Lessons of the Local Food Movement at Vivid Sydney

I was invited to speak at Design your Day Job, organized by &Company, part of Vivid Ideas 2013.

25 May 2013 Sydney Australia

I’m new to Australia, and since I arrived, I’ve really hoped to become part of something like this event, so I’m absolutely thrilled to be here with you today. Although I imagined we’d all be around a long table and I’d be cooking for you. But this is cool too.

My talk today is somewhat biographic. Because when I sat down to write it I realized that I needed to remind myself why I’m doing this, where did it come from? What are the goals and principles?

Before I start I do want to say that I’m quite sure that Powerpoint rots the brain. So the talk is a bit clunky.

The story starts when I found myself in a masters of city planning degree, surrounded by activists. They were primarily people of color and some white people working for social justice. At that moment in that place the important issue seemed to be about knowledge. So- called “experts” were imposing solutions on these communities which didn’t work. And the communities had their own ideas about what liberation would look like.

I became sympathetic to the situations of oppressed peoples, and angry about the waves of exploitation that have continually bled Africa, Latin America, and indigenous communities everywhere. I became committed to to the idea of self-determination. And the crux of my interest was economics. It seemed that wherever I looked, outside forces were stealing, sucking, strip-mining, and subverting local resources. These days it’s data-mining and creativity-mining. I wanted to learn how people could keep control of their own resources: land, labor, resources, and markets.

I went on to do a PhD in political economy, and after hearing more stories from around the world, came to the conclusion that there was a culprit for most of the problems facing indigenous people, the environment, human rights, and workers and it was multinational corporations. I became an expert in the machinations of structural adjustment and free trade agreements. I came to understand them as mechanisms for legitimizing and institutionalizing the first world’s right to continue sucking resources from their former colonies.

In all my research it became clear that people were fighting back in every possible way, and that they were increasingly able to recognize the enemy. In 1998 I filed a dissertation which predicted the emergence of a unified international anti-corporate movement.

It happened a year later, when Americans finally joined the international movement against free trade in the Seattle WTO protests. Our joining was a spark which unified diverse movements into flaming fury and succeeded in halting some of the more destructive international policies.

Because my politics were rooted in the struggles of communities of color and postcolonial nations, I was aware of the role of entrepreneurship in these liberation struggles, and I saw small businesses among the victims of multinational corporations. To me this was an important constituency partly because It meant a reorganization of the usual party lines.

I was not popular. Socialists called me an anarchist, insisting that labor unions were the only way to liberation, not this weird hodgepodge. Anarchists called me a capitalist because I championed farmers and community enterprises. Small business people called me a commie because I was opposed to US imperialism.

I kept talking about “early Marx” and why he cared about alienated labor in the first place. He thought the ideal day was going fishing in the morning, reading some math or philosophy, emptying out the latrine, playing the violin, weeding the garden, and then repairing some tools at night. Unalienated labor, as he understood it, is producing for ourselves and expressing ourselves in the highest and richest manner. When we sell our labor, we are alienated from our own creativity.

I spent a lot of time sucking down tear gas outside of global governance ministerials.

I went to a lot of boring meetings.

I gave a lot of speeches to people who were already opposed to free trade agreements.

I spent a lot of time with these guys.

I found myself writing about how the police were treating us, and how we were dealing with them because that analysis was more publishable than what I was actually interested in.

Meanwhile I was getting blamed every time the students at my university threw pie at an administrator.

I retired.

Well first I started giving dinner parties.

I served the food that I ate, direct from farmers. People loved it and they asked so many questions: “What is that?” “Where did you get it?” “What did you do to it?”

Suddenly I was doing something that people loved. I was communicating with a diverse group of people, and they were smiling!

I told stories about the food, and about the farmers. People said about the dinners “you should charge money”. And they said “you should do this in an art gallery.” I made my co-chefs use anarchist consensus methods in our menu-planning meetings and the guests all had to participate in meaningful ways in the dinner.

At first I gave myself a sabbatical. I told myself I could write whatever I wanted. I spent time THINKING. This is underrated. Blank pieces of paper. No to-do lists. Sunshine on your face. Emptiness. !


I decided to write a paper about food. I realized that I had 17 years of data. I had cooked my way from “natural” to “organic” to “local”, shopping at coops and farmers markets in quite a few cities, visiting farms, reading cooking magazines, learning permaculture.

The big issue, which people who I don’t talk to anymore are still arguing about, is whether consumption can be a tool to repair and protect the world and its peoples. Or whether consumption is unavoidably an individualistic act of privilege. There are whole journals devoted to this. They’re calling me an apologist (that’s a bad word). “Organic farms are still exploiting workers!”

Vía Campesina is the international movement of farmers. They are promoting the idea of Food Sovereignty which says that people have the right to determine what food they will eat, how it will be grown, and that farmers and fisherfolk should be in the lead of setting agricultural policies.

In the US there was a very movement called Community Food Security which has developed all kinds of economic gadgets specifically for the poorest communities to secure access to fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate food.

What I kept finding in my research as an economist and agronomist is that diversified, decentralized systems are more robust. This applies to farm ecology, and farm economies. Diversity gives us collective security. On a social scale, diverse systems are those which have a lot of smaller-scale autonomous producers.

While I was writing that paper, I read some stuff I hadn’t read before. Some wacked-out social movements theorists from Europe — where by the way they really know how to have a social movement.

These guys said two really interesting things. First they said that what movements do is introduce new ideas. A great example is the idea of ecology. This idea was invented and popularized by a social movement, including scientists, hippies, radical farmers, etc who promoted the idea that we take for granted now but which was quite far-out when they started, which is that we live in an ecology.

Another observation from the European theorists is that social movements win when they change the culture.

Again, looking at the environmental movement, hippies created recycling. I have a friend who used to drive around in a pickup truck on Saturday morning yelling for people to come bring their newspapers for recycling. People did this kind of thing. Now we have forced our governments to organize a system to do this and it’s just a totally normal part of life. It’s now part of our culture to recycle.

Now we can argue about whether consumer recycling was a project worth doing, but props to the people who worked so hard for something they thought could make a big difference.

We ran the underground restaurant every month for 2 years in Venice California. We made this fabulous dinner party that was all about drawing attention to local farmers and beautiful artisan foods and encouraging people to spend more money on beautiful ingredients and that they could cook.

My brand new book, Underground Restaurant: Local Food, Artisan Economics, Creative Political Culture, explains how cooking dinner for 30 strangers is related to retaking the economy. Of course it didn’t get here in time, but there’s a postcard in your bag. Please do buy it direct either from me or from a local bookstore. Since I don’t have them for you today, I’ve created a promo code field on the order form, and your promo code is the name of this event. The online payment system almost works. Give it a few days….


In the ruins of Wall Street, Americans built an economy that’s all about integrity, it’s called local food and it is delivering $4.8 B annually directly to small farms in the US alone. What this means is that small farms, which were pretty much going extinct 10 years ago, are now viable, they are receiving investment, and there will be a next generation of farmers.

What the book does, and what I’m going to talk about now is how we can take the lessons of the local food movement to transform other sectors of the economy into economies of integrity. And my little pet name for this project is Local Objects. To me the next obvious step after Local Food is local objects.

So now I’m going to talk my way around this map a bit. I’m not going to talk about everything on it, just some of the bits that I think are especially stimulating. The map is growing all thetime and if you have anything to put on it please send me an email.

I’ve distilled social movement scholarship so that I can talk about with my friends. And the map is organized around this. If we want to change our world we need:

paradigm-shifting ideas

And what I’ll be doing in this section is talking about what the food movement did well and how the local objects movement could emulate that. Stating with the ideas that build desire for a new experience and for taking action.


There’s DIY and Slow which are expansive philosophies of life, making a new economic mode of living sexy and fun.

In the UK, Colin Hines has written an entire book of policy around the concept of “support the local, globally.”

Community currency basically increases peoples buying power to facilitate more circulation.

Slow food has developed into Slow Cities and Slow Money. The Slow Food people in Sydney are working on yet another Australian community currency, which will be called Slow Money. An Australian Economist, Katherine Graham, co-wrote a very important book called A Post-Capitalist Politics, in which she argued that we are already doing lots of alternative economics and we just need to watch ourselves and learn from what we are doing. Her new book is on the table.

There’s the caché of small‐batch prodution, and people wanting to be part of a production process that’s really intimate. That’s part of what’s so appealing about Kickstarter. People get to feel involved in an artisan’s process. Farmers build trust by inviting people to visit the farm and verify ecological practices for yourself. What ’s been suggested is to sort of restart some ideas of the medieval craft guilds, like with regard to the issue of open workshops which in a modernized form would allow people to inspect working conditions, waste, and other environmental pratices.

This is Joel of Cut Brooklyn. He makes knives.

I’m excited by the work of Mathew Crawford, whose book, Shop Class as Soul Craft, is for sale on the back table. He makes two really crucial points. First he organizes a thorough analysis and evidence that trades labor, including making and repairing, is “cognitively rich.” Second he proposes that meaningful work is that which “serves the good life as I know it.” This is a beautiful approach because he’s positioning the worker as the center of his own universe of meaning. For him the good life is riding motorcycles, so he works as a motorcycle mechanic. (Also FYI This is his response to the dilemma of whether you should turn your hobby into your day job or keep working in IT and do it on the side.)

The central and powerful idea of the local food movement is that food is not a commodity, it is a community. When we buy direct from local farmers we are supporting ecology, husbandry, agricultural knowledge and skills.

Relationships make the food taste better, they make the transaction more meaningful. They make shopping fun and heart‐warming. Local food has developed the idea of everyday consumer relationships as a form of commitment.

Space is a crucial element.

The farmers market creates conviviality and ritual.

If you look at what has happened with artisan roasted coffee, it ’s such a powerful remaking of a product into a ritual, with celebrity baristas, with community gathering places that are now cornerstones of neighborhood economic development. It has made food shopping into a civic celebration, renewing public spaces.

San Francisco has done this with the historic Ferry Plaza building. Instead of putting in a mall, they’ve created a food destination. You can spend all day there, with the farmers market and the brick and mortar shops. It ’s huge and it feels like a festival.

Farmers markets are also very sensuous spaces. The local objects movement needs to build a consumer experience as rich and luscious and generous as the farmers market. This has created the idea that we can make change through pleasure.

Last night Nick told me about Humble Bundle day in which indie game makers basically have an online festival, to promote and celebrate their industry.

We are buying a collective experience, not just a product.

One of the things happening in the food movement is education. Developing a market means educating people into making ditintions. It means developing their TASTE.

People are learning why they should spend more on food. I remember an aticle about farmers markets in New York City I think this was 2007. The interviewer asked the farmer “why would anyone pay $5 for a carton of eggs?” The farmer said “you can pay me, or you can pay your doctor.”

Why is this tomato so ugly and expensive? “ Taste it.”

I have found that people are really scared of vegetables they don’t know the names of. I teach cooking classes just to get people comfortable in the kitchen.

When we talk about artisan objects, that discernment is crucial. We have had two generations of people pretty much only concerned with convenience and flash. We need to become our grandmothers. We need to bend down and look under things before we buy them, we need to look for qualities of workmanship, durability, longevity, repairability. And we need to value these things and be willing to pay more.

Artisans need to, in a really sensual way, teach people to do this. They need to develop their customers’ taste.

I think it would be great to have a RepairFair where people could bring broken stuff and artisans could advise about repairability and everyone could learn.

Another very powerful aspect of the farmers market is that all kinds of people are there. You’ve got young parents who’ve just started to think about issues of toxins in food. You’ve got people who are interested in the ecological aspects of industrial farming. You’ve got health‐nuts. You’ve got gourmet people who want the best flavor.

You’ve got people who are into creting sustainable lives who’ll go anywhere they can go that involves biking and walking. Lots of different kinds of people. There are people who just go to to have breakfast and sit in the sun with their friends or their kids. They don’t even buy vegetables there. Look these people don’t even have a bag with them.

It’s a multi-dimensional, multi-issue movement. Different social sectors are passionate about it, not just one subculture.

When I go to atisan markets like FindersKeepers or Bazaar Bizzarre in the US I rarely buy anything (even though I really would like to!) but I never see anything I want because I find the style to be monolithic. I’m walking around with a notebook making hash marks. I’m looking to see if there is anything modern and minimalist. These spaces at the moment are really subcultural. If they’re going to be successful they need to think about how to make these issues multi‐dimensional, multi‐faceted. Not everybody likes drawings of owls.

I also count how many vendors are selling useful household items. I don’t count notecards and fashion accessories as useful items. I have yet to go to a market in the US or Australia where it ’s over 10%. There’s an incredible selection of jewelry and silkscreening, but nothing to store it in. I keep telling people “I want to buy an artisan dishdrainer ” and garbage can. These are the things I look at and touch every day. I want them to be beautiful and meaningful.

I was actually on the phone with Anna Lise and boyfriend is clattering around in the background. And I finally admitted that the noise was him getting the Ikea stuff out of the boxes.

Ikea Catalogue 2012

I think everybody who’s a maker needs one of these. (Ikea Catalogue.) Even better, check out Ikea Hacks , which shows you more about what people want.

A lot of people who want to see a local objects movement happen have pretty low level of skills with materials. But that ’s ok. In the US, the new generation of farmers are mostly people who got into these ideas in college and have never been on a farm. They don’t know anything. But they have lobbied their universties to put learning farms on campus, they’ve gone and slept in tents on farms and volunteered their time to learn. Now there are networks like WWOOF to help the next generation of farmers learn. In the Local Objects movement it seems that a lot of 2d artists are interested in selling objects. One way they can upskill is to collaborate with 3d artists and product designers.

Melinda Dimitriades, Farmgate, Redfern Sydney

The same situation happened with butchers in the US. The job and entrepreneurial opportunties were gone. Now there’s a new generation of butchers. The sitution with skilled makers is dire. There are very few leQ, so we need to validate and valorize them, and go learn from them right away. There are a lot of skilled tradespeople who already have materials skills, they could retool as collaborators in the atisan market and they can also teach materials skills to new makers. Things are so bad for the younger generation that I think anybody who knows how to fix things should be looked on as a local hero.

James of Flora Bella Farms

And we know there’s a lot more to learn than just how to produce the thing you want to make. Even people who knew how to farm have had to learn new skills. 20 years ago, most small and mid‐size US farmers were growing one crop, selling it wholesale, and going broke. Those who have transitioned successfully are now growing diversified crops, driving them to farmers markets, talking to customers, custom growing heirloom varities for chefs. In addition to going organic, and learning new agronomic practices, hey’ve become public speakers. A whole host of intermediaries have assisted with retraining.

I mentioned that we need to build culture and gadgets.

Not everyone in the food movement is a farmer. There are a lot of allies and liaisons.

Chefs played a huge role in the Local Food, purchasing from and promoting local farmers, heirloom varieties. Here are Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers of the River Café in London which insisted that regular people could take good ingredients and make spectacular meals. On the right is Fergus Henderson who articulated nose-to-tail eating.

People who cared about farm economies became foragers and brokers, helping farmers make connections with chefs.

To make the local objects movement go, I think designers can play a really interesting role. Just as chefs started cooking “from the market”, meaning cooking with whatever they could get that was beautiful and fresh. Designers can design with the production experience in mind. And I don’t mean avoiding repetitive strain and toxic fumes. I mean designing products to maximize the pleasures of making and to make space for a skilled craftsman’s self-expression.

The Peoples Market, Melbourne

New institutions are also needed. In the US livestock farmers couldn’t sell their own meat directly without certification and all the certified processing facilities were consolidated and would only process animals they bought, they wouldn’t process it and give it back to the farmer. It used to be if you wanted local meat you had to buy a whole live cow. Livestock farmers collaborated in setting up cooperative processing facilities.

For design, What’s happening now in textile in the US are incubator-mini-factories, like Manufacture NY, where designers can get assistance doing short runs. And brokers like Makers Row that help designers find local producers for inputs.

There are also community kitchens, where small-batch producers can use certified equipment and space to produce value-added goods.

Anna Lise’s &Company and Gaffa both offer shared workshop space and tool libraries here in Sydney.

Food trucks are a model of affordable space for entrepreneurs.

In Melbourne we visited something called The Peoples Market, which was basically a parking lot that a bunch of creative people had turned into a big lounge made of salvage lumber, beer kegs, milk crates, astroturf, and green paint. There were pop ups in containers, there were food trucks, there was local music and beer, an art gallery. Ping pong….

Chad Robertson, Tartine Bakery San Francisco

People in the food movement sell their products by showing us their passion, showing us how much they love their materials, the reverence they have for the earth and for the traditions they are part of. They draw us beyond the product so that when we contemplate buying it, we are contemplting a way of paticipting in the ecology, a way of connecting with history and tradtion, a way to take care of our family’s health, a way to be a good ctizen. And they show us an etirely different kind of economy than the one we are moving around in the rest of the time. This is Chad Robertson. He is a celebrity baker in San Francisco. He bakes 75 loaves of bread a day. Sells out in 45 minutes. He’s put a ceiling on his prodution, so he can do it the way he wants to. He’ll teach other people to make the bread for their restaurants but he won’t make more. This is one of the things we need to think about in designing businesses. How much is the enough that is right for the product, right for a healthy life? Right for a community.

So now I want to talk about integrity of consumption. And there are some gadgets that have been developed here, like the handmade pledge.

But I’d rather look at Chad than that rabbit though, wouldn’t you? [Slide back.]

A very long time ago, back in the tear gas days, one of my comrades, Aimee Shreck, was studying the fair trade movement. She found that it was quite hard on small-scale banana producers who found that the fair trade movement rejected just as many of their delicious bananas for aesthetic reasons as the previous wholesalers had done.

She’s a pithy girl and she said “I hope some day the consumers will have to get a certification.” I’ve always thought she was onto something there. My friend David Flinter spent 19 years figuring out what he could grow on his land using ecological techniques. How can we match this level of integrity and commitment?

As I get to know artisans and makers I realize that I have a responsibility toward what they make for me. I’m not sure exactly the scope of this responsibility. I have worked out that I need to be as committed to them as they are to me. I know that it’s MORE important for me to go the market on a rainy day than a sunny day, because the farmers are there, standing in the rain.. I know that I need to be responsible about how I think about spending. I shouldn’t balk at paying $20 for a piece of heirloom pork when I can’t get in and out of any restaurant in Sydney for less than $20. I need to recognize and honor and prioritize the energy that has gone into making things with passion and care.

Modifying our recipes to work with what’s available….Understanding that food in season is worth the wait, understand why it’s more expensive and feel good about paying the real price of food that’s raised properly. These are values and behaviors that have been nurtured by the local food movement. The local objects movement needs to develop similar values around hand-made objects.

In New Zealand there is a serious local music movement. Theater and circus artists say “this show only uses local music.” I got to Australia and I said “I want to use Australian music in my projects” and people said to me “what’s Australian music?”

John Talbot Woodworks

This is John Talbot. He was a cabinetmaker and one day he bought a hobby lathe on sale. He burned out the machine in 3 months, and in that moment he realized he had a new calling. He salvages his timber from felled trees in the Los Angeles area, and he feels he gives these noble trees new life by making objects that will be loved for generations. He has also started writing poetry about wood and nature and making and bowls which he sends out in his weekly newsletters, so the bowls have become vessels for more aspects of self‐expression, which make the experience of his bowls more profound. Local food has shown us that producers and consumers can turn pleasure and integrity into a new economy. And I hope I’ve given you a sense of how the artisan economy can build on that.

Now I’m going to close the circle of this talk, which has so far been a trajectory. I am going to bring myself and us back to the context in which we are creating beautiful things with integrity, and to our moment in history and in a process of making our world sane and healthy.

These are the hard questions that came to me through the biographic analysis.

What we are doing is called “social entrepreneurship”, meaning organizations that are a mix of business and social change. Believe me, it’s a lot more fun than activist meetings, our marketing is a lot better, and we appear to be launching a lot of innovation. But we need to understand that social entrepreneurship is built for speed and impact. It’s not built for accountability or longevity.

It has the benefit of allowing talented people to work at the edges of our capacity, and not be held back by a cumbersome participative process. But the flip side of that is that we are prioritizing product over process, getting it done over the developmental benefits of doing it. This is a short term perspective. And I know that we may feel that a lot of the problems we are working on are very urgent, and we need to be short term. But we are not built for carrying on the legacy of a struggle. We are about my Idea Now.

If we don’t think about what we are doing in the context of the larger forces we are working to change we could face some big disappointments. One week some guys who I called “the biodiesel boys” asked if they could sleep on my floor. I had taken a break from playing pool at our pub while they did demonstrations on how to make biodiesel. I had watched them bicycle around with barrels of used french fry oil on tow bars. Now they had driven their biodiesel bus to Los Angeles for a national conference. I heard them arguing late into the night, but mostly agreeing, that if they cooperated with Big Oil their dreams of a more sustainable fuel system would be realized. They kept saying “then we won’t have wars for oil.” A year later several of them who’d built local networks of farmers and processing facilities were millionaires. We still have wars for oil and now we have a situation in which farms are being converted to fuel crops which earn more than food crops.

We need to be concerned about how we will maintain control over our heartfelt projects.

For a long time I believed that we need to work for sustainability in the first world to “take the boot off the neck” of the third world. But carbon trading has shown us that big corporations are defending their ability to pollute, and making our communities cleaner and greener will just give them more leeway.

On the very last day of editing before I sent the new book to press I was doing some last minute research and I came across something so disturbing that all I could do was give it a spin and keep going. I had written several years ago that where organic was coopted by corporate agriculture, local would be more resilient. But a very well-funded study has been done, paid for by large food retailers, warning themselves that the market has shifted so severely toward local food that shoppers now will shop elsewhere unless major corporate retailers give the appearance of providing local products. And worse, the biggest growth concept in the grocery industry is “artisan”. Again, not sure if this is winning or losing.

I can’t tell you how many late nights I spent arguing with my dearest friends about whether we should support Starbucks for selling Fair Trade coffee or brick them for it.

My questions led me into more tear gas.

I am a creative entrepreneur (in a completely separate area than what I’m talking about today) and I do support myself with my work.)

Writing this talk helped me to remember the first moment of my journey as a “creative”. I started with a folder on my computer called “decommodified writing”. I made a space for writing which I could never sell (or even make public) as part of my academic career. For a few years I worked with the idea that I wanted to take more and more of my energy out of the market, so I could do with it what I really thought was beautiful and brave without worrying about selling it.

I got quite sad thinking about these questions and then I decided that I needed to get back to the insight of all my work as an economist, which is farmers as revolutionaries.

This is Jeff, he used to be a drunk anarchist, ranting about The Man. Now he’s an organic farmer. When we first met he subsisted on Dominos pizza and he had never been on a farm. So I was pretty much in shock when he showed me around his farm a few years later.

When I talk to farmers at the market they tell me that they all support each other and learn from each other. They collaborate to expand the market space, rather than competing. The better the quality and diversity on offer at the farmers market, the more business for all the vendors.

Again look at artisan coffee. It’s a global fad which is an expanding market all over the world and no producers more than 20 blocks apart are competitors. Wow.

Also on the table at the back is Charles Heying’s book, Brew to Bikes, about the Portland artisan economy. He talks about collaborations across sectors. Beer brewers and custom bike frame builders talking about business models and resources, sharing their imaginations to help each other innovate and grow.

Young people like Jeff who’ve gone into farming have learned so many different skills. Farmers can’t sit back and say “well I love my land but I don’t want to do marketing, or I don’t want to talk to people.” And when they do make contact, they aren’t promoting themselves. They are promoting this beautiful land, these beautiful varieties, the methods they use for ecological management. They talk about cooking and tasting. They make the vegetables in our hands sing to us.

They are serving something bigger than themselves. And they are inviting us in to a larger world of meaning. The health benefits of the fresh food we buy is only the beginning of what this purchase means.