The Action Forum: A Democratic Food System

farmers signing contract

What does democracy mean to you? Do you believe that you are an active citizen in a democracy? How about in your food system?

To me, democracy goes beyond showing up for one day to vote for a presidential candidate, sharing a politically charged status on social media, or filling out your e-mail to sign another online petition. Democracy takes effort, commitment, collective responsibility, and passion. It’s not always easy, certainly not simple, but if we as a people are committed to a better world, it cannot begin and end on Election Day.

Danielle Robidoux, left, at an Action Forum event in Boston. 

Likewise, participating in the food system cannot begin and end with a purchase. To get closer to a more transparent, just, and safe food system, we need to be fully engaged, not passive consumers. For a long time the jargon of conscious consumerism has been “vote with your dollar.” It is not enough. Now more than ever is the time to not only raise your dollar but to put your voice behind it.

So, how can we become real participants in a democratic food system and make a positive impact to build the world, and the food system, that we want to see? I believe we need to build communities and meaningful connections; there is power in organization, in solidarity, and in numbers. A successful democratic food system cannot be built without an active populace, without active citizen-consumers.

Equal Exchange has always had people at its center. Coffee, chocolate, tea, mango, cashews—these are just mediums by which Equal Exchange can show the world that ethical supply chains are viable—that there is more than one way to do business. The radicalism lies within the Equal Exchange model: a supply chain that is characteristic of true democracy, cooperative learning, transparency, a respect for our planet and its people.

For the past 31 years Equal Exchange has worked on supporting our producer partners abroad and standing alongside them in their struggles, on a journey to build a more sustainable system. We have done this with a commitment to our internal democracy, too, as a worker co-op. As we reflect on the change we have built and the complexities that now define our world, we realized there is a missing piece: you. And so we launched the Action Forum late last year to provide an organizing mechanism.

On June 9, over 100 individuals got together to have a conversation, when Equal Exchange hosted our first-ever People’s Food System Summit. This event brought together all parts of our supply chain: Equal Exchange worker-owners, producer partners, and Action Forum members. The gathering was a milestone for our work to build the Action Forum and to have conversations around food justice. As a community we began to grapple with many food industry dilemmas and how we could imagine building a better food system, together.

The first day of the summit we delved deeply into the corporate consolidation that characterizes our food system, successes and failures of the Fair Trade movement, climate change from the perspective of our producer partners, and alternative buying models that opt out of the corporate system. The second day was spent building the foundation of our community and culture of democracy among members of the Action Forum. We debated and voted on proposals regarding the Action Forum’s path forward, broke out into small groups to discuss how we can build tools and grow our community, and made a commitment to stay connected to continue this work, together.

Our current economic and political climate is not conducive for alternative food systems. The food industry encourages us to think as individual shoppers rather than as a collective. The key to building effective, long-lasting change is to build strong communities centered around people. The Equal Exchange Action Forum is striving to facilitate this work, through connection, democracy, transparency, authenticity, and putting people over profit.

Join us, and add your voice. Learn more here.

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