Review: The New Food Activism: Opposition, Cooperation, and Collective Action

Jeffrey Rowe

Alison Hope Alkon and Julie Guthman (editors). The New Food Activism: Opposition, Cooperation, and Collective Action. University of California Press, 2017. vii, 344 pp.

Alison Hope Alkon and Julie Guthman have been at the forefront of food justice and alternative food scholarship for nearly two decades. Their cumulative writings have exposed the underbelly of alternative food activism, or the so-called “slacktivism” of voting with one’s fork. Both have previously been critical of hands-off and choice-oriented consumer activism as favoring the wealthiest and most privileged and marginalizing low-income communities that may not have the same choices. Alkon and Guthman have reasoned that simply ignoring the beast—a conventional food system designed to promote corporate profits at the expense of labor and the environment—will not starve it. In fact, that kind of food activism may only benefit an already stratified conventional system and reinforce a hierarchy within the alternative system.

Alkon and Guthman’s recently released edited volume, The New Food Activism, is a shrewdly curated call to action. The authors of this collective volume seek out solutions that move beyond passive choice-based approaches. Rather, the authors envision grassroots and collaborative movements engaged in fights for racial and economic parity in sustainable food systems. By drawing on multiple academic disciplines and on the work of policy advocates and community organizers, this edited volume connects stories of resilience and offers a hopeful glimpse into the future of sustainable food. The first section focuses on an increase in legislative strategies through purposeful campaign and policy frameworks. Section two is centered on labor, organizational collaborations, and confrontational politics. The final section acknowledges the influence of collective action, self-determination through cooperative movements, and land justice.

Chapters two and four survey increasingly purposeful and targeted grassroots efforts by environmental justice and labor advocates to make farmworkers heard in the struggle against pesticide drift and methyl iodide in California. The authors promote the importance of regulatory reform advocacy and highlight the shortcomings of a regulatory apparatus that values industry interests over workers’ health. The activists for farm laborers’ rights to a safe work environment combine purposeful and multipronged tactics with legislative battles, consumer activism, and a bit of luck. Ultimately, the joint struggle against the use of methyl iodide proved successful in averting the wide-scale use of the toxic soil disinfectant. Chapter three describes the fruitful fight against Roundup Ready wheat in Canada that brought together an unconventional coalition of farm, consumer, environmental, health organizations and industries, exemplifying the “power of collective organizing” (55). Chapter four delves into the nuanced disagreements and tenuous relationships between grassroots and consumer activism. By intervening strategically and alternating tactics, activists leverage the momentum of consumer activism to advance their regulatory reform struggles.

Chapters five through seven look at means of empowerment for disenfranchised and exploited food-industry workers. The shared energies of union organizers and labor advocates demonstrate the power of collaborative engagement in political struggle. In a prime example, the bakery workers from Amy’s Bread company in New York were able to incorporate labor organizing and social media campaigns to win significant concessions from the company. Once again, this example envisions future alliances of activists and consumers as powerful tools in confrontational politics. Similarly, the victories of a long history of farm labor activism suggest potential collaborations between consumers and labor to bridge the urban and rural divide.

The final section begins with lessons from cooperative groceries and cooperative purchasing clubs. Philadelphia’s radical co-op Mariposa is contrasted against liberal co-op Weavers Way, providing a curious analogue to the engaged activism and the consumer activism impasse. Chapter nine centers on cooperatives in Oakland and Chicago that create empowering opportunities for communities of color to make change through leadership and collective entrepreneurship. The cooperatives are further able to encourage affordable and healthful eating by subsidizing produce and staples and charging higher prices on more extravagant items. The final chapters shift the book’s focus to issues of land justice and resistance through home gardening and urban agriculture. In another key example, some of Boston’s vacant land is transformed into tillable farmland, which is then managed by a community land trust. Vexingly, tensions persist for these emergent solidarity economies stemming from the for-profit farming requirement on that leased land. Crucially, these enterprises seek to silence debates about the extent to which these alternatives are replicating neoliberalism and to draw attention toward how such neoliberal “logics can be simultaneously reproduced and resisted” (210).

Alkon and Guthman et al. tackle the tensions within the wide spectrum of alternative food movements and advance the conversation by citing action-oriented successes. This volume advances critiques of consumer activism as “apolitical and nonstrategic in their pursuit of even this limited vision. There is little effort to build coalitions, pressure regulators, change policy and enforcement, or remake political institutions” (317). However apt in their critique, it may be instructive to bear in mind that continued reference to alternative food systems, networks, or movements—the widely used shorthand in this book and elsewhere—as a single entity can potentially limit the strength of discrete efforts. Purchasing local, organic, and fair-trade-certified kale chips at Whole Foods cannot be mistaken for organizing a community kitchen that offers unused space for community-building. It may be beneficial to actively recognize that capitalist modes of alternative food systems are anything but and must be separated from non-capitalist action and perception. Additionally, how do small-scale farmers factor into conversations about market choices and neoliberalism? Due to the instability and expenses associated with this type of farming, selling at a market rate is required in this often thankless and laborious life. Offering affordable produce can still be a hurdle for farmers with limited resources. By depicting the diversity of opposition to conventional food systems and with keen depth of discussion, Alkon and Guthman stoke the embers of the change that has been smoldering for decades within the food system, demonstrating means of resistance that all new activists should emulate.


Jeffrey Rowe is a PhD student at Wayne State University studying Urban Anthropology, with interests in social movements and sustainable food systems. His education includes degrees in Culinary Arts (AS), Food Systems and Technology (BS), Food and Fermentation Science (MS), and Anthropology (MA). Jeffrey’s professional experience spans twenty years in the world of food, with time spent in kitchens, research laboratories, wineries, farms and vineyards, processing plants, non-profit advocacy, and his current role in organic compliance. His research seeks to highlight the relationship between communities affected by food insecurity and the community-based organizations and resource providers in Detroit engaged in serving them.