Like what seemed like everyone else in the agriculture world, I watched the Food Dialogues conversations both online and in person last Thursday. In addition to tuning in for the Washington DC panel, I was on the St. Paul campus at the University of Minnesota for a viewing party. I’m not sure whether my expectations for the event/day were high or low. The only thing I knew was that the day would pave a path for the future of USFRA (who organized Food Dialogues) — whether that path was challenging or smooth was what needed to be determined.
I’m not going to recap the whole conversation, because I think that’s been done and you can find recap videos on FoodDialogues.com. What I will do is add to the collection of observations, hoping that input from throughout the farming and non-farming community will continue to stretch our ability to interact.
Words matter. If we’re not using the right ones, we’re not having an inclusive dialogue.
I had a friend once tell me that they hated the phrase “need to be educated.” To her, educating someone is a one-way street. You don’t know something, and by darn, the other person is going to tell you exactly what you should think. It’s not interactive.
On the same token, the term “consumer” is one that automatically separates groups into an “us versus them” mentality. This is especially true in agriculture. Consumers are “those people” who consume goods (in our case, food products) without knowing or caring where they came from. “They” know nothing about farming.
Throughout the entire Food Dialogues conversation – both across the country and in the room where I sat in St. Paul – these words and phrases were abundant. We need to educate consumers. The answer to our problems is consumer education about modern farming methods. If we just talk with consumers and share our stories, we can educate consumers about what they don’t understand.
This drives me nuts.
If we don’t place priorities on using language that is interactive and inclusive, we’ve missed the whole point of a dialogue. We haven’t listened. We haven’t learned from each other. And we won’t change anything. Words matter. As the Food Dialogues movement moves on, we have to remember that or we’re wasting our time.
Reach beyond the choir. Did we do it?
There was a great push to have farmer involvement in the USFRA dialogues, both online and in person. I think this is great. However, from my observations, what was missing throughout the entire day was those on the other side of the conversation. Farmers were in abundance both in the audience, online and on panels, but I feel like the voice of the typical, everyday food purchaser was missing. Where’s the college student who has no money, but is trying to eat more than mac and cheese? Where’s the mom who dreads taking three kids into the grocery store, but knows it needs to be done? While we had a panel of experts who were friendly to agriculture, there was a noticeably absent voice from everyday America. In my opinion, if we just continue to talk to ourselves, this “movement” is not a movement at all. Rather, it’s just us taking four hours out of our day to make ourselves feel better.
A step in the right direction, but miles to go.
Overall, I thought the Food Dialogues were a step in the right direction. The agricultural community opened themselves up to a wider audience and, I think, genuinely wants to be a part of the conversation. However, if we don’t open ourselves up to the hard topics and genuinely have a dialogue about those, we’re not going to build any bridges. Someone described coverage of controversial topics on Thursday as infomercial-like. I’d say that’s pretty accurate. The same old talking points were covered multiple times. Only once did I hear someone say, “I’m going to talk about this on a personal level…”. I’m not saying we have to have an “I’m right in using _______ (fill in the blank with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc.)” answer – in fact, I’d rather we didn’t. I’m saying that we need to be able to to converse about those issues without throwing up the defensive wall and genuinely ask people why they hold the beliefs they do.
In order to continue having successful dialogues, conversations need to be filled with inclusive language and people on all sides of the food system. We also all need to have the understanding that every single one of us won’t have the same opinion — two small farmers have different ideas, two large farmers, two organic farmers, two butchers, two professors, two moms. We all come to the table with different beliefs and experiences. That’s why the root of conversations needs to be, “Why to you believe that _________?” and the question needs to be followed by genuine listening from all participants.
These are just my thoughts, though, and I know lots of people have already blogged about their feelings. Check out Michele’s and Jeff’s posts for some different opinions. What did you think about the Food Dialogues? Was it a step in the right direction? Was it the same old, same old? I’d love to hear others thoughts and keep the conversation flowing.