The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First analyzes the root causes of global hunger, poverty, and ecological degradation and develops solutions in partnership with movements working for social change.
The following is an overview of the trajectory of Food First’s work during the last three decades.
Food First is rooted in the early experiences and sensibilities of its founders. Joseph Collins, beginning in his teens, saw poverty and hunger first hand as he traveled around the Third World with the Catholic Maryknoll Brothers and Fathers. Frances (Frankie) Moore Lappé grew up surrounded by adults who believed that their actions could make their community a better place to live; she went on to study at Earlham, the Quaker college.
Both Joe and Frankie came of age during the 1960s, a time when many young people were immersed in the civil rights movement and demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty brought Frankie to Philadelphia, where she first realized that something more would be needed to end hunger and poverty. This epiphany led to her search for an answer to the question, Why is there poverty in the richest nation on earth?, and eventually to her writing Diet for a Small Planet. This book struck a strong chord with those who read it: it sold two million copies over its first 10 years, largely by word of mouth.
At the same time, Joe Collins was working at the Washington think tank Institute for Policy Studies, writing the book Global Reach, about the impact of multinational corporations in the Third World. He also coauthored a report titled World Hunger: Causes and Remedies, which was written to challenge the official UN world food assessment for the 1974 World Food Conference in Rome.
Joe and Frankie met at the first World Food Conference in Rome in 1975, and shortly thereafter they incorporated the Institute for Food and Development Policy and began work on the book Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity (published in 1977). We owe a debt of gratitude to Frankie’s brother, John Moore, Jr. for the name Food First, which has since become the Institute’s common name. In January 1977, the Institute offices were moved from Frankie’s house in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, to an office above a bakery on Mission Street in San Francisco. David Kinley, formerly with the North American Congress on Latin America and the Corporate Data Exchange, was the third person to join the staff. By 1979, the staff of the Institute (fondly known as IFDP) had expanded to ten full time and six part time, plus at least 25 interns. Many of our long-term core of loyal members joined us at this time.
The 1980s were a time of tremendous changes in the world. The U.S. government involvement in Central America, the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and the collapse of the Soviet Union affected not only the countries involved, but also the balance of power in the world. It was also a time for great, creative program building at Food First.
Food First’s 1981 publication of the book Circle of Poison contributed to the formation of Pesticide Action Network, an organization that quickly grew into an international network of groups concerned about pesticide poisoning. Food First education and advocacy around Central America included the 1984 Central America Television Organizing Project, which split off from the Institute in 1986 as the lobbying organization Neighbor to Neighbor. In 1986 a fair trade store opened in a small garage front on 24th Street in San Francisco, and the following year Food First staffers Kevin Danaher and Medea Benjamin started the organization Global Exchange. In 1989, Ballantine Books published Frances Moore Lappé’s book Rediscovering America’s Values, and shortly thereafter Frankie left Food First to form the Institute for the Arts of Democracy (later called the Center for Living Democracy).
The 1990s brought countries worldwide the trinity of the free market ideology of liberalization, privatization, and deregulation imposed by international financial institutions led by the World Bank, the IMF, and GATT (superseded by the WTO). Structural adjustment eliminated much of the social safety net both in the U.S. and in countries around the world as the rich got richer and increasing numbers of the middle class dropped into poverty.
Food First’s educational role focused on empowering thousands of students, educators, and concerned citizens worldwide, contributing to a greater understanding of the impact of economic globalization through extensive international and national public speaking and publications. Beginning in 1994, Food First stepped up its campaign for the economic human right of all of the world’s people—including those in the U.S. and other rich countries—to have the resources to feed themselves. In the late 1990s, this program organized two congressional hearings and two bus tours with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Institute for Policy Studies.
With the rise of the antidemocratic World Trade Organization (WTO), farm policy became a major issue for citizens worldwide as many more people began to recognize the basic truth first revealed by Food First 25 years earlier: that there is more than enough food in the world for everyone. The control of the global food system by a small, powerful cartel of multinational corporations continues to displace millions of small farmers. The audacity of this corporate takeover has mobilized many people to demonstrate in the streets and fight for democratic process around the world—a movement that first gained huge visibility in 1999 in Seattle.
In the new millennium, Food First has continued its analysis of the ways economic globalization impacts the food system and jeopardizes all people’s human rights. In conjunction with the offices of Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), Food First staff convened a 2003 congressional briefing on the impacts of trade policies on U.S. workers. And we worked with indigenous and peasant activist groups in the streets of Cancún as well as inside the convention center where the 2003 WTO ministerial was held, protesting the inclusion of agriculture within WTO trade rules—and we rejoiced when the talks collapsed utterly.
The Institute has also continued to highlight alternatives. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a blockaded Cuba has effected the most large-scale conversion to organic and sustainable agriculture ever attempted. As part of its Alternative Food Systems program, Food First led numerous sustainable agriculture delegations to Cuba, and has sponsored training, exchange, and outreach programs to increase awareness of the Cuban work and to help extend Cuban expertise in sustainable agriculture to the rest of the world.
Without land, there is no food, and real, democratic land reform is desperately needed in many countries to redress vast inequities and help ensure all people’s right to feed themselves. In partnership with organizations in Thailand, Brazil, and South Africa, Food First convened the Land Research Action Network (LRAN) to link activist researchers with each other and with grassroots movements in their efforts to democratize access to land. A monumental book on the recent history and current state of global land reform efforts grew from this collaboration, and Food First Books published Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform in 2006. Food First also published the story of one of the most successful grassroots land movements in the world, Brazil’s MST, in Angus Wright and Wendy Wolford’s superlative 2003 book, To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil. Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture by Eric Holt-Giménez was published in 2006.
Following the food crisis of 2008, Food First published the 2009 book Food Rebellions! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice. Other books published in 2009 include an edited volume, Agrofuels in the Americas, an issue blamed, in part, for the 2008 food crisis. A third book published in 2009, Beyond the Fence: A Journey to the Roots of the Migration Crisis with companion 20-minute documentary and study guide, is a valuable resource for students.
Coalition work in the U.S. included our participation in founding and serving on the steering committee of the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis, and our work with African farmer and women’s groups as they challenge the green revolution. In Oakland, where we are now based, we are incubating the Oakland Food Policy Council.
Food First continues to be at the forefront of the growing realization that genetic engineering of food crops and the corporate appropriation of seeds present a grave threat to poor people’s economic future and the future of human health and of the earth’s ecosystems. Food First champions alternatives to corporate control of agriculture, including the seeds that humans have used and developed for millennia: organic farming; agroecological principles and practices; and local, farmer-led control of food policies, production, and distribution.