Essay: A Community Food System based in expressive and instrumental values and actions.

This draft needs a lot of work but it raises a central but ignored question…. “what are the outcomes of a community food system which are outside our economic/instrumental thinking?”

I cannot go farther on this document without someone giving me some feed back.  Am I so off the wall that this is meaningless?  Does this contribute to a conversation on why one might choose a path in farming, eating, singing, dancing, parenting, worshiping, and living that did not increase anybody’s bottom line?

Yesterday I added to an online submission about pink slime that additions of this sort should be stopped because it is wrong. It is misleading and it is fraudulent. Don’t tell me it is scientifically ok and economically useful. 

Gerald R. Campbell, April, 2012

A Community Food System based in expressive and instrumental values and actions

I first discovered the distinction between an expressive act and an instrumental act in Parker Palmer’s book The Active Life. Palmer considers the explores the balance between contemplation and action as we live out our path. Instrumental decisions ask if I take an action what will I get in return. This is the area of life where incentives and rewards are the root of action. The alternative is expressive action based on expressing a principle or belief we hold within.   These actions are not contingent on some explicit return from another person. I take an expressive action because it pleases me to do so. One way to illustrate the difference is to consider the choice of occupation or work.  We commonly say that the clergy are called to that occupation. They chose their path based on a inner calling, they expressed their inner life in their occupation.  If we consider an industrial worker we commonly consider her choice of occupation as instrumental. She works as a way of earning a wage to pay the costs of daily living.

Palmer asserts, and I believe there is plenty of evidence for his position, that our culture is dominated by instrumental action. I believe that our culture has placed the instrumental action at the center of an increasing share of our thinking. In this essay we consider the actors in our food system. In history we might have said of Jane the farmer that she was called to that occupation by years of tradition in her family. We might expect Jane to make the effort to produce very high quality tomatoes because it gives her satisfaction to do so. We might say Jane’s legacy as a farmer leads her to live out the saying “that a job worth doing is worth doing well”.

Today the common assertion is that “farming is a business”. This perspective makes farmers decisions instrumental decisions. If we behave as if farming is only a business we interpret all farmers actions as economic actions where costs and benefits are the defining sources of action.

In a culture saturated with instrumental thinking, we often dismiss expressive action as irrational, impractical or foolish. We place those taking expressive action beyond the “true” nature of the activity. We might say of our neighbor Bill down the road he loves those cows so much he coddles them beyond all hope of getting a good return on his investment. He spends so much time in his pastures being sure that the cows get the nourishment he thinks they deserve that he has no time to tend to the finances that would allow him to maximize his returns. We might say of Sally with her flock of twenty milking sheep. There is no way she can make a living milking them and turning the milk into cheese she sells at a small stand at the farmers market. We see that she takes great satisfaction in her work with the sheep and in the cheese making and we even see that she treasures the customers who repeatedly seek her out.

As instrumental thinkers we can’t see Bill and Sally as real farmers. If we are an operator of an “agribusiness” farm we might refer to these farmers as hobby farmers. We might say surely what Bob and Sally do can’t be called “real” farming in a modern world where management not husbandry and logistics not customer relations are the key skills.

The food systems most Americans know are systems built on instrumental thinking. These systems are built on the ideas of market exchange among strangers.  Certainly,  even in our contemporary predominantly urban lives there are expressive acts like gifts of food within and between families. However, these are not the norm.  Ordinarily, we gain our food through instrumental means. We grow food on the land we own using our resources. We invest our time, energy and money expecting to get the product of our labor for our use.  In a less direct and still instrumental way we earn money  which we then exchange for food. In these situations we need not have any relationship other than an economic one with anyone else.

Our market system has been shaped to create all the institutions we need to make our trading with strangers possible. There are rules to assure honest dealing. Justice systems to find and punish the dishonest. Courts to adjudicate disputes Over property.

Is there an alternative to this market system of complex rules which shape the behavior of autonomous farmers, marketers and eaters? Yes there are alternatives. An alternative we won’t address much here is  rule of the monarch in which one person decides how all other persons will be treated, what they will do with their labor and how the fruits of their labor will be allocated.

The alternative we want to focus on is the community based food system in which a significant share of the production and distribution of food is based on expressive actions.

Community based food systems are not
created by merely drawing a boundary around a group of food producers and a group of eaters and calling it different because we drew the boundary. A community based food system is one in which there are real relationships among the community members which transcend  mere economic interaction. In a community based food system the identity farmers and eaters has real and specific meaning. Unlike the “perfect competition” model of the economist, people know farmers and value the characteristics of their products. Farmers know their customers and chefs and grocers and transporters etc. and know how they will be treated by them. They also know and care about how these community members treat those who work for them. Farmers and eaters know that some in the community need food and cannot afford it. They understand that as members of the community the less well off, especially children, can be fed by the community. They also know that the skills and resources to produce some of your own food would make the community stronger.  In a community food system people behave in ways that allow them to realize their multiple interests including those interests that can only be realized by the community as a whole. A community based food system is conscious of the natural resources as parts of the community. People understand that unless they care for the natural resource base their food system cannot sustain them over time.

When we focus on a community food system with the broader lens which reveals instrumental actions and the rewards sought through those actions and expressive actions and the beliefs to be realized we are much more likely to understand the systems complexity. We would not be surprised or disappointed to find people taking actions which challenge our cultural mental model that all of us act to minimize cost and maximize return. Further, this broader perspective allows for a much wider range of  policies to shape the societal outcomes we want. It also allows us to see the outcomes from our community food system as including  dimensions of individual and community life extending beyond the traditional measure of food system economic contributions to our well being.

For example if we look carefully we might find that a key input into a community food system is love. Love of crops and livestock well tended, love of a piece of land and the ecosystem of which it is a part. Love of customers who appreciate the effort and creativity needed to produce foods with esthetically pleasing and nutritionally rich character. Love for the people who fill the many roles necessary to realize a healthy, economically rewarding, socially just and aesthetically pleasing community food system.

To our surprise I expect that we will also find that true community food systems are producers of love. I don’t mean that they have some magic potion like Cupid. I mean is that the connections, relationships and acknowledged interdependence in true community food systems are components that nurture a loving community.

End Notes:

Gerald Campbell is Professor Emeritus, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension

This essay was written as part of his work with the UW-Extension, Cooperative Extension, Community Food Systems working group.

The Active Life; Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), 160pp.

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