Christine Batten, former CFJC Intern
Four years ago I began my collegiate career studying dietetics. Initially coming into the program, I was excited to learn about health promotion through the process of prevention instead of through acute care and symptom mitigation. And although I still feel nutrition plays a powerful role in disease prevention, I have concerns about some of the nutrition standards that guide these principles, as well as the corporate partnerships that are promoting conflicting messages.
Generally, we know what comprises a healthy diet: a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; occasional consumption of lean meats; and moderate intake of nutrient-poor, calorie-dense processed foods. Yet, we see the credentialing agency for Registered Dieticians—the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)—has numerous corporate sponsors (ex: Hershey) as well as corporate buddies (ex: Monsanto). We see that the Dietary Guidelines Advising Committee includes past or present representatives of The National Livestock and Meat Board. We see “healthy” snack machines put into (often wealthy) schools that contain Coca-Cola products masked with aesthetically pleasing green-colored packaging (read: Odwalla). This is not progress; rather we are struck with the increasing opacity of the policy process and the conflicting nutrition messages. The Food Industry lobbies our health officials and their symbiosis can negatively impact communities.
These contradictions thus spurred within me a deep ethical dilemma. How can I represent a health promotion organization that succumbs to the lobbying interests of Big Food and Big Ag? To offset my surmounting frustration I began working with the Community Food and Justice Coalition (CFJC) and discovered the extensiveness of the Food Movement taking place locally and nationally. I saw the beauty of passionate people taking a stand to advocate health over profit. And still, this relief was met with disquiet: how is it that I—a politically active nutritional professional—was unaware of this movement? How had I never thought of this burgeoning restlessness as a “movement”?
Unfortunately, this sentiment is rather common. Whenever I describe the work of CFJC to anyone unfamiliar with food advocacy, they often ask me to explain the concept of food justice and seem unaware of the work being done on behalf of equity, coalescing under a food justice umbrella. Granted I felt that way too, but now—having intimate knowledge of this unyielding, effervescent fervor—it feels a little disheartening if others don’t feel it as well.
A key problem is the lack of One United Voice. There are a lot of anti-hunger groups, nutrition advocacy groups, anti-discrimination groups, and so on, which all have their own specialty ranging from policy advocacy to community organizing. This makes the movement a bit disjointed. Not only are we fighting against all of the corporate control and the illusory propaganda and the structural racism, sexism, and ableism, but in addition non-profits are fighting each other for the funding of individual projects. And although these projects are needed and beneficial, sometimes they do not intersect even when their struggles do. And sometimes they do not fully incorporate the community’s participation or uplift their voices. This seclusion makes it difficult to organize and to create the energy of something we associate as a “movement”. These are barriers. We need to break these barriers. And from what I have experienced, CFJC works tirelessly toward that agenda through various manifestations, but most notably through its integrity—being with communities to facilitate learning, embodying cultural humility, and valuing the contribution of each individual.
There is simplicity in building a movement; radical change begins with a safe space for collaboration. Personally, the past several months have been saturated with moments of power and provocation, but particularly I ruminate on the simple human connections that I’ve felt through sharing stories and realizing the interconnectedness and multifaceted nature of injustice. And I realize that all of our experiences are valid and valuable. We all have the capacity for leadership when we feel empowered.
I no longer have such a prominent ethical dilemma in my field of work. Obtaining credentials through a biased organization has enabled me to intimately understand their procedures, successes, and flaws, where I can now confidently reject their predilection toward avarice. I may receive licensure through the AND, but community interaction has educated and empowered me. The AND’s mission is to “empower member [Registered Dietitians] to be the nation’s food and nutrition leaders.” I would rather prioritize improving the health of our communities. I would rather contribute to continued growth of these siloed projects, and strengthen the voices of the community’s unrest, to develop a forceful and distinguished movement. True change starts from the grassroots.