Who am I? A consumer or a citizen?

It’s a strange thing to think about I know. Am I a consumer or a citizen? And why does it even matter? A report released last year, titled Food Citizenship looks at how these words carry different types of power, and how changing the way we think of ourselves, can impact on the future of the food system.

Consumer. It seems a relatively accurate way to describe ourselves. We consume things. We buy food and we eat it. And yet, what this report found was that when we think like a consumer, we play a passive role in the food system. We’re people who simply buy, or consume things, which is a limited way in which to see ourselves. It implies minimal, or no, connection to how food is grown and processed, and removes us from thinking more broadly about food and the impacts it has on things like the environment or the people involved in the food chain. It forces us to accept what is available to us – a food system that is controlled by big business, damages our ecosystems, diminishes public health, along with many other things.

And yet when we start to think of ourselves as a citizen, or more fittingly, a food citizen, we start to also think about food more broadly than just something that we put in our mouths. We’re someone who is informed, and deliberate in our actions when it comes to food.

I’ll be completely honest and say that before reading this report it’s not something that had even crossed my mind. I hadn’t consciously thought of myself as a consumer. However, I was well aware that I fell into the category used so freely to represent us in society. We all do. The food industry, supermarkets, the media, all use the word ‘consumer’ to neatly group us. They talk about consumer choice and consumer rights. Interestingly, it’s a fitting word because the food industry and supermarkets want us to consume. And consume. And consume. The more we consume, the greater the profit margins. So it got me thinking. If a simple change in mindset has the power to change our behaviour then this was surely a good thing?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the statement “it’s what the consumer wants”. Supermarkets, food companies and even politicians are quick to point out that their actions are all linked back to pleasing us, and yet how many of us are pleased that mountains and mountains of food is wasted before it reaches the market due to size and shape specifications that the supermarkets put in place? How many of us are pleased to pay $1L for milk when our dairy farmers struggle to keep their farms financially viable, often resulting in depression and anxiety?

The Food Citizenship report defines a “ food citizen (as) someone who wants to, can and does shape the food system for the better, and encourages others to do the same.” I’m a food citizen. I’ve never called myself that before, and I’m sure if I did out loud some people might look at me strangely, but I am. And I want to inspire and encourage you to do the same. Imagine if suddenly we stopped this mindless consumption of food and started to mindfully think about where it comes from, how it’s produced, the impact it has on our health, the soil, our wildlife, whether farmers, processors and cooks are rewarded fairly, and if everyone has sufficient food to eat?

When we think this way we can use our purchasing power to create positive change.

Except, being a food citizen is more than just your individual actions. You feel a greater sense of responsibility about how food is grown. You look beyond the food label to find out the story behind your food. This is no easy feat since transparency is clearly lacking in the industrialised food system. But it is possible. It starts when we check in with our values about what’s important to us. It starts with finding out what other options exist. This leads to becoming more engaged in building and supporting a healthy, sustainable and fair food system. And that’s where our power exists as a food citizen. The power to influence the future of our food system for the better. So who are you? A consumer or a food citizen?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. – Margaret Mead

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