Getting to the Heart of Alternative Food Systems Work

In my twenties, I reduced all that I owned to fit into a backpack, moved out to the Pacific Northwest, and realized a dream of living primitively while teaching groups of adults and youth how to do the same, in a camp setting. I had read Daniel Quinn (1992), who famously attributed the beginning of the world’s great social ills to the advent of large-scale agriculture, which made it possible to store food and control land, hence develop wealth, and class. I was determined to try to live in the world as a hunter-gatherer as I thought, “nature intended.” For the next three years, our group of vagabonds (the instructors) attempted to conform our diets as closely as possible to what the indigenous Pacific Northwest Indians ate, which of course centered around what could be hunted, fished, or gathered. I led groups of adults and youths into the wild to simulate a wilderness survival situation, and we sought to meet our needs for food, water, warmth, and shelter from whatever we could find. Most of the clientele who participated in these experiences were middle-to-upper class white people, and I saw many of them face real, sustained hunger for the first time in their lives. There is a particular variety of panic that washes over you when you are hungry and have no food and do not know where you will obtain it, or you are engaged in a search for nourishment, but fail to trap, catch, or successfully harvest what you most require.

During my third year at the camp, an epiphany occurred in our small group: after acquiring an adjacent property, we decided to “do agriculture.” We bought chickens, set up a garden, and acquired a small pond full of easy-to-catch bullfrogs (for tasty frog legs) and stocked it with catfish. All of a sudden, instead of walking miles to gather enough salmonberries for meals, we simply walked to the garden for rhubarb and strawberries. We could have much more food available on much less land, and it tasted delicious. It was a paradise.

The lesson I learned very well in the Northwest was just how much work, strength, persistence, and ingenuity it takes to provide food for oneself, and that it becomes somewhat easier with agriculture. But even cultivating vegetables is often no picnic, and the stakes are high. I now view my experience as a lesson in how difficult it is to attain true food security while realizing that my efforts were made considerably easier by virtue of their location within a region of economic and political stability and nearly pristine environmental abundance. However, if it is innately “this hard” to feed ourselves in such a scenario, then the continued existence of our civilization must depend, at least in part, on the political and economic machinery to function sufficiently to provide food for the world. So, I ask an apparently simple question: can it, and will it?

In recent years, food consumption questions have entered the public discourse within wealthy nations through authors such as Barbara Kingsolver (2006), Michael Pollan (2007), and Eric Schlosser (2012), who have written compellingly about how the choices consumers make affect health, agriculture, and the global economy.  Many have indeed decided to adopt rules, such as “don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t eat,” or “if you don’t know how to pronounce it, don’t eat it” (Pollan, 2007), and similar adages in order to eat responsibly. And yet, it is still important to consider that many people do not have a choice in what they eat. Accordingly, Pollan and others have been criticized for their lack of consideration for those who live in poverty (Guthman, 2007). In order to acquire the type of food one’s “grandmother would eat,” consumers are connecting to farmers through farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) (Kloppenburg, Hendrickson, & Stevenson, 1996). However, in the U.S. today, farmers markets and CSAs have been shown to be inclusive and inviting spaces principally for white members of the middle and upper classes (Allen, 2008; Guthman, 2008; Slocum, 2007). Adages about the diets of grandmothers may have been a battle cry for many individuals seeking to transform our food system, but according to Allen, Guthman, Slocum, and others, it would seem that many who work on such issues in the U.S. are realizing that they must also address challenges of inclusivity. These concerns are myriad, even if one sets aside the question of affordability. Some say that the food that Pollan and others advocate eating, full of salad greens, root vegetables, etc., is not appropriate for all cultures (Guptill, Copelton, & Lucal, 2013). Also, the “know your farmer” rhetoric is not appealing for cultures that view growers differently, even as unfriendly entities (Slocum, 2007). So, the alternative food system solution currently aims at only a small slice of the population. Meanwhile those active in that movement have trouble agreeing on a common set of values, with some advocates working on health and nutrition, while others are most concerned with farmworker rights, food justice, food security, or food sovereignty (Sbicca, 2012). It is a seemingly never-ending milieu of different scopes, levels, and frameworks.

At the same time, according to many projections, the global agricultural system will need to feed 9 billion people by 2050, within an uncertain and changing climate. That system currently too often employs methods that squander topsoil, contaminate and exhaust water supplies and rely on monocultures that breed superweeds and superpests that lead to crop failure (see Evan Fraser’s video: This scenario is unfolding globally as our own nation’s agricultural development research system has historically been co-opted by powerful commercial interests rather than smallholder and family farmers (Hightower, 1973). The picture emerges of an agricultural system in need of profound rethinking. Hopefully, such can involve many academic disciplines, including (but not limited to) agronomy, rural sociology, women’s studies, crop and soil science, and my own discipline: agricultural leadership and community education.

Hamm (2009) has described this needed reworking of the global food system as a “wicked problem” (p. 241) that can only be addressed by means of a deep assessment of many factors. Analysts must confront this imperative first by recognizing that its problems are ill defined and will never yield to simple clear-cut solutions. For my part, I wonder if any issues with agriculture could ever be different. Agriculture, as Diamond (2005) and Quinn (2009) have written, is a fundamental part of our civilization, one that is interlinked with all other aspects and elements of our world. If our current sociocultural and economic systems arose in tandem with agriculture, it only makes sense that it is deeply embedded within many facets of our society. In the past 100 years, as the proportion of U.S. citizens involved directly in food production has decreased from approximately 60% to 1%, farmers have become less and less visible to their fellow citizens (USDA, 2005). As fewer individuals enter farming each year (Ahearn, 2013), U.S. farm sizes have become enormous, and those operating them have come to concentrate on only one kind of crop or animal (Dimitri, Effland & Conklin, 2005), making them vulnerable to unforeseen risks (Doran, 2008).

Even among farmers and agricultural practitioners, there are few generalists who can see the big picture in agriculture (Jayaraj, 1993) in order to think critically through the food system upon which we depend. Food production is poorly understood by the general public and consequently, agriculture is generally now regarded as just another industry that is expected to follow the same rules as other industries.  Yet agriculture continues to defy such expectations because of the unique challenges it poses due to its reliance on weather, timing, risk, and a plethora of other factors. However, although we may be able to do without the next generation of widgets that some industries may produce, we cannot do without food. As Diamond (2005) has mused, is this the make-or-break issue of our time?

As we have seen, the challenges confronting agriculture in the United States and globally are as complex as the cultures of which food production is always an integral part. So, to revisit my original question: can we rely on this system to feed us, since we must, given the truly immense amount of work it takes to feed oneself? This question cuts to the heart of much of the alternative food system’s rhetoric about the diets of grandmothers. I, for one, would like to see our nation further explore the possibilities implicit in community-based food systems (see Guptill, 2013, for further analysis). In saying this, however, I recognize that there are no sure solutions to the problems so far posed to this still young social movement. Until food system practitioners begin to conceive agriculture as a complex, interdisciplinary and “wicked” set of problems, and not just another industry, solutions are unlikely to be forthcoming.



Ahearn, M. C. (2013). Beginning Farmers and Ranchers at a Glance. USDA-ERS Economic Bulletin, 22.

Allen, P. (2008). Mining for justice in the food system: perceptions, practices, and possibilities. Agriculture and Human Values, 25(2), 157-161.

Diamond, J. M., & Ordunio, D. (2005). Guns, germs, and steel. National Geographic.

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Penguin.

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Doran, J. (2008). Editorial: Principles of integrated agricultural systems. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 26 (4), 267-268.

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Guthman, J. (2008). “If they only knew”: color blindness and universalism in California alternative food institutions. The professional geographer, 60(3), 387-397.

Guthman, J., Morris, A. W., & Allen, P. (2006). Squaring Farm Security and Food Security in Two Types of Alternative Food Institutions*. Rural sociology, 71(4), 662-684.

Hamm, M. W. (2009). Principles for framing a healthy food system. Journal of hunger & environmental nutrition, 4(3-4), 241-250.

Jayaraj, S. (1992). Agricultural education: The need for generalists. Agricultural Systems, 40(1), 177-193.

Kingsolver, B., Hopp, S. L., Kingsolver, C., & Harris, R. (2007). Animal, vegetable, miracle. Blackstone Audiobooks.

Kloppenburg Jr, J., Hendrickson, J., & Stevenson, G. W. (1996). Coming in to the foodshed. Agriculture and human values, 13(3), 33-42.

Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals. Penguin.

Quinn, D. (2009). Ishmael: An adventure of the mind and spirit. Random House LLC.

lorien thumbnail croppedLorien E. MacAuley has nine years’ experience coordinating efforts to teach adults and youth about nature and gardening in governmental and nongovernmental organizations. She is currently a PhD student in Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. While at VT, she has worked with the Mapping Sustainable Farm Systems project, the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program, and the Dan River Partnership for a Healthy Community. She focuses her research and development efforts on beginning farmer and rancher preparation and community-based food systems initiatives.

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