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'Rewriting the Rules of the Food System'

Q & A with author and activist Raj Patel
Jessi Cape, 12:45pm, Fri. Nov. 30, 2012
Globetrotting with award-winning director Steve James to work on Generation Food is only one project on Raj Patel's full plate. Patel is scheduled to speak at the Paramount Stateside Sunday, December 2 as a part of Eat Drink Local Week.

Just before jetting off again he answered a few questions about the current state of global food culture.

Austin Chronicle: I understand you are currently traveling the world with Steve James (Hoops Dreams, The Interrupters) working on your new multimedia project, Generation Food. Will you talk a bit about the project and share a little inspiration you’ve seen thus far?

Raj Patel: We’re looking at some incredible ways that people are rewriting the rules of the food system in order to survive the twenty-first century. Although our country has a problem admitting its existence, most farmers outside America not only know that climate change exists, but that it’s causing mayhem. In Peru the growing season has been shrunk by 25% -from 8 to 6 months. Snow covered peaks are now raw black rock. Yet communities are surviving by drawing on cultural institutions older than the United States. We’ve much to learn.

AC: Austin has a thriving locavore scene; you speak often of your support for food sovereignty. Will you discuss how the two concepts are related?

RP: Food sovereignty is about having democratic control of your food – how it gets to you, how people are treated, how a community decides the mechanisms through which everyone gets to eat well, freely and healthily. It’s entirely possible to eat locally, and not care at all about any of this. But I like to think of local eating as a gateway drug. By caring where your food comes from, you’ve taken the first step into a wider world where you can, and should, care about the workers who created that food. And then you’re into thinking about feeding the hungry. And then you’re into the idea that everyone ought to be able to be at the table in deciding how Austin eats. And then you’re not just eating locally – you’re living democracy in a way that you never did before. And it’ll taste delicious.

AC: I find it rather ironic that given the large array of cooking reality shows, books, and television programs inundating our media, there seems to be a missing link when it comes to practiced cooking skills. What are your thoughts about the possible decline in cooking skills as related to advertising and food culture?

RP: I’m an ambassador for the Edible Schoolyard at the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco in Hunters Point – one of the most underserved areas of San Francisco. There, far from food snobbery and privilege, I’ve seen how young people not only become more connected to their food, but to one another, through the act of growing, cooking, sharing, and cleaning up a meal together. TV dinners kill social connections at the same time as they reduce our cooking skills to a push of the button. I fully understand why fast food has come to take the place it has in our society – a cocktail of marketing, a devaluation of food culture, the rise of consumerism, and poverty mean that for many people, the only possible meal is one eaten from our laps. But that’s why if we’re to make food sovereignty real, we need to raise wages, make sure that everyone can afford to eat properly, and free people to make dignified choices about their food and leisure.

AC: Can sustainable agriculture really help bridge the gap between obesity and starvation- such as your book, Stuffed and Starved, discusses- leading to a more balanced scenario? How do organics, specifically, play a role in this?

RP: We’ve plenty of evidence that sustainable agriculture – agriculture that is light on fossil fuel and water, rich in biodiversity and complexity – can feed the world. On a planet consumed by climate change, the last thing we need is more industrial, fossil-fuel-intensive agriculture. World experts agree (though you’d be hard pressed to know it in the US). If it’s done right, organic food can clearly feed the world.

Solving the problem of hunger and obesity isn’t an agricultural problem – it’s a political one. Right now, we produce more calories, per person, than ever before in human history. To end hunger, we need to end poverty so that the poor can afford to eat. But we also need to change the food system – in rich countries, it’s the poor who are overweight, denied the effective right to eat well, because a balanced diet is priced beyond their means.

AC: Could you suggest a few small steps that individuals can do today to support healthy eating and sustainable food systems in their own communities?

RP: As time runs out, I’d definitely encourage sensible sustainable consumption. Michael Pollan’s "Eat food, mostly plants, and not too much" is wise counsel. I’d push us to think more about what we can achieve together. Often, we feel like we’re just one person – and if we feel that way, we’re restricted to changing the world by changing what we eat and how we shop. What we’re doing with Generation Food is showing how the most important changes aren’t made alone, but always in a community. Things like food policy councils are examples of how small businesses, governments and advocates can come together to recognize the urgency of ending hunger in a municipality. And when we come together as communities, we can feed the world, end obesity, save the planet, and do it over the best meals of our lives.

Tickets are still available to attend Raj Patel's Paramount Stateside appearance here.

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