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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008 03:49 am

Giving thanks to America’s good food movement

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The thing that I was most thankful for on Turkey Day has not the abundance of food at my family’s table, but the rebels who produced it.

No, not Butterball. And not Wal-Mart, General Foods or any of the other corporate powers that loom large over America’s food economy. To the contrary, I’m thankful for the “good food movement” that has arisen all across our country in rebellion against those powers.

It’s a burgeoning movement of small farmers, consumers, food artisans, local marketers, restaurateurs, community groups and many others (maybe you) who are steadily creating a viable grass-roots alternative to corporatized, industrialized, globalized food. In the process, these folks are sowing the productive ideas of sustainability, organic, local economies and the Common Good, nurturing them as core values for a new food system.

The origins of the movement are in what I call the Upchuck Rebellion — a steadily spreading revulsion during the past 30 years or so at the damage being done to people, to our land and water, and to food itself by the food industry’s singular focus on ever-larger profit for itself. Folks began to say, “There’s got to be a better way,” and then they’d set out to do what they could to create it.

Of course, the Powers That Be snickered and sneered, insisting that the corporate way is the only way, that it’s futile to try defying the established order. But as one of the enterprising pioneers in the organic business puts it, “Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

Those doing it include farmers seeking a more natural connection to the good earth that they work. Their shift in attitudes and methods coincided fortuitously with a steady rise in the number of consumers seeking something more wholesome than what industry delivers — which includes edibles saturated with pesticides, injected with sex hormones, ripened with gas, plumped with antibiotics, contaminated with feces, zapped with radiation, dosed with artificial flavorings, preserved with carcinogens, loaded with transfats and otherwise put through the corporate wringer in an effort to squeeze out an extra penny of profit.

The good food movement grew slowly in the 1970s and ’80s, gained momentum in the ’90s and has mushroomed in this decade. Just one aspect of it — organic products — has gone from a fringe market to mainstream in only three decades. There are now more than 8,000 organic farmers, and retail sales of organic products will top $23 billion this year. The annual growth rate in sales is nearly 20 percent, far outpacing all other sectors of the food economy. The Hartman Group, a market research firm, found in a recent survey that 70 percent of Americans buy some organic food, and nearly 25 percent of us buy it every week.

Equally impressive is the boom in local marketing, linking an area’s farmers and food artisans (cheese makers, bakers, etc.) directly to the area’s consumers in a mutually supportive economy. More than 4,600 farmers’ markets, for example, have blossomed across the land, now operating in practically every city and town. Also, there are some 300 food co-ops, as well as local grocery stores, restaurants, schools and other providers now buying foodstuffs that are produced locally and sustainably.

Just as good food springs from well-tended ground, so has this movement. No one in a position of power — governmental or corporate — was behind the creation of this new economy. It literally has percolated up from the grass roots as ordinary people informed themselves, organized locally and asserted their own democratic values over those of the corporate structure.

The good food movement has spread from family to family, town to town, not only changing the market, but also the way Americans think about food. On a personal note, I owe my Turkey Day meal — and most others that I have — to the bounty of this movement. In thanks, I lift a glass of organic beer in tribute to all involved.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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