Foodbooks for Thought: Mark Winne’s New Book an Organizer’s Manual for America’s Food Rebels

Mark Winne has been working in the galleys of the U.S. food movement for 40 years, before there was a food movement of any note. He’s a social movement guy as much as a foodie guy. The title of his new book –Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture — shows the role his warm and quirky sense of humor plays in allowing him to stay active in grassroots organizations for so long, without becoming weirder than his book title.

Looking beyond the book’s cover, Winne brings a way of looking at food issues that makes this book unique: he’s first and foremost a people person and community organizer, not a journalist, dietitian, chef, restaurant critic, academic or diet promoter. This lens on the food world accounts for most of the topics that aren’t in the book: anything related to wagging fingers at anyone but big corporations and lackey governments, or anything related to gourmet meals, specialized diets, superior French and Italian food culture, hifalutin alternative agriculture techniques – all subjects that might scare off, turn off or exclude the folks back home. Indeed, the folks back home, ordinary people trying to deal with their everyday food problems, are the stars of the book, and the problems holding them back are at the centre of Winne’s policy diagnosis and prescriptions.

Winne’s “peoplistic” perspective makes this the first book of the last decade’s food book explosion to zero in on food and the human condition, not just food and the physical body, or food and the body politic.
Though I would recommend that people start the book at part 2, where he gets into the hearts, souls and kitchens, gardens and meeting rooms of his lead characters, Winne obviously chose to start with Part 1, which frames food issues inside deep philosophical issues of human freedom and self-reliance – at odds with an industrial food complex that lures people into dependence and addiction with heavy doses of sugar, salt and fat.

Bitter appetizers stimulate the appetite, the Italians say, so maybe Winne’s starter of excerpts from a dense Dostoevsky novel does show he was trained by a classical chef after all. Though I’m uneasy with his priority placement of heavy-duty philosophical issues, I can’t help but give Winne full marks for this long-overdue effort to link food choices to broad issues of social, environmental and medical well-being — and to push the envelope beyond that — to considerations of deep human needs and obligations.

Without belittling what the book contributes to food policy, I would say this is a must-read for anyone looking for an organizing manual adapted to American realities. Winne teaches by example. The book, and each of the chapters, is short, because most people have the same problem learning about food as they do eating properly – they don’t have time for anything fancier. Each of the chapters in Part 2 features a person and story based on the classic American archetype – individuals working hard to make themselves and their lives better. Policy and analysis aren’t presented as intellectualized abstractions. In Winne’s story-telling way, policies dance like a butterfly but sting like a bee, as they emerge as practical solutions to the real problems each person confronts. And, in keeping with Winne’s main theme – the need for an Emerson-based compass of self-reliance and inner strength to show the way through the maze of food choices – government assistance and policies are designed to support and enable citizen efforts, not substitute for them.

At this time, it’s hard to think about the future of food without worrying about tea parties, supporters of which also count themselves as rebels. There was a time in the late 1800s when people who called themselves populists talked about raising “less corn and more hell” in order to expose the “money power” that looted wealth from the efforts of hardworking Americans. How the rhetorical tables have turned when billionaire-financed people get away with posing as populists because they sneer at latte liberals and non-conformist members of counter-cultures, while demanding special privileges for the rich and powerful.

In my opinion, this is the book that shows American food activists – the progressive people with the best chance of communicating with the entire country — how to use their inheritance of the great traditions of late-1800s agrarian populism. Winne’s book serves up plain American English and archetypes that stick to the ribs of a food movement properly understood as inspired by such deep and abiding traditions and values.

Mark Winne, Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas: Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture, Boston, Beacon Press, 2010. US $24.95/C $27.95

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  1. [...] Without belittling what the book contributes to food policy, I would say this is a must-read for anyone looking for an organizing manual adapted to American realities. Winne teaches by example. The book, and each of the chapters, is short, because most people have the same problem learning about food as they do eating properly – they don’t have time for anything fancier. Each of the chapters in Part 2 features a person and story based on the classic American archetype – individuals working hard to make themselves and their lives better. Policy and analysis aren’t presented as intellectualized abstractions. In Winne’s story-telling way, policies dance like a butterfly but sting like a bee, as they emerge as practical solutions to the real problems each person confronts. And, in keeping with Winne’s main theme – the need for an Emerson-based compass of self-reliance and inner strength to show the way through the maze of food choices – government assistance and policies are designed to support and enable citizen efforts, not substitute for them. Wayne Roberts review. [...]

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