I just finished reading Food and Power in Hawai’i: Visions of Food Democracy. I disagree with the framing of the book around “food democracy” as opposed to “food sovereignty” (see below for why), but there are some very useful insights to be gained from the book about conversations we need to have and actions we can take to improve food security for Hawai’i.

The main questions that this book sought to address were:

  1. What are the “diverse ways Hawai’i’s citizens are engaged in shaping their food system?”
  2. “How can we build a more just, culturally rooted, equitable and democratic food system?”

Main conclusions:

  • In thinking about food security, it is not enough just to think about increasing the amount of locally grown food (“uncritical celebration of localism”) or protecting local farms. We also need to think about the broader objectives of social justice, ecological sustainability, and economic viability. “Local” doesn’t automatically mean good or healthy for people, the community, or the ecosystem. And protecting farmers’ livelihoods is not the same as trying to ensure food security for the community.
  • Individual change in what we consume is not enough, being a good citizen is more than what you buy. They weren’t as clear about what then being a good citizen means, but my opinion is taking some action, however small, to try to improve the wellness of your community. Within the context of food systems, this can mean developing relationships with farmers, joining a volunteer workday, growing your own food, cooking consciously, engage in changing food policy, helping to build community food hubs, etc.
  • We need more policy and public programs, not just private funded NGO initiatives. There are low-cost things that the state can do immediately (i.e. pursue more federal grants for community nutrition, encourage more eligible people to apply for SNAP + WIC)
  • Local farms have been successful because they provide for a niche market (people who can afford the extra time and cost), but this won’t ensure food security because it is inaccessible to lower income citizens. Local organic farms have used WWOOFers as a transient source of low cost labor instead of hiring local workers, but this is more of a coping strategy and isn’t sustainable. If local farms are to become a viable source of food for Hawai’i (currently 85-90% of food is imported) then food policy and laws need to change to make farming in this state financially viable and make the cost of local food affordable.

Things that I think are given, but apparently needed to be said in the book:

  • Neoliberalism (directly and indirectly) causes food insecurity, and while the market can create or make space for “alternative food products”, the system can’t change itself.
  • We need to address injustices stemming from gender, class, race that are embedded within the current food system.

Idea that I thought was most important, but only represented in one esway:

“Any attempts to move towards food democracy need to consider the impact of colonization on indigenous food systems and should learn from the indigenous peoples’ ancestral and management practices of water, land, and food production”

Shout out to Ho’oulu ‘Āina in the book as an example of this!


Reflection

I had really high hopes for this book. But for me, it was a big disappointment.

The cover description said that it would be framed around “social justice and sustainability” and that the nine essays “collectively [make] the case that food is a focal point for public policy making, social activism, and cultural mobilization.” I would say the book actually takes a centrist approach. While it gives voice to social and food justice perspectives, most of the essays express perspectives that exist within or even want to maintain a Western settler-colonial worldview and existing power structures. By presenting these perspectives as “neutral” through the tone/language of academia and not pointing out the context and position of each perspective within that context, the book contributes to the hegemony embedded within not just an industrial food system, but society in general. It’s not just that I disagree with those perspectives, but that they continue to make people and communities unwell.

Meanwhile, the social justice / food justice voices are once again relegated to “the minority” and also couch their ideas within defensive language in an attempt to try to present themselves as neutral. The blind, hypocritical obsession with “objectivity” within academia, and Western worldview in general, allows us to ignore or conveniently forget the socio-political *context* of everything. Because no one ever exists in a socio-political vacuum, it is impossible for any perspective to be neutral.

The tip-off was their use of “food democracy” to frame the book as opposed to “food sovereignty.” The word “democracy” implies an equal distribution of power within existing social, political, and economic structures, which is untrue and unrealistic. Therefore framing the book using “food democracy” perpetuates the hegemony embedded within the current food system and our society. “Food sovereignty on the other hand focuses on empowering people to be in control of their own wellness. It focuses on the “right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food,  produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/what-is-food-sovereignty/

Providing a wide range of perspectives can be a very useful and important thing, but if that is what they were trying to do, then they should’ve said so and not pretended to be all about social justice and cultural mobilization. 

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