From food consumer to citizen

local food column

I often wonder how some words have shaped the way we interact with the world and each other. ‘Consumer’ is one such word; used to describe a person that buys stuff.

An article by Jane Powell explores this topic further, discussing how the term ‘consumer’ may have affected us. She writes: ‘We are all so used to hearing about consumer choice and consumer rights, as well as being bombarded with advertising and images of wealth in the media that drive consumerism, that we accept this limited view of ourselves as merely people who buy things. Instead of being active citizens who participate in society at large, we find our value in the status that our lifestyle gives us.’

Jane refers to a 2012 ‘Cuing Consumerism’ study that observed increased competitiveness and lower levels of wellbeing in ‘materialistic individuals’ – those encouraged to think as consumers rather than citizens. The implications of this study are potentially many. If we are constantly bombarded with messages of consumerism, do we end up with a population that experiences lower levels of wellbeing and is ill equipped to collaborate over complex global issues such as climate change?

We may be able to drive change through ethical consumption (choosing what we buy and who we buy from on ethical grounds), but this is still limiting. If we take food as an example, we can go beyond reading labels and selecting what food we feel like buying, to asking questions such as: was this apple grown in a way that cared for the soil and wildlife? Was the farmer paid enough to eat well and support their family?  We can start to pick up the role of a citizen and the responsibilities that arguably come with this.

By thinking as a citizen rather than a consumer, creative new approaches to challenges are unleashed. This is perhaps highlighted through examples of ‘food citizenship’ found locally: A network of food clubs have emerged around Lancaster and Morecambe that intercept ‘waste’ food and distribute it to those who need it. Lancaster Peoples’ café similarly intercepts ‘waste’ food and cooks it up for community meals; bringing people together to cook, eat, discuss, learn and build friendships and new support networks. Claver Hill community farm is growing no-dig organic veggies on the edge of the Ridge estate: feeding people healthy veg and cultivating local friendships, skills and knowledge.

As a citizen rather than a consumer, we start questioning what sort of food system we want to see in Lancaster, and how we might help it happen.

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