August 11, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: CLOSING THE FOOD GAP: RESETTING THE TABLE IN THE LAND OF PLENTY–Mark Winne

By LENA BROOK

Mark Winne’s Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty is an elegant, inspiring addition to the growing body of literature on the food revolution unfolding in the United States today. The author spent over thirty years at the helm of Hartford Food Systems, supporting underserved neighborhoods in various efforts to increase their food security. He has done it all — community gardening, food coops, policy advocacy, farming, food banking — and it shows. And his personal passion for gardening and farming reminds us that we may have to revisit our agrarian roots in order to move forward.

Winne’s book is illuminating for many reasons. His synthesis of seminal works and movement histories from the 1970’s serves as a reminder for today’s activists that many current efforts have been in play for 30 years. Positive changes are certainly on the horizon, but one can’t help lament that we still have little in the way of concrete answers.

This primer on sustainable food systems places food security — and the linkages between poverty and hunger — at its core. I was impressed by Winne’s ability to weave volumes of information with decades of personal experience that would equally engage a policy wonk or a layperson. Closing the Food Gap reinforces the essential place food holds in the human experience. It uses a critical social justice lens to cover a range of topics as broad as hunger, poverty, health, and agricultural production. Winne writes with the assurance, authority and humility of an esteemed leader in his movement and he is willing to break down assumptions, hold the right parties accountable, and offer innovative strategies for moving forward.

No one issue is put on a pedestal at the expense of others. For example, he asserts that our track record of supporting the livelihoods of farmers typically comes at the expense of low-income communities. Reconciling the seemingly conflicting needs of food producers and those who struggle to afford healthy food is a significant challenge. But I wonder if they are pitted as opposing forces because we default too often to free-market mechanisms as solutions? Winne posits that with increased and better-allocated public policy support, the gap stands a chance of substantially narrowing. Political willpower is essential to catalyzing new solutions and rebuilding broken patterns of the past. The advent of food policy councils on the local and state levels provide an excellent platform for change, as does the recent impressive mobilization of sustainable food activists around the 2008 Farm Bill. A leadership transition at the apex of government come November is certain to provide new opportunities to ameliorate the mistakes of the past.

The collection of books on sustainable food systems has grown exponentially in recent years, only to be matched by an explosion of public interest. Yet those most negatively impacted by the vagaries of our industrial food system and underfunded public support programs continue to be left even further behind. Food insecurity is probably difficult to imagine for many living in our “land of plenty,” yet a full 10% of Americans rely on the National Food Stamp Program, which just brushes the surface of filling in the gaps of their food needs. Winne questions why “we were wasting time teaching people to eat healthfully if they couldn’t find affordable food stores, and they are not getting the full value of the food assistance vouchers that taxpayers were supporting.”

Nowhere is this dichotomy more starkly apparent than in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. Food deserts in low-income communities of color abut the heart of this country’s local food movement, which has shepherded some of the most highly regarded restaurants, growers, and food purveyors in the world. Yet like in many of the examples presented by Winne, too many low-income residents continue to survive on the meager offerings of liquor stores and corner markets. Major supermarkets are too often out of reasonable reach and are thus a prime focus point of activism. From the point of direct access, large food markets do have a lot to offer. Though I can’t help but wonder if these entities, whose corporate bottom lines have failed these communities in the past and who profit tremendously by offering vast quantities of unhealthy, expensive processed foods, are the right solution?

Toward the conclusion of his book, Winne asks, “How do we begin to make this dream of a healthy and sustainable lifestyle available to everyone?” He proposes a selection of creative solutions, which include continuing to forge strong relationships between farmers and consumers, a redistribution of public funding to reduce food insecurity, and including food systems into urban planning decisions.

The first-hand experience the author brings to Closing the Food Gap is invaluable. Rarely does one find a book that is as comprehensive and at the same time thoroughly enjoyable as this one. Use it as a source of inspiration — and pass it on!

Lena Brook is Senior Program Associate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter.

Originally published in July/ August 2008 edition of “The
Networker,” the newsletter of the Science & Environmental Health
Network, www.sehn.org.