Understanding the Biases of Alternative Food Systems

Before researching this topic, we must confess that we too suggested that if people knew where there food was coming from, the ecological and social problems associated with the food system would be on a better road to recovery. This is because, the suggestion – “if people only knew where there food was coming from…” – is strongly advocated by many alternative food movements. For example, “many alternative food advocates see lack of knowledge as the most proximate obstacle to a transformed food system” (Allen et al. 2003 cited in Guthman, 2001. pp 263). If “alternative food” refers “to the broad range of practices and programs designed to bring producers and consumers into close proximity and to educate people of the value of local, sustainably grown, and seasonal food”, then “many of the discourses of alternative food hail a white subject” because they are inherently “colour blind” and “universal”. (Guthman, 2011. Pp264; 266).

For example, colour blindness refers to unconscious racism, or refusal to recognize the privileges of certain races in comparison to others. These privileges remain largely ignored out of fear in Western society because admittance of them implies racism. Universalism is “the assumption that values held primarily by whites are normal and widely shared” (Guthman, 2011. Pp267). Guthman suggests that the rhetoric of if they only knew is extremely pervasive throughout all professional and consumer layers of the alternative food movement which remains evident in the creation of these exclusionary “white spaces” (Guthman, 2011. Pp 264-266. By white spaces, Guthman implies an area or context which is idealized predominantly by white people encompassing white ideals.

Furthermore, by claiming a white space to be colour blind and universal demoralize and oppress others who may not share in these ideals. Specifically in relation to the Alternative Food Movement, by advocating the rhetoric if they only knew suggests that everyone should be educated to eat and live in such a way that abides by an ideology dictated by a white European culture.

For example, according to Cultivating Food Justice, it is entirely false to suggest that not all African American’s participate in [alternative food] markets because they are unaware of food-related issues or simply do not care (Guthman, 2011. Pp 265). Rather, cultural and historical differences have rendered a completely different ideology for African Americans than those of European heritage. For example, “[f]or African Americans, especially, putting your hands in the soil is more likely to invoke images of slave labour than nostalgia. Such rhetoric thus illustrates a lack of cultural competency that might be deemed an exclusionary practice” (Guthman, 2011. Pp277).

Therefore, to truly make a change, “in terms of activism, we need to think a lot more about the ethics of ‘bringing good food to others’ in alternative food systems” (Guthman, 2011. Pp 277).


Guthman, J. (2011). If They Only Knew: The unbearable whiteness of alternative food. In A. Alkon, & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating Food Justice: Race, class, and sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


2 thoughts on “Understanding the Biases of Alternative Food Systems

    • Thanks for the comment! Make sure to check out our other articles, as many of them are dealing with food education. Also, if you go into the Polls section, we have one where you can vote on this very topic! 🙂

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