chefs serving soup

Turning consumers into food citizens

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

Some words are so powerful that we don’t even notice the effect they have, because they frame our thinking so completely. One such word is the term ‘consumer’. We are all so used to hearing about consumer choice and consumer rights, as well as being bombarded with advertising and images of wealth in the media that drive consumerism, that we accept this limited view of ourselves as merely people who buy things. Instead of being active citizens who participate in society at large, we find our value in the status that our lifestyle gives us. Of course, consumers can use their purchasing power positively for change, but it is still a narrow perception of our potential, and one which does more damage than we might think.

A 2012 study called Cuing Consumerism found that encouraging people to think of themselves as consumers rather than citizens, for instance by showing them pictures of luxury goods or merely using the word ‘consumer’, made them less likely to act in a cooperative way and even evoked feelings of depression and anxiety. The implication is that referring to the public as consumers, and filling our public spaces with advertising, may be creating a society that is unhappy and ill-equipped to collaborate on the challenges which it faces.

It also follows that if we could be freed from this narrow conception of who we are, and become ‘people’ or ‘citizens’ instead, we might reform how we see ourselves and unlock fresh energy and vision. The New Citizenship Project is a social innovation company set up in 2014 to catalyse this process and build a more participatory world. It recently partnered with the Food Ethics Council and other organizations including the RSPB, the Coop and the Food Standards Agency to explore how the story of the self-interested, passive consumer shows up in the UK food system, and what a shift into active citizenship might mean.

The Food Citizenship report documents many encouraging examples of this approach in the food system. While the power of the consumer is limited to making choices about what to buy, a citizen will feel more responsibility for how food is produced, not merely reading the label but enquiring more deeply into the food chain. Open Farm Sunday, for instance, allows the public to meet and engage with farmers face to face, going a step beyond merely exhorting them to blindly back British farming, while food hubs such as the Food Assembly allow people to shape their local food system in partnership with producers. The People’s Food Policy, for England, takes this approach to its logical conclusion, giving the public a role normally reserved for government.

As we switch our mindset from consumer to citizen, we unlock big changes. The report describes how the language of serving, policing, informing and competing gives way to a new vocabulary: facilitating, enabling, engaging and collaborating. Customers become partners and NGOs don’t lobby so much as build movements. Vexing questions are reframed: instead of asking how food can be made affordable for all – pushing prices down and devaluing it – we ask why so many people are hungry and demoralised, making it difficult for them to be proactive citizens who help shape the food system. Recognizing that basic inequality, we can tackle it at its root.

The shift into food citizenship is well illustrated by the public response to food waste. From the point of view of the consumer, there is hardly a problem at all, although government programmes may encourage us to change our habits. Meanwhile, for business and government, it’s an unintended consequence of an otherwise very effective food supply chain, a loose end that needs to be tied up, most contentiously by using it to solve another modern scandal, food poverty.

But the citizen in us feels outrage, strong enough to wake us up from the trance of consumerism. Food waste, we realize as we contemplate mountains of rotting produce, is not just profits thrown away. It is an insult to the workers who grew it, the people who could have eaten it, the animals that died to produce it and the wildlife that its cultivation displaced. It is a symbol of the way that we have put profits before people, and a negation of our humanity. In response, community groups have sprung up with their own solutions, making a stand for values of care and justice.

One such project is the Brixton Community Fridge, which allows businesses and households alike to pass surplus food to a good home. Others, such as the Transition Bro Gwaun food surplus café in FishguardAber Food Surplus in Aberystwyth and a global network of Real Junk Food cafes, make creative use of surplus food – mostly perishable items that need to be eaten promptly – to power community development, not merely passing it on to local charities but also using it for community meals and cafes that draw people together for discussion and friendship.

They may measure their results in terms of tonnes of food saved from landfill, or carbon dioxide emissions averted, but their real significance is arguably the way that that they transform our relationship to food. The vegetables, fruit and bread that they collect are no longer consumer items, with all the associations of choice and profit that implies, but nor are they waste, and so we come to them with fresh eyes. For a moment, as a crate of carrots is handed over from the supermarket or as bowls of soup are ladled out at the community meal, we see food as the gift that it always was, and ourselves as human beings, equal in our dignity and vulnerability. Then a new conversation starts.

Sat around the table, breaking bread with our neighbours in traditional fashion, we ask the questions that are the business of the citizen. Does everyone have enough to eat? Are we producing healthy food? Are we caring for the soil and our wildlife, and are we rewarding our farmers, processors and cooks fairly? Are we bringing up the next generation with the skills and awareness they will need to feed themselves properly? We consider what sort of food system we want to see in our town, and ask ourselves how we might help that to happen. People volunteer for the community garden, organise seed swaps and discover a new interest in local politics.

Because the shift from consumer to citizen, although it starts with a stirring in our deeper selves that is about values and feelings, can in the right circumstances lead on to action. Through taking part in surplus food projects we discover our own agency. Something that had been a very general concept – a better world for all, a stronger local community – becomes grounded in the particular: I peeled those carrots for these people, you delivered those grapes to that hostel, she enjoyed the fruit crumble we made, we raised this much money for a homelessness charity. Such things are good and we can do them.

In this way, community food projects radicalize their participants. It isn’t easy; the people who lead them are well aware of the ambiguities of their work, as they patch up the holes in a leaky food system and bump up against the failures of social care, often for little or no pay and with a precarious hold on their premises, supply chains and staff. But there is a determination that arises from the vision of a better future.

As Heather McClure, a recent graduate of Aberystwyth University and a director of Aber Food Surplus says, “We’re not here to help supermarkets with their public image, or to solve the problem of food poverty. Our work might seem to fit that story, but to me, food waste distribution is a lens through which to look at our food system. It’s our entry point, and we want to make big changes.” The food citizen has their work cut out.

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