploitation and pollution three times a day. These ideas have manifested in the popularity of the organic, cage-free, humane, local, etc. labels that crowd supermarket shelves, and the success of restaurants like Chez Panisse.

However, the extent of consumerism starts at the fork and ends at the fork. The consumerist, “vote with your fork” approach is individualistic, exclusionary, and ineffective. The mainstream food movement is rampant with fat shaming, moralizing, respectability politics, tone policing, classism, and racism. Consumerism dilutes the focus of justice for workers, animals, and the environment, while also excluding low income people of color. Voting with your fork fails to acknowledge that not everyone gets a fair vote.

People living in low food access areas, working long hours, and fighting just to survive may not have the same means to cast their vote, especially because these “better” products are usually more expensive, rare, or time-consuming. People who aren’t paid living wages have to work more hours, giving them less time to prepare their own meals. People who live in food deserts have to spend more time to travel to get healthy food, or they have to buy the most calorie-dense foods available to them, which are often the products that people are told to vote against. Furthermore, if people are legitimately worried for their own well-being, making the most pristine consumer decisions is probably not their first priority. The mainstream food movement often does not take this into account, and ends up shaming and alienating these people, painting them as the issue rather than the systems of capitalism and hierarchy that allow for the degradation of the environment and devaluation of people of color, disabled people, immigrants, nonhuman animals, and other groups marginalized by the food system.

It also is immobilizing and ineffective. This individualist approach fails to critique the system broadly. People are told to make a personal decision and simply withdraw participation in a violent system, rather than actively dismantle it. The framing of these systemic issues as individuals’ issues allows people to feel morally superior without actually liberating anyone. Justice and liberation cannot be bought; it must be fought for. We need to frame the problem as everyone’s problem, not just the individual consumer’s. We can’t talk to every single individual and convince them one-by-one to vote with their fork. We need to deconstruct the underlying ideologies of oppression like white supremacy, human supremacy, and capitalism instead of voting to mitigate the symptoms of those ideologies. We need to mobilize people to take action however much they are able to, whether that be doing disruptive actions, educating themselves and others, and challenge ideologies like capitalism, white supremacy, and human supremacy.

I have been volunteering at the Berkeley Student Food Collective (BSFC) for two and a half years now. The BSFC was founded upon values of voting with your fork. It took the niche of the bourgeois, specialty health food store that could offer people who had the means to feel like they were not participating in a violent and destructive system. The impact that this has had on our store are obvious. Our membership is overwhelmingly white, and the BSFC has gained a reputation of the white, bourgeois, hippie store that sells kombucha and overpriced snacks.

In November of 2015, then-Communications Coordinator Grace Lihn called out this pervasive culture of whiteness in her open letter to the BSFC, the Anti-Oppression Committee was created. Its main goal was to identify the oppressive systems perpetuated by the BSFC, dismantle them, and incorporate anti-oppression work into every single committee. At the committee’s outset, we talked a lot about making our store more financially accessible as a starting point in making our store more inclusive to everyone. We implemented programs like the sliding scale system for meals cooked by our volunteers, the dollar menu to highlight our better deals, and the meal packaging project to make cooking easier for people with low kitchen access.

Though the BSFC, being a store, operates with values of consumerism, it was born from the mobilization to keep Panda Express off of the UC Berkeley campus. Students felt that they could better address their own needs, ideals, and preferences than a large corporation could, so they founded the Berkeley Student Food Collective. Embedded in the Food Collective are elements of democracy and justice.

As the current Anti-Oppression Coordinator, I have been thinking a lot about how to change the culture of the BSFC to be more inclusive, and useful to food insecure people. From this semester, I have learned that we need to stop viewing consumerism as a means to an end. It by itself is incomplete. It can be a powerful and necessary complement to mobilization. It is a way to align our praxis with our ideology. However, it is not tacking the problem directly.

Moving forward I want to build the BSFC as a space for movement building. Often, the BSFC is a first exposure for students to more radical ideas and praxis like ideas of animal liberation, collectively run businesses, elected boards, and environmental justice. The Food Collective is an experimental space where they can see their work in their committees come to fruition, and have real world impacts, even if only on a small scale. It gives people a lens with which to look at other more conventional realms in. Going forward, I want to emphasize this facet of the Food Collective. We want to focus more on movement and coalition building, with consumer choices being just a small part of a larger movement.

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