Citizens Take Back Power in the Food System

From by Maryann Conigliaro
Citizens Take Back Power in the Food System

In their article entitled Deepening Food Democracy, Jill Carlson and M. Jahi Chappell highlight an innovative new take on democratic rule, known as deep democracy that is being used to address the problems in the food system. In theory, deep democracy is a system of governance in which all voices must be heard in order to fully understand and act upon a current issue. Instead of rule by a simple majority, deep democracy is accessible to everyone. It particularly ensures that marginalized and minority populations are involved and heard in the process of creating policy and implementing change. No issue, even the most divisive, is off-limits, according to the authors: in smaller, local contexts there is less emphasis on winning or losing, less expectation that everyone will agree. Instead, say Carlson and Chappell, the deep democracy formats allow for all citizens to share knowledge and experiences and engage in valuable compromises that result in the best scenario for the most people.

This new form of democracy stands in stark contrast to the current political system in the United States, according to the article. In the face of corporate influence and inability to compromise, mayn representatives are failing to look out for the best interests of their constituents. Government gridlock and inefficiency has caused many Americans to disengage from government: “by almost every measure Americans' direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation,” according to the authors.

The number of citizens who distrust the government in Washington has risen steadily from 30 percent in 1966 to 75 percent in 2014, according to Pew Research Center. Voter turnout is dropping and ideologically moderate Americans are disappearing from politics. Patterns of government participation mirror the downward spiral of social and economic inequality. As Americans retreat away from decision making bodies in government, these bodies become even more privatized. Both the food system and political system have changed in the last 100 years to one where a few controlling entities wield the power, at the cost of equality and sustainability. Today’s food system is not one most people would have chosen because it has led to obesity, preventable diseases, and food waste, while also limiting access to affordable food.

But food sovereignty, agrarian citizenship, and food democracy are three frameworks aiming to link food systems to a new wave of decision-making in politics. Deep democracy encompasses all three movements and “is as much about putting power back into the hands of communities, food workers, farmers, and farm workers as it is about producing and distributing healthy, sustainable-grown food,” say Carlson and Chappell. This system is a way of calling on the power of constituents to compromise and cooperate in order to make policy decisions without being impeded by divided party lines or corporate influence.

Since 1991 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, citizens have been using a model known as participatory budgeting where citizens decide on spending priorities for their neighborhoods. This system is now used in more than 1,500 cities worldwide, including New York City. Carlson and Chappell also cite citizen panels discussing issues around science and technology with experts and decision makers in Denmark and common-pool resource management in Törbel, Switzerland that has sustained since the 13th century.

Across the U.S., citizens are implementing this democratic innovation in order to reform the agricultural system. Varying forms of food policy councils are emerging to fill the desperate need of communities to have more control over food decisions and establish fairer systems. In North Carolina, 40 local food policy councils joined forces to create a state-level program, generating a nested system for citizens to discuss ideas and next steps. In Morris, Minnesota, the Jefferson Center, in conjunction with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), generated a program called the Rural Climate Dialogues where a citizen jury heard presentations on how climate change could impact their lives. The goal of this jury was to create an action plan for the community, thus igniting the possibility of decision-making that includes the needs of the most vulnerable members. 

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