Food Meditations: Food Democracy Is All Greek to Me

Food and city policy advocates owe a lot to ancient Athens.

Even someone as ill-informed as me knows we owe them the root word of policy, politics and metropolis, and the first example of city states.

Most people also refer to Athens as the birthplace of democracy, at least for Greek males.

But I just found out that the Athenian notion of democracy can advance our thinking about food and democracy. Lost in the thickets of the Internet yesterday, I found a reference to Josiah Ober’s  article entitled “The Original meaning of ‘Democracy’: Capacity to Do Things, not Majority Rule.”

If this leading scholar on ancient Athens is right, it turns out the Greeks got to some basic food and society concepts long before we did.

Ober’s argument is that the root words for democracy clearly reveal that democracy did not primarily refer to people casting their votes for leaders during elections, so that the group with a majority (the hoi polloi in the words of that time) could rule.

The demos at the root of democracy refers to people, which to the Greeks did not include women or slaves. So that’s far off today’s understandings..

But the kratos at the root of democracy descends from kratos, which relates to capacity, strength and empowerment.

As Ober puts it: “Demokratia, which emerged as a regime-type with the historical assertion of a demos in a moment of revolution, refers to a demos’ collective capacity to do things in the public realm, to make things happen.”

That’s getting very close to an understanding that food advocates have been talking about ever since (we thought!!) 1986, when the Ottawa Charter on Health Promotion, a foundational document for the World Health Organization, was proclaimed.

That charter is notable for its many references to enable and capacity, and its many references to community and personal expressions of power as well as the power of government.

The authors of the Charter may as well have been walking in the streets of ancient Athens as at an airport in Ottawa.

Demosthenes, one of the great orators of the day, stressed to a group of jurors empowered to decide on an issue that “the laws are powerful through you and you through the laws.”

The most famous piece of oratory in all of ancient Greece, Pericles’ tribute to fallen soldiers, speaks on “the principles of action” that create Athen’s greatness. The principle is democracy, where “administration is in the hands of the many.” Power comes from the individual, asmuch as the state. Each person has the capacity and “the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace” – what we would now call the empowerment necessary to resilience.

Many critics of the food movement argue that the movement  does not put enough effort into politics. I often make the same complaint myself.

But the democratic wisdom of Athens – which Ober summarizes as  “the collective capacity of a public to make good things happen in the public realm” should cause us to pause in our criticisms.

Building capacity and empowerment for self-government is at the heart of what the polis – roots word for politics – is about.

Those who are building  the social skills (sometimes called social capital) of underserved communities –through community gardens, community kitchens, community farmers markets, community bake ovens, community food centers, and so on – are engaged in the fundamentals of democracy.

Below are two of the documents referred to:

The picture above is of me in Honduras, part of a USC Canada delegation studying how Indigenous peasants learned to become self-reliant through their own work to develop resilient seeds and growing practices. (The transformation is discussed in my 2013 book, No-Nonsense Guide to World Food)


  1. Sarfaroz Niezov ( Niyozov) says:

    Thanks, Dil..,
    I am thrilled to see your new article.
    Proudly, Papa

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