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Colin Sage on the Food Citizens? Conference

Advisory Board member Colin Sage shares insights about the Food Citizens? project.

As a member of the project’s Advisory Panel, I was delighted to participate in the one-day conference on February 4th and acquire a deeper understanding of the work that has been undertaken in Gdansk, Rotterdam, and Turin. I was also impressed by the i-doc digital platform and I look forward to browsing through that in the months ahead. Here, however, I want to share some brief thoughts that came to mind during the final discussion session of the conference.

From my perspective the importance of the project lies with exploring the various ways in which urban residents resist the ongoing neoliberal penetration of our lives. In this regard, food has come to occupy a strategic terrain of contestation that presents opportunities for a collective and collaborative response to corporate power and the logic of the market which otherwise governs us as individualised consumers conforming to the model of ‘economic rationality’.  Attending to food reveals the latent power of solidarity and the extraordinary potential that can emerge from unleashing our collective imaginations.

As we turn a ‘food lens’ onto particular places – as the project has done – we see quite different civic responses reflecting the diversity of local circumstances and their available human resources. Irrespective of whether the prevailing emphasis is given to food growing, food waste prevention, public procurement initiatives, solidarity purchase schemes and so on, each demonstrates the capacity to ‘do food differently’ from the status quo. More importantly still, such initiatives reveal the ways in which ‘food citizenship’ begins to emerge and take concrete form through claims to rights to the city.

As the state continues to retreat from responsibility for welfare provision – albeit interrupted by the pandemic and the necessity for it to retain some legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens – the food system has starkly exposed the deep injustices that run through the societies of most wealthy countries. Food poverty in particular has been a growing issue and, indeed given recent events, is set to become a very serious challenge to the notion of the Right to Food. In the absence of effective action by most states, the charitable food banking sector has emerged as a key actor in providing a temporary patch to social safety nets. Yet emergency provision of surplus food stocks from corporate retailers now spared the cost of disposing to land fill is not a solution to food poverty that enhances choice, agency, or the dignity of charitable recipients.  

I was struck, in the course of her presentation, by Maria’s use of the term ‘deservingness’ and I think this is a powerful word that will require close monitoring in the months ahead. For as food prices continue to rise as a consequence of disruptions to global supply chains, we must remain alert to the possibility of divisive – even xenophobic – narratives that assert some people are more ‘deserving’ of food than others. For those of us concerned with matters of food security we must continue to advocate that not only do all have the right to eat, citizens also demand the right to exercise agency in determining their own food futures. In this respect the work of the ‘Food Citizens?’ project invigorates this vital and ongoing struggle.


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