On Tuesday, March 1, a panel of activists, writers, and organizers spoke on the struggle over control of the food system. The event, titled “Food Fight! Countering Corporate Control of Our Food Supply” and held at CUNY Law School, was presented by the CUNY Law Review and the CUNY Law Green Coalition Food Fighters. Speakers called for grassroots, locally based activism to pressure the US government to support its citizens rather than corporations.
The panel, moderated by Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet and co-founder of the Small Planet Institute, included attorney-activist (and CHW contributing writer) Michele Simon, New York City food and garden organizer and community activist Karen Washington, and Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. New York City Council MemberMelissa Mark Viverito responded to the panelists’ remarks, emphasizing the recent food-related activities undertaken by the New York City Council.
Lappé began by asking the panelists to explain the historical context of today’s food system. “We have enormous consolidation in our food system,” responded Hauter, “and we’ve seen more and more over the past 20 years.” “We need to strengthen antitrust laws and we need to have the laws followed,” she continued. “I think the message is we can’t just vote with our fork; we can’t buy our way out of this problem, we can’t shop our way out of this problem, we have to organize our way out of it.”
Washington elaborated on the theme of organizing, placing the responsibility on the shoulders of communities. “Allowing these companies to control our food system has to say something about our society,” she said. “When are we going to get together to say enough is enough?” Simon agreed that there are things we can do locally, but pointed out that the subsidies that make the wrong kinds of food cheap can’t be fixed at the local level. As a lawyer, she also noted, “When you can’t get where you want to go with legislation and regulation, often litigation is a last resort.”
The conversation then shifted to the one-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, and her recent support of Walmart. Hauter said that Obama is not in a position to take on the food industry, the real obesity culprit, so in her view, “Let’s Move” will lack follow-through. She called Obama’s free publicity for Walmart “offensive,” “hypocritical,” and “problematic.” “When you look at WalMart’s track record, it’s pretty scary that they’re getting into food,” said Hauter. She warned that they are forcing the price of organics down, and the quality will soon follow. Hauter also pointed out that Walmart’s promises to promote healthy food are shaky since they are essentially just making unhealthy food a little less unhealthy. Washington agreed that “Walmart is like the Monsanto of supermarkets,” but gave the Obama administration credit for bringing school food issues into the public eye. She promoted existing bodegas as establishments that can easily fill the role that Walmart claims is needed in New York City neighborhoods, noting that bodegas are already more integrated with the community than Walmart could ever be.
“Industry’s game is twofold,” added Simon. She explained that first, they begin calling their virtually unchanged products “natural” in order to keep people buying them, and second, they ensure that policy makers stay away by fooling everyone into thinking they are voluntarily self-regulating. “Basically”, she said, “the government is handing over the reins of our food supply to Corporate America.” “We want government policies to be in favor of people, not corporations,” concluded Simon, stressing that Walmart and McDonalds can never be the solution to the problem. “Just get out of the way and let the community fill the void.”
Council Member Viverito began her response saying, “I know this was not supposed to be an anti-Walmart forum, but I will jump on that bandwagon any day,” much to the delight of the audience. She also spoke about the New York City Council’s efforts to address access to healthy food. She discussed the Food Works report released by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in November of last year, and also mentioned supporting bodegas and the FRESH initiative to bring more supermarkets into underserved neighborhoods.
- Art by Willy B. Levitt