By Molly D. Anderson
Why have some countries and regions been successful in addressing low food security and its extreme form, hunger, while others have not? This question drove a comparison of different governance structures of decision-making organizations that is presented in the chapter “Comparing the Effectiveness of Structures for Addressing Hunger and Food Insecurity” in Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance. This research started with the idea that the involvement of civil society as an equal and respected member of decision-making bodies would facilitate more effective progress toward eliminating hunger and food insecurity. Such involvement contrasts with more elite decision-making by ‘experts’ or government agencies, or those with positions of wealth and power in society. Civil society has representatives from ‘front-line’ social movements that are experiencing hunger who will have good ideas about why hunger exists in their communities and what can be done about it.
To answer this question, I compared four organizations that work at city, state, national and international levels to combat hunger. In my state of Vermont, I looked at the Food Access Cross-cutting Team of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network. This is a voluntary group of people from state and non-profit organizations working on better access to healthy food for low-income people. I also looked at the Civil Society Mechanism of the Committee on World Food Security, which works internationally and brings together representatives of hundreds of organizations and social movements to negotiate better solutions to reduce world hunger. Since I’m interested in how efforts at different scales can interact with each other, I added two additional groups: Brazil’s CONSEA structure, which operates from the national to the state level in a nested structure, and food policy councils in the U.S., which operate at the city or sometimes state level. Brazil’s CONSEA is an excellent example of interaction across scales: ideas and decisions made at lower levels can be brought to higher levels, and vice versa.
By looking at the achievements of each organization and understanding how they were aided (or slowed down) by the organization’s governance structure, I present the following points as findings to be explored further in future research:
- Wider and deeper civil society participation in decision-making pushes organizations in directions of environmental and social sustainability, much more than if they were dominated by business or state interest.
- Civil society participation opens the door to engagement with human rights, especially in a context such as the United States where the right to food and violations of labor rights in the food system receive too little attention.
- Civil society participation alone is not enough to tip the power balance toward real food system change that would increase environmental and social sustainability because this requires addressing inequities and repression that may diminish the power of civil society.
The food system is in need of fundamental change because it is not serving the public’s interest. With increasing dominance of the private sector, the food system has become a way to further enrich already wealthy and powerful people and to provide healthy food to only a segment of society that can afford to pay for it. Breaking up the myths that food system decision-making, as it is done now, is inevitable or cannot be changed is an important task. By showing the positive difference that civil society engagement has made in various settings, this chapter gives support to opening up decision-making to more civil society voices in other ways and places.
Molly D. Anderson is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Food Studies at Middlebury College and Academic Director of its Food Studies Program. She worked previously at Oxfam America and Tufts University and has published widely on sustainable food systems issues.
Anderson, Molly D. (2019). Comparing the effectiveness of structures for addressing hunger and food insecurity. In P. Andrée, J.K. Clark, C. Z. Levkoe, & K. Lowitt (Eds.), Civil Society and Social Movements in Food Systems Governance (124-144). London: Routledge. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429503597
The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from the open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.
Previous posts in the series:
- Traversing Theory & Practice and the Governance Engagement Continuum
- Searching for Fit? Institution Building and Local Action for Food System Change in Dunedin, New Zealand
- Cooperative Governance and a New Narrative on Agrarianism in Calgary, Alberta
- From Local Actions to Systems Change: Experiments in Social Movement Governance through the National Food Policy in Canada