Why the Food Justice Movement Matters

Last fall, I had the opportunity to interview Chris Hedges for my radio show, just after he’d delivered a powerful but incredibly discouraging talk about how Americans are becoming less able to think critically (based on his book Empire of Illusion) and how the Democratic party can longer be counted on to support the interests of working people (Death of the Liberal Class).  I asked him what he thought we ought to do about this depressing state of affairs.

His response: work on promoting locally-grown, sustainable agriculture.  Even though I serve on the board of an organization engaged in that kind of work, his response surprised me.

But lately –in part because of a terrific panel at the Working-Class Studies Association conference in June – I’ve been thinking about the potential power of food justice as an alternative to traditional leftist organizing.  I still believe in unions, but the American labor movement has been struggling for a long time, and much as I’d like to believe that unions can be the driving force for social justice, I simply can’t muster high expectations anymore.  I still believe that how we vote matters, despite knowing that many of those we elect either won’t or can’t do enough to support progressive policies.  I see more potential in the work of community organizers, though as the authors of Contesting Community suggest, such work is too often limited by public policy that promotes a neoliberal, privatization-oriented approach.

So what does the food justice movement have to offer that’s any different? Consider the definition of that phrase: food justice aims to ensure that the benefits and risks of producing, distributing, and consuming food are shared fairly by everyone involved and to transform the food system to eliminate inequities.  That’s a highly inclusive definition that encompasses everyone from the farmer to the tomato picker to the home cook and the corporation that sells canned goods or fast food.  That defines food justice as a cross-class, multicultural movement that engages in a wide variety of work on local, regional, national, and global levels.  The food justice movement includes efforts to create urban farms, community-supported agriculture projects (CSAs), programs focused on getting fresh produce to people who live in food deserts, protecting the rights of workers on farms and in restaurants, and challenges to corporate farming practices that endanger the ecosystem – and much more.

The nature of food ensures that much of this work is inherently hands-on and personal while also addressing systemic, structural issues.  Quite literally, food is for most people something we handle every day.  Projects like urban gardens and CSAs give consumers the opportunity to get our hands dirty.  Volunteers in urban gardens and CSA members who provide sweat equity to local farmers make concrete, physical connections with the source of their food.

Unlike unions (which are usually open only to those who work in a specific workplace), many food justice projects are open to anyone who wants to participate, and individuals can become involved on a variety of levels.  You can join a boycott, buy your produce at the farmer’s market, or volunteer a few hours at an urban garden or food pantry.  Here in Youngstown, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative coordinated the efforts of dozens of local volunteers who visited the many corner convenience stores in the city last year.  The volunteers spoke with the store owners and looked at what was on the shelves.  They then created a map that clarified the location of local food deserts, identified problem stores that sold only junk food and alcohol as well as the few small urban shops that offered fresh produce and good-quality meats, and used that data to encourage the city to work with two national chains to bring full-scale grocery stores back to local neighborhoods.  No one had to pay membership dues, take a certification vote, or do anything but sign up to help, and anyone could attend the community meetings in which the campaign was planned and discussed.

That kind of work is necessarily local, as is much of the food justice movement, but the effort is also national.  For example, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United has branches in major cities and some states around the country doing research, organizing, and advocating on behalf of food service workers.  It’s a national effort with a local presence.  Among other things, ROC-U has documented the effects of the low wages and limited benefits of most restaurant jobs on local economies.   And while ROC-U focuses on organizing workers, consumers can also get involved by paying attention to the local organization’s protests and information and patronizing restaurants that treat workers well.

The ROC-U campaign highlights another important strength of food justice as an alternative political movement: it creates opportunities for consumers to connect with producers and distributors of food, and that often means helping people cross boundaries of class and race.  I see that with Grow Youngstown, the local group that I work with.  Over the past month or so, during my visits to the Fairgreen Neighborhood Garden, an urban garden in a low-income neighborhood on the north side of Youngstown, I’ve talked with colleagues from the university, local activists, people who live in the neighborhood, and women from a nearby residential program for homeless families.  Some have PhDs and some didn’t finish high school.  They are white and black, retired and still in elementary school.  Those interactions don’t just enrich my life.  They strengthen the community.  Since the garden was created, we’ve seen more families moving into the neighborhood and more interaction among those who live nearby.

At the same time, Grow Youngstown, like many food justice projects, relies on and encourages networking with others who care about the local community.  Over the last three years, we have collaborated with the City of Youngstown, the Northside Farmer’s Market, two area churches, a local synagogue, a nearby organic farm run by an order of nuns, the university, several neighborhood associations, the Rescue Mission, and half a dozen other local and regional organizations.  Food justice may focus on food, but it connects with issues like economic development, race and class inequities, education, vacant properties, and of course, environmental sustainability. In the process, we build our own capacity to pursue significant projects, and we work with other groups to develop, together, the networks, knowledge, skills, and experience to organize effectively on behalf of both the local community and broader regional and national issues.

Food justice accomplishes something else: by emphasizing alternative sources of food, it challenges the dominance of the corporate food industry.  I’m not sure how much difference that makes to ConAgra, ADM, or Kroger.  But it reminds us that we have economic alternatives.  What we eat and how we shop matters.

That opportunity is not limited to those with means. Fresh Moves, a mobile produce market retrofitted into a city bus, takes affordable fruits and vegetables into neighborhoods around Chicago that don’t have decent grocery stories.  Farmer’s markets around the country are now accepting food stamps.  At Grow Youngstown, the regular shares of our CSA and a grant from a local foundation subsidize the cost of weekly subscriptions for low-income families.  So while my family enjoyed the locally-grown berries, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, and herbs that I brought home last week, someone else’s family ate just as well for half the price.

But the value of this accessible, very modest, and truly pleasurable form of activism extends beyond the food.  It helps local farmers be more able to grow unusual crops in a sustainable way, with reasonably-paid farm workers.  It helps provide a paid summer internship for a  recent college grad and a job for the woman who manages the CSA.  It supports an urban garden that brings neighbors together, and it helps to build a social justice network that includes people working for change in practical ways despite all the frustrating, discouraging, sometimes overwhelming social and economic problems we face these days.  It may not be the answer, but it’s not just cucumbers, either.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Against Pursuing Excellence

I am not against excellence.  I just think it’s over-rated as an aspiration.  In fact, I think aspiration itself may be over-rated.

When I see excellence — when I’m competent to recognize it (and in many fields, like science and opera, I am not) — it is thrilling and heartening, as a friend once said, to realize what the species is capable of at its best.  Excellence is by definition rare, and the kind of excellence that thrills, rarer still.  It is not just a little better than “good.”  It’s way better in a way that stuns ordinary expectations, and expands them.  So the more excellence there is in the world, the better.

But that doesn’t mean we should pursue it.  First, doing so has a strong tendency to lead to a wicked combination of hypocrisy and lower standards.  As a professor at a fourth tier university that has recently scrambled up to the third tier, I’ve sat through a lot of commencements where speakers have tried to inspire graduates to “always pursue excellence, and never settle for second best.”  I love that university in an immoderate way, and have from my first day of teaching there.  I love the students too.  But they are not pursuing excellence, and they’ll have to work very hard, with great discipline and persistence to get something close to “second best.”  I’m confident that most of them will, that their education has improved their chances, and that most of them will appreciate getting into the neighborhood of the second best, but I fear for those who genuinely pursue excellence and even more for those who think they have achieved it.

Second, there is no evidence that pursuing excellence actually leads to it.   Based on the testimony of many great artists, for example, excellence more often happens if not by accident, then through a combination of circumstances where the conscious pursuit of excellence is not one of the circumstances.  An extraordinary talent or “gift” is often one of those circumstances, as is determination and focus in pursuit of a specific goal – curing cancer or perfectly expressing a complex feeling or thought in the hopes that others might recognize it.  “Things just all seem to come together” in a way – luck, strategic help from friends and colleagues, a muse or collection of muses — that is beyond the will of the artist or scientist or carpenter or statesperson.

My main gripe with pursuing excellence, however, is the way it necessarily encourages competition among individuals.  Excelling means measuring ourselves against others, and this tends to undermine our focus on doing a good job. That is, trying to excel can distract us from what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, as we pause to rank ourselves against others doing something similar.

Most of us figure out fairly early in life that excellence is not in our range of capability, but the drumbeat of a culture that insists on excelling and not being second best leads us to try anyway.  Sometimes this trying makes us better than we might otherwise be, but more often, I’m convinced, it leads to an unhealthy concern to out achieve others, to feel diminished by their accomplishments, and to be constantly reevaluating our self-worth in relation to our perception of others.  This leads to a certain broken sadness, if not clinical depression, alternating with an exaggerated and exaggerating tooting of our own horn – ostensibly to impress others, but mostly to approve ourselves.  This high-stakes competitiveness with others takes our eye off the ball, undermining whatever chance we may have of achieving excellence, which in most human endeavor requires a little help from our friends.

Though probably overdrawn in this brief space, such a phenomenon is characteristic, in my view, of professional middle-class culture in early 21st century America.  The original ethic of professionalism was to establish certain minimum standards for an emerging profession and then gradually improve them.  It was a collective endeavor to elevate the level of the profession, which elevation would help not only those in the profession, but everybody — indeed, it would advance the species. (These were standard claims of middle-class professionals in the Progressive Era.  See From Higher Aims to Hired Hands for how even the professionalization of business management was originally rooted in such claims.)  Status was always an (overly) important concern, but it wasn’t atomistically individualized the way it is now.  Today’s resume-builders often actively disrespect their profession in order to individually stand out in their superior pursuit of excellence.

Fortunately, working-class culture is still a healthy, if beleaguered, antidote to the dominant middle-class one, and I have been fortunate to spend my life teaching working adults who “just want to be average” in a program that is reliably good at helping them achieve that goal.  Working hard and doing a good job, “pulling my weight” and “doing my part” – not pursuing excellence – are the core motivating values that working-class people feel bad about when they don’t live up to them.  Being outstanding is not only eschewed, it is actively feared, and the culture has subtle and not so subtle sanctions against it.

The problem is not only that the dominant middle-class culture is more dominant than ever or that its characteristic individualism is turning into an other-directed caricature of itself.  Rather, the extreme levels of income inequality we have now reached make the working-class way dramatically more economically punishing.  My students often have to at least mimic a phony pursuit of excellence if they are to provide for themselves and their families.  The worse things get, the more they are told not to sell themselves short, to set their sights high, to aspire to become whatever you want to be (unless, of course, you just want to be yourself).  Our crazy levels of economic inequality also foster a winner-takes-all culture. Winners should get not just all the honor and the glory, but most of the money and the power.  Losers should aspire to do better.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger document the devastating effects income inequality has on everything from reduced social mobility and health (both physical and mental) to higher levels of crime, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and drug and alcohol addiction.  One of the most surprising results they found is that the more unequal a country is, the higher the aspirations children report and the larger the gap between aspirations and actual opportunities.  Conversely, the more equal a country’s incomes are, the more children report low aspirations – while doing better in education and all other indicators of social well-being.  The correlations Wilkinson and Pickett found among the richest countries in the world allow the conclusion that high aspirations lead to lower educational achievement – that is, that pursuing excellence actually makes a society less likely to achieve it.  This accords with my own observation and experience.  A culture that encourages people to “work hard and do a good job” leads to greater personal integrity, better mental health, and higher actual performance levels than the false counsel to “pursue excellence and never settle for second best.”

Jack Metzgar

We’re On to Something: Reflections on the WCSA Conference

From June 22 to 25, 2011, around 230 people attended the conference of the Working-Class Studies Association, held at the University of Illinois-Chicago.    The conference was chaired by Jack Metzgar, a regular blogger on this site, and organized by the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies.   The conference theme of “working-class organization and power” reflected the urgency of the present moment when not only are public sector unions under attack, but also the very idea of the “public” as a shared set of social resources is being undermined by cutbacks or privatization.   Conference plenaries on organizing in Wisconsin, food justice, and the “corporatizing” of public schools explored these topics from multiple perspectives.  Panelists included teachers, parents, labor leaders, researchers, community organizers, a social worker, a farmer, and food service worker, along with academics.  Each panel both analyzed the challenges and described actions being taken to tackle them, in an inspiring demonstration of the unity-in-diversity necessary to carry our common work forward.  (The full conference program is available online.)

In this post I want to offer some reflections on the conference and on what it suggests about this formation we call “working class studies.”  But first, a little institutional history.

The first working-class studies conference in the US was held at Youngstown State University in 1995, and it continued to meet there every other year through 2005.  The conference was hosted by the Center for Working-Class Studies, which was founded in 1995 at YSU by Sherry Linkon in English, John Russo in Labor Studies, and several colleagues.  Since then, the WCSA conference has traveled to St Paul Minnesota in 2007, Pittsburgh in 2009, and Chicago in 2011.  In the meantime, in 2002 the Center for Study of Working Class Life, founded by economist Michael Zweig, began holding conferences in even numbered years at the State University New York – Stony Brook.    The sixth of these conferences on “How Class Works,” which also function as annual meetings of the WCSA, is planned for June 7 – 9, 2012.  (The call for proposals is available on the Center’s website.) The Working-Class Studies Association itself was launched in 2004 at the Stony Brook conference, with the aim of building a broader network “to develop and promote multiple forms of scholarship, teaching, and activism related to working-class life and cultures.”

These strands of WCSA’s work  – research into working-class issues, attention to education about class, and a focus on organizing (labor, political, community) – were fully present at the Chicago conference, along with another strand that has become salient at WCSA gatherings: cultural production in the forms of photography, film, poetry, music, and so on.   For example, a “Hard Times Poetry Slam” demonstrated the people’s art of slamming, now popular worldwide, which made its start in Chicago’s neighborhood clubs.  Another plenary, “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” celebrated the work of a remarkable photographer who died January at age 101, with an exhibit of his work and a lecture by Janet Zandy at a packed gallery on Michigan Avenue.

A key feature of working-class studies from its beginnings has been interdisciplinarity, the way it draws not only on activism and art, but also on work from all the academic fields in which class can be productively studied.  One example of the benefits of this approach came in the session “Visualizing Work, Class, and Place,” a roundtable discussion of Derrick Jones’s eloquent and haunting film “631.”  This short documentary centers on the house where the Jones family lived, in the largely Black south side neighborhood of Youngstown, now decimated by the effects of deindustrialization.  In addition to the filmmaker, the panel featured historian David Roediger, geographer Carrie Breitbach, and Cultural Studies professor Kathy Newman, each of whom offered a response to the film, reading it within the terms of their discipline.

For instance, Roediger noted how the film corrects a silence in New Labor History about the interior lives of workers, Breitbach observed how landscape can be read to illuminate social justice issues, and Newman drew on her knowledge of film history to notice the horror-movie elements of footage inside the now-burned-out house.  Listening to these readings of his film from three perspectives, Jones commented, “We need this interdisciplinary focus because what we are creating is like a community, a neighborhood.  We each have skill sets that are needed to build it up.”  Or, as one audience member put it:  “The disciplines together expose the full humanity of the story, which is not only about one family, but lots of people, and the demise of a town.”

As at any conference, much of the pleasure and the learning comes around the margins of the official program of panels and plenaries, as people from all over the US, and several countries beyond, eat, walk, talk, and sometimes sing together.  One evening, for instance, I found myself playing guitar and swapping songs with a group that included miner-poet Rab Wilson from Scotland, who recited Robert Burns and sang a US truck-driving ballad; Italian scholar Cinzia Biagiotti, who sang “Bella Ciao” and Joe Hill songs; psychologist Barbara Jensen from Minnesota dueting with Betsy Leondar-Wright of Class Action on feminist folk-standards; and nurse-poet Jeanne Bryner from Ohio, who shared her haiku.   Of course, the fun and camaraderie of this “wayside learning” can’t really be communicated.

But other forms of knowledge from these meetings can and should be shared between conferences.  Although the WCSA has decided for the time being to hold off starting its own peer-reviewed journal, members at the WCSA business meeting are committed to developing the association’s website as a space for informal publishing and conversation, including conference papers, blogs, videos, and linking to social networks.

In this connection, let me insert a membership plug here:  If you like what you are reading in the Working-Class Perspectives blog and especially if you attended the recent conference, consider supporting the Association’s work by becoming a member (you can join online at the WCSA website). As a member you will be eligible for a discounted subscription to New Labor Forum, the interdisciplinary journal with which WCSA has an editorial partnership.  You will have access to our website, including the Working-Class Notes newsletter and book reviews.  And you will help make future conferences like the event in Chicago possible and affordable.  As a member, you’ll be the first to find out where it will be held and to get the call for proposals.

The 2011 conference concluded with a general assembly on “the future of working-class studies.” It was a rich and lively discussion, and specific suggestions will be taken up by the Steering Committee and reported on in the Fall edition of Working-Class Notes.  As a brief preview, broad questions raised included:

  • how to develop the international reach of working-class studies
  • how to foreground issues of poverty, along with labor, in the field
  • how to work more consciously at the intersections of race, gender and class
  • how to use our institutional know-how to set up new centers of working-class studies.

Why?  Because we’re onto something.  The fact that the working class constitutes a social majority is no longer “America’s Best Kept Secret” (to borrow the title of Mike Zweig’s key book on the subject), and the increased recognition of working-class struggles and cultures owes a lot to pioneers in our field like Zweig, Metzgar, Zandy, Russo, Roediger and Linkon, among many others.

As some at this conference argued, the key to a just and sustainable future for all of us may lie in the alliance of a clearly and inclusively defined working class with a professional middle class that also sees its interests opposed by a small capitalist class (or corporate-political elite, if you prefer) which has been conducting a very conscious class war from above for the past thirty years.  Globally, this capitalist class has been busy grabbing up the planet’s land and resources, converting the global proletariat into a “precariat” of impoverished casual labor, fueling (and denying) climate change, and undermining the democratic processes designed to give the rest of us a voice and vote over these matters.  So yes, we have our work cut out for us, but on the evidence of the Chicago working-class studies conference, this modest sector of the broader movement is up for it.

Nick Coles

Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is the president of the Working-Class Studies Association.