BY KATE WALSH Whether we choose to realize it or not, our plates are political. While eating is an incredibly personal act that weaves private preferences, cultural mores, and spiritual practices, it also has much broader societal implications. Every bite of food reflects not only our own choices, but also choices made for us—from what a farmworker was paid to how far the items were shipped.
As a result, since the early 2000s, foodies and average consumers alike have heard the phrase “vote with your fork.” With the advent of the celebrity food advocate—most notably Michael Pollan—and with docu-dramas such as Food, Inc. seeping into the mainstream, the focus of the food system reform movement has converged on the power of individual choice. Yet, can we truly change the world via what we consume, or is it another feeble “slacktivist” technique? The answer, like our food system, is complex.
To enter any modern grocery store is to be overwhelmed with a vast array of choices—organic, natural, local, farmed, wild, certified, etcetera—that allow you to “vote with your fork.” By eating locally, you can reduce your carbon footprint. By eating organic fare, you can lower your consumption of residual pesticides and stand in solidarity with farmworkers by choosing ingredients that do not expose them to such chemicals. By eating a vegetarian diet, you can address hunger, knowing that your protein choices require far less grain input then a meat-based diet. Thus, our individual food consumption choices can have a direct impact on our globalized food system.
But, just how much of an impact is a question that deserves more scrutiny. The changes in personal consumption habits that Food Inc. and Pollan’s writing inspire fall far short of achieving systemic change. Small, disconnected issues and actions do not lead to a groundswell of change. Your choice to purchase a peanut butter that has not been previously tainted with Salmonella will not impact legislative decisions on food safety concerns. Similarly, your commitment to eating local and organic food fails to incentivize corporations to overhaul conventional farming techniques. Voting with our forks may express our objections to the problems, but it does not meaningfully compel solutions from policymakers or the food industry, whose decisions are critical to reforming the system. In summary, when we vote with our forks, who is counting?
Despite the allure of a simple, thrice daily action, eating leaves much to be desired as an effective means of political activism – as Pollan has stated before Social movements must necessarily start by changing individual hearts and minds, but achieving real impact requires that we join forces around a shared goal. Otherwise, we risk becoming merely whiners who complain that all the world’s food problems could be solved if only everyone lived as ethically as we do (assuming that everyone could afford to in the first place).
Thus, we have to seek a greater revolution. Concerned citizens must together demand policy changes that truly address the complexities of our food system, such as mitigating hunger and famine, guaranteeing food security and safety, and promoting environmental sustainability. These reforms are no easy feat, and certainly cannot be achieved by relying on our individual actions alone. While our plates our political, we must make them systemic tools of change, not just symbols of our hopes. So that fork, well, it’s just your inaugural ballot.