THOUGHT FOR FOOD: Vote Food Democracy

If I say “food” and ask you to say the first word that comes into your mind, I expect it might be agriculture, or maybe health, or hungry, or yummy, or water, or maybe even diet.

But I’ll bet you a dollar to donuts (notwithstanding donuts are probably worth more than dollars now, so I should say donuts to dollars) that you didn’t say “democracy” I’ll bet you multiple donuts to dollars you didn’t say “governance.”

There is no automatic resonance in our inner brain or our alligator brain to link food and democracy, even though the two have a powerful connection.

Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize in Economics for a book that pointed out famines never take place in democracies, for example.

I’m delighted to see that as important a food organization as Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has posted a report called Deepening Food Democracy, co-written by Jill Carson and by an amigo of mine named Jahi Chappell.

The report’s thinking goes a lot further than I’m used to.

My major practical experience with food policy comes from the decade I spent at the Toronto Food Policy Council. I considered it to be  a tool of “deliberative democracy.”

Deliberative democracy is one of many efforts to move the democratic needle beyond “representative democracy” — sometimes defined as a system where people vote for the people who will rule over them.

Every reasonable person will concede there is a democracy problem arising from elections that take place every four years, in which the winners were elected on a platform they may or may not implement, over a term when they will face issues that have little to do with the platform they were elected to implement — without ever having to go back to check in with voters. That’s at best a baseline, but nothing close to the kind of enriching input and exchange we can have in the Age of the Internet.

Deliberative democracy is about setting up institutions that require check-in and oversight. I think of juries, coroners juries, opinion polls, town hall meetings and public consultations as expressions of that deliberative democracy impulse. In the food area, I think of food policy councils — which bring together experts from many communities in a city to get public and expert input on key policy and planning issues.

When election winners have to deal with such interactions, they must deliberate with others and move more deliberately.

But Carlson and Chappell go one step further — to deep democracy.  Most of us think of democratic rights as speaking our minds.

Deep democracy asks us to think of democratic obligations as opening our minds — listening to the needs and views of others, and striving to develop a policy that meets their needs as well as yours.

Democracy is about all of us being in this together, as we are altogether in a city, country and on this tiny planet. So that means we need to think about what works best for everyone, even though we elect someone because that person has a certain viewpoint and lens on the world.

That’s the deep democracy challenge. We have to think of the one person with a severe peanut allergy when we make a decision on banning peanuts at work or school, and give up our preference for a peanut snack.

If someone asks me if I support creating a space for that kind of democracy in a food system, I’d have to say:

I’ll vote for that!

Here are some resources:

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