Food Advocacy for Discouraging Times

BY MARION NESTLE

When I wrote Food Politics in 2002, it never occurred to me that readers would find the book depressing. I intended the book to inspire advocacy for healthier and more sustainable food and nutrition policies. But, alas, some readers were disheartened by evidence that food companies, like any other businesses, valued sales over public health.

It’s easy to fall into depression over the abuse of corporate power and so much else that is happening in food policy these days. At a time when healthy food systems require close integration of agriculture and nutrition policy, our government seems to want to move in the opposite direction. The FDA is delaying updated food labels for at least another three years. The USDA is losing interest in international meat safety. Congress could not care less about promoting sustainable agriculture.  

But perhaps as a triumph of hope over experience, I remain optimistic. How could I not? I am privileged to teach food system politics to students and other young people who want to change the world.  Their first question: How can they, as individuals, use their love of food in all its dimensions—taste, culture, history, science, economics—to create a good, clean and fair food system in a more just and equitable society?

For anyone who has this question, I offer the same answer: Become an advocate. To do advocacy well, like it or not, you need to engage with politics. To do food advocacy well means engaging in food politics. Here are some quick suggestions for how to start.

UNDERSTAND THE SYSTEM: You can’t remember a thing about high school civics? Try a quick refresher. Politico offers an Essential Guide to Legislation. To get deeper into the weeds, try the Blueprint for a National Food Strategy from the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic.  

DO ADVOCACY BY THE BOOK: Effective advocacy means identifying a goal, recruiting others to support that goal, figuring out who or what can make that goal happen, working with others to plan and carry out a strategy and doing a lot of community organizing to gain support for your strategy. The Berkeley soda tax advocates did all this, which is why they won an astonishing 76% of the vote.

JOIN AN ORGANIZATION: I wish there were a catalog of all the advocacy groups working on food and nutrition issues, but there are too many to count. Food Tank has collected a hundred or so into a Good Food Guide searchable by location. That’s a great way to start. A simple search of “[your town] food advocacy” 

usually turns up any number of anti-hunger, school food and small farming groups, along with farmers’ markets, food banks, and community supported agriculture programs. When I’m
in another state and want to know what’s going on in the food world, the local Edible magazine is a quick entry point into local advocacy groups.

WRITE LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, OP-EDS, BLOG POSTS, TWEETS: If you have an idea about what might make a difference in your community’s food system, say so. Try your idea out in public. It’s the best way I know to locate other people who share your views and who
can be called on to work with you (they will write you). Every newspaper and magazine has guides for contributors; The New York Times, for example, provides instructions for op-eds and letters to the editor. Take a look. Get published!

CONTACT YOUR SENATORS AND REPRESENTATIVES: Hard to believe as it may be, constituents’ views matter to elected officials. If you don’t tell them what you think about issues, how will they know? Call, write, email, text: all count. To be more effective, get some like-minded friends together and visit their local offices. Ask to speak with the staff member who deals with the issue you care about. Come prepared with a short written statement of what you want your representative to do—the ask. Various organizations have prepared guidelines for successful lobbying visits. These emphasize that you know who you are talking to and are prepared to ask for something specific. If you approve of how your representatives are voting, let them know that too.

THINK LOCAL: The federal government may be hopelessly mired in partisan politics, but plenty of officials in local communities, cities and states try hard to do what they can for constituents. Let the members of your local council or school board know what you think needs to be improved. If you visit as a group, your message will be even stronger. Tell officials what you like about what they are doing, and tell them what they should be doing better. Ask for what you think is right. Officials can’t read minds; you need to tell them what you want them to do, and be as specific as possible.

RUN FOR OFFICE: If “honest politician” seems like an oxymoron, here’s your chance. If you run on a platform of improving your local food system, school food and food environment, you will be a breath of fresh air and an inspiration to everyone else who wants to make a difference—even if you don’t win.  And if you do win, you will have some power to strengthen your local food system.

Advocate! If you don’t, who will? Advocacy works. It does much good. And it’s fun.  

Marion Nestle Ph.D., MPH is the Paulette Goddard Professor, of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University. Her research and writing examine scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing. She is the author of six prize-winning books. She received the James Beard Leadership Award in 2013, and in 2014 the U.S. Healthful Food Council’s Innovator of the Year Award, and the Public Health Association of New York City’s Media Award. Follow Marion on her blog www.foodpolitics.com , or on twitter @marionnestle.