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July 25th, 2012

“The Story of Change” and Why We Can’t Shop Our Way to a Better Food System

By Katherine Boehrer 

When I first saw Annie Leonard’s “Story of Stuff” I was amazed at how eloquently she laid out the problems with our consumer system — but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I could do about it. I still needed “stuff” — I needed food, clothes, textbooks, and a bunch of other things. So I tried to buy the best kinds of “stuff”, from local, vegetarian food to fair trade coffee and non-toxic detergent.

Those are all great steps to take, as Leonard is quick to point out. The problems begin, however, when we believe those are the only things we can do (or have time to do). Some may even believe that by making the right personal choices, we absolve ourselves from any further action. 

But that’s just not right. When it comes to our food system, making good consumer choices does not outweigh our duty to act as responsible citizens. As Grist’s Twilight Greenaway put it, we need to “pat ourselves on the back and then move on to see what else we can do.”

The “Story of Change” tells us what’s next. The short video shifts the question from “how can I buy better?” to “how can we change the system?” so that toxic and unfair choices no longer exist. Change, the film says, requires a Big Idea, a commitment to work together and, most importantly, action. Taking action, like voting, organizing, and coming together to influence decision makers, is what Leonard calls flexing our “citizen muscle”.

The concept of “voting with our dollars” reinforces the idea that the only power we have is financial power. If we’re only concerned about what we buy, it’s easy to forget that we have another kind of power — people power. People power is even more potent than purchasing power. By bringing together a group of individuals committed to changing the status quo, we are able to bring about systemic change. The kind of change that is far-reaching and long-lasting, not confined to our individual lifestyles.

Food & Water Watch’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, champions this sentiment in her upcoming book Foodopoly:

“If we don’t confront and change the consolidation and corporate control of our food system, only a very small percentage of people will benefit from the good food movement. We can’t shop our way out of this mess” [emphasis mine].

So we must ask ourselves, with these kinds of problems can we afford to sit back and take the easy way out? There are lots of ways to get involved. As Leonard points out, bringing change doesn’t have to mean going to a protest. If you’d like to get more involved, visit our action center to flex your citizen muscle, or sign up to volunteer for a cause you’re passionate about.

Katherine Boehrer is a Food & Water Watch summer communications intern and a junior at Cornell University.  

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