Deepening Food Democracy
Imagine a group of 15 citizens from your community. These citizens are a cross-section from your community, representative in gender, age, education, party affiliation and ethnicity. They gather to discuss their concerns about the impacts of climate change on their lives and potential steps to overcome those challenges. After days of discussing their collective community vision of what a sustainable and resilient community is, they draft a citizen’s report. This report is used as a launching pad for conversations and actions with their local government and their community to create a sustainable future.
Now imagine thousands of your neighbors attending a community event to vote to allocate public funds—over $1.5 million—for local projects: community gardens, playground reconstruction, community center renovations, and improving technology access for neighborhood schools. Community members proposed these projects—in fact, one comes from someone on your block. Another comes from one of your friends across town. Together, community members vote on projects. More than half of the ballots are cast in a language other than English. The representatives of your district know that these projects have the support of the community. And the community has a deeper understanding of and trust in their government and is ready to hold them accountable to these ideas developed by the community itself.
These two stories are true stories from Morris, Minnesota and New York City, respectively, which exemplify a style of governance that many are unfamiliar with, but is practiced across the United States and across the globe. This style of governance—called "deep democracy"1—has immense implications for the way we interact with each other as citizens: with our neighbors, with our co-workers, with our governments, and with other institutions. Deep democracy blurs the lines between the government and citizen in order to make both more effective at solving tough problems. Deep democracy takes “We the People” seriously, understanding that democracy is something that can always be improved, not somewhere we’ve already arrived. This is particularly true in the case of food and agriculture, where we increasingly have a system that “as individuals none of us would choose”2—a system with insufficient access to affordable food, huge amounts of food waste and obesity all at the same time. Deep democracy offers the potential to turn things around by creating new spaces and ways for us to solve our problems, by talking directly to each other, and coming up with common-sense solutions together.
Indeed, many organizations and local governments have used forms of deep democracy, in some cases, more or less continuously for hundreds of years.3 It is a powerful force for change through its ability to bring people together to exchange ideas—and form new ones. Using deep democracy, citizens manage budgets, discuss potential solutions for contentious health issues and manage scarce resources. Further, the true measure of the success of a deep democratic process is how well it is able to draw directly upon the voices the most marginalized and least powerful, and to truly integrate them into decision-making processes and policies. Deep democracy can change the tone of the news you hear on a daily basis: instead of hearing about gridlock in Congress and increased polarization of the American people, you can hear stories of processes that enabled cooperation and compromise across dividing lines.4
Deep democracy contrasts sharply with, for instance, the current U.S. political system, which is largely controlled by the voices of the few. Representatives’ ability to work toward the well-being of their constituents is hindered by corporate influence, uncompetitive politics, and the fact that doing nothing and blaming it on the “other side” is often a better strategy for politicians of either party than negotiating on anything.5 Therefore, deep democracy is an alternative that allows us to decide and act on the most complex issues of the day, calling upon citizen power.
Just as our current political system is controlled by the few,6 our food system has drastically changed in the past 100 years. Power and control of food and agriculture have become deeply concentrated and consolidated, at the costs of many livelihoods, justice, and sustainability. In response, people across the country—in community organizations, at universities, within local, state, tribal, and national agencies, and in businesses are asking what a sustainable food system looks like and how we can get there. How can we simultaneously counter trends in hunger, obesity, widening socioeconomic disparity, an aging farm population being squeezed out of sustainable livelihoods and environmental damage? The efforts underway to make food systems more resilient and sustainable can be supported and facilitated through deep democratic processes.
There are already many precedents and frameworks for linking food sustainability with social justice and a reassertion of political power—from prison inmates growing food for themselves and others, to hundreds of food policy councils and citizens’ food councils across the United States, to the work of groups like the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, National Family Farm Coalition, and U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance. These frameworks, actions, and movements form a foundation for how deep food democracy can evolve in the United States.
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