I supervised a university-level food studies class last week that, partly by design and partly by sheer accident, gave me some new insights into the challenges of city-oriented food security policy.
A team of students responsible for teaching a segment on urban food policy tried to stimulate direct engagements with their classmates by getting them to play a version of the software game called Pandemonium – by applying the rules of that game to an imaginary “real life” experience of food policy making.
As it goes with Pandemonium (the game and in real life), something out of the blue happens every two minutes that upsets the whole gameplan of the policy makers. Word of drought came one minute into the class exercize, upsetting the best-laid plans of a work team. News of an epidemic broke two minutes later, upsetting even more best-laid plans.
Just as the students were coping with these upsets, a real life security guard opened the door, apologized for interrupting the class, and calmly told us everyone had to leave the building immediately.
As they say in the pandemonium-watching business, it’s never a question of if pandemonium will break out; it’s a question of when.
My class of ten stood around outside the building with several hundred others who had been in the building. Police pushed people calmly and politely back, as far away from the building as possible.
The police knew nothing, or said nothing, about what was going on. In today’s world, that just meant that everyone got out their mobile phones, and within minutes learned that an unattended package had been found in the building, and authorities were worried that it might contain a bomb.
Word on the street was that bomb squads had been called, and it would take hours before anyone could re-enter the building. My students had all been smart enough to bring all their belongings with them, and they took advantage of the interruption to head home early. I was among the few who left belongings (including my mobile) back in the classroom. So I had to stay through for the duration, about four hours, so I could fetch my stuff.
That gave me a lot of time with no money, no phone, no books, and so I got to talk with all the security guards and police, all of whom were unfailingly polite. None of them, however, had the faintest idea (or shared their faintest idea) of what was going on, how long it would take to get back to the building, or what I could do to make sure no-one stole my belongings, including my mobile which has all the info I need to navigate my life.
No official of the university or student union came around to see how people were doing, or if they had any questions or needs, or if they could intervene on anyone’s behalf with police and other administrators. Police had a total monopoly on order.
As a citizen, I had no role to play except to stay calm and do what I was told. It was a chance to meditate on what it feels like to feel totally helpless, deprived of agency, even in a position of relative comfort.
I couldn’t have a better education on what will likely happen to food and other policies when pandemonium breaks out. Reliable information will be hard to get, the authorities will take over, and no-one will know what to do except wait.
There is no Plan B, as there often is in war — at least the kind of war that is declared, the kind of war that was common in the past.
This was really good background for me in understanding the first thing someone has to know about city-oriented food security policy today. It can be said about any city in the world. I am not aware of any Plan B in any city. It’s widely known that few cities have more than three days food supplies at hand in supermarkets, thanks to universal supermarket police of Just in Time Delivery.
Just in Time does not mean Just in Time After Food Runs Out on Day 4.
Why pay for warehouse and storage space, when everything can be trucked in at a day’s notice, the supermarkets would argue, assuming that nothing could ever interrupt the smooth flow of traffic.
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And why would governments anywhere in the world intervene in the marketplace, and say there is a public good greater than the private gain of keeping the costs of warehouse space down?
You can’t ask for better proof of the total triumph of neo-liberalism, my inner ideologue says. In crisis, everyone will be a completely free individual, totally reliant on their own personal resources, and the only role for state power or government is to preserve order.
People concerned about food security need to show some leadership here.
What is likely to happen in a world of long-distance food and long supply lines has already been anticipated, and there is a famous phrase that sums it up.
Several years into the new century, food delivery into the UK was shut down as a result of a truckers’ strike. By Day 3, shoppers were taking action into their own hands in a way many people felt was threatening to public order. A British lord in charge of the British Countryside Commission famously remarked that:
“civilization is only nine meals away from anarchy.”
It is significant that governments have not followed up on that telltale event, and put procedures in place to deal with such eventualities – almost inevitable when food security depends not only on the food production challenges of any given area, which faces its own climate and infestation issues that cause insecurities, but also on transportation breakdowns, which can happen as a result of any number of social and natural disorders.
Truly, a globalized long distance food system has globalized food insecurity when it comes to reliable food access.
My pandemonium experience deepened my understanding of two essential points related to food security, especially at the city level, which is my specialty.
The two points relate to:
- citizen empowerment, engagement and the principle of subsidiarity; and
- resilience and its hot link to redundancy.
I only have space to deal with the first point in this newsletter.
First, food security requires empowerment of the population. That’s needed for three sets of reasons:
Empowerment is needed first of all because we need to tap into popular understanding of and suggestions for improved food security.
Both food security reports I worked on for the City of Toronto (one in 2001 and one in 2010) were preceded by setting up steering committees that had excellent representation of citizen groups. As well, the report authors reached out actively to get input from typical residents, especially in public meetings of community groups in areas most vulnerable to food insecurity.
This commitment to popular engagement and input is based on the fact that food is understood as a right. That’s so almost universally. Every country in the world, with the exception of the US, has signed onto UN declarations on the right to food. If people are entitled to food, they are certainly entitled to an opinion as to what food means to them, and how their rights can be exercised.
Engagement is the way that right is respected, an obligation on every government, according to UN doctrine.
Secondly, empowerment is needed because successful food security programs depend on a high level of morale, team spirit and active sharing in the population.
There are heroic cases where this was true, most notably in the Warsaw Ghetto and St Petersburg during World War 11, where people survived prolonged Nazi starvation measures that would usually have killed everyone — were it not for the esprit de corps that kept some people alive.
The same rule about the value of morale holds for Cuba’s successful transition from dependence on the Soviet Union to self-reliance and urban agriculture during the 1990s.
That’s why — in sharp contrast to the security measures I saw during the suspected bombing at a university — food security measures require community empowerment and full-on engagement.
Social capital is as important to ending food insecurity as money.
Thirdly, empowerment is needed because of the principle of “subsidiarity” — a basic principle of the European Union and of traditional Catholic social doctrine.
Subsidiarity holds that the proper level for action and responsibility on an issue is “as low as possible, and as high as necessary.”
I think this guiding principle is much superior to the North American notion that the left automatically believes in government involvement, and the right believes in no government involvement. I think both left and right can agree to the subsidiarity principle.
If we started from the standpoint of putting as much responsibility for food as possible on individuals, families and neighborhoods, this would require a range of dynamic programs that city governments (lowest level on the totem pole) are well-positioned to deliver.
Individuals, families and neighborhoods need to be food literate, which means that elementary and secondary schools need to teach it, and libraries and public health departments need to distribute relevant information. It means that labels must be on all foods and must explain in clear language what people need to know about what is in a package, and what isn’t.
The notion that informed citizens are the first responders to health emergencies is already accepted in many situations. That explains why organizations such as Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance teach thousands of people a year how to respond to emergencies with first aid. That’s what first aid is – an application of the subsidiarity principle!! Who knew?
The same is true for threats to the physical safety of children, where first responders are homes that volunteer to be the “neighborhood watch” on their street.
Apply that first responder notion to food, and we come to some version of community food centers, or just below that, neighborhood watch sentinels trained in food security measures and knowledge.
The next level up is likely main streets, which should, as a matter of public policy, include food stores able to provide pedestrian access to a range of healthy and affordable food options.
In many areas of Brazil and The Netherlands, special “popular restaurants” offer low budget, simple and nutritious meals on main street restaurants serving low-income clients.
Having a car should not be the foundation of a city’s food access policy. In subsidiarity terms, that means at least some presence of healthy food has to be available at a level as close to the people can walk to as possible.
School meals are another “low as possible” delivery system for food security.
So are community gardens.
So are community-based farmers markets, and community food centres, which I believe will become standard neighborhood infrastructure – just as libraries, firehalls, elementary schools, and faith centers are now – in the near future.
Whoever thought that food banks should be the first responders to food insecurity was certainly not thinking in terms of the subsidiarity principle, let alone nutritional principles, or empowerment of people principles.
As for going “as high as necessary” for food security, that might well mean a Guaranteed Annual Income provided by senior levels of government that have the tax base to finance it.
Subsidiarity introduces the notion of a ladder of engagement and partnership as the design basis of food security and other programs of the future.
The more “all hell breaks loose” in pandemonium – likely to become more commonplace throughout this century – the more programs need to be built on a bottom up basis if they are to be responsive to people and their needs, flexibly people-bound rather than inflexibly rule-bound, and properly managed by people close to the people being managed.
Certain programs require levels of financial strength and specialized expertise that are only available at higher levels, where resources from a wider area can be pooled, but the foundations should be local.
I think that our understanding of “local food movement” needs to expand to include locality as the starting place for food security planning.
For my deepened understanding of this, I thank the students who taught me about Pandemonium, the game, and thank the very courteous and calming police and security guards who showed me one direction Pandemonium, the reality, could lead us to, if we do not start embedding popular rights at the basis of all social, public health, and environmental programs.
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