Choice, responsibility, and health: What role for the food movement?

In making decisions about how best to improve the food choices people make, the food movement faces a dilemma. On the one hand, individuals decide what to put in their mouths and swallow, suggesting that improvements require changing what’s inside people’s heads: their knowledge, skills, and motivation. On the other hand, growing evidence shows that these choices are shaped by external forces: the food that giant corporations produce; the relentless advertising of some products but not others; the taxes and subsidies of governments; and the proximity, price, and products offered at local retail outlets. Taking on these external influences will require changing organizations, policies, and environments.


Many of our national food fights pit proponents of changing demand for food against those who advocate changing our food supply by changing the business practices of the food industry. In theory it should be obvious that we need to do both, but in practice food activists are often polarized by this debate. More broadly, the food movement’s trouble in articulating the connections between changing individuals and changing institutions and environments makes it more difficult to enlist the public in mobilizing for either type of change.


To address this obstacle to progress, I propose an ongoing dialogue within the food movement on how best to reconcile and integrate these two levels of change. Such a dialogue would need to include all sectors of people seeking food change: from urban gardeners, vegan activists, and food scavengers to food studies scholars, parents organizing for better school food, and food workers seeking safer working conditions and fair wages. Read the full commentary.


This is an abbreviated version of a keynote talk given at the 2014 University of Vermont Food Systems Summit in Burlington, Vermont. Full citation: Freudenberg, N. (2015). Choice, responsibility, and health: What role for the food movement? Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.