An issue like partnerships between Big Food and health organizations is one that can lead to thoughts of: “Where do we even start?”, or “How can I, as a clinical dietitian/parent/middle school teacher/nursing student do anything about this?”.
In order to be effective advocates, we can not get stuck in that mindset. We now, more than ever before, live in a time of instant gratification (whether it’s having the ability to buy a song we just heard on the radio in two seconds with a click of our mouse or catching ourselves thinking “why has no one commented on the Facebook post I put up 3 minutes ago?”).
However, change — and systemic change, at that — operates on a much different timeline. Think of it as the change of seasons. If you look at the the weather and landscape where you live in June and then again in January, you will notice significant differences (there are a few exceptions, of course). Temperatures and foliage are starkly different, as is the time the sun sets. However, all that major change happened gradually on a daily basis. Systemic change occurs in the same way, except that we aren’t talking about a six-month window of change; we are talking about years and decades.
The success of a paradigm shift, much like the success of a healthy lifestyle, also depends on consistency. Advocacy naturally ebbs and flows. Some moments are more eventful than others, and it is expected that throughout the course of long-term advocacy there will be some quieter moments. The important thing is to keep the fire going for a long time; not to flame out quickly.
If, in thinking about about partnerships between health organizations and Big Food, you conclude that “it’s hopeless”, consider that great changes have taken place in society; changes that at one point seemed daunting and impossible.
It’s hard to even imagine this being a reality in 2013, but up until 1967, sixteen US states prohibited interracial marriage. Or, consider that while Congress passed the 19th Amendment — guaranteeing women the right to vote — in 1919, the earliest advocates were championing their cause in the mid 1820s.
Advocacy is a seed that needs to be planted, watered, and tended to carefully over time so it can grow healthfully. The advocacy work we do today is an investment in future generations.
In the meantime, when thinking about Big Food sponsorships with health organizations, don’t frame the question of “where do I even start?” as one of overwhelm and defeat. Instead, try to actually answer the question.
Perhaps you start by writing an article about this topic for your blog, a group newsletter, or a local paper. Or maybe you start by suggesting this topic as a debate topic to one of your professors. What about, the next time a colleague unknowingly shares educational material created by a food industry front group, you alert them to why that front group exists and who funds them?
We can’t expect change from an unaware public, after all.
Finally, don’t allow yourself to be silenced. Asking tough questions — and shining the light on the murkier areas — of an organization is stigmatized, sometimes purposefully. There’s no advantage to remaining silent simply to not rock the proverbial boat, though. Again, think back to the many positive societal changes that began with a group of people thinking, “This isn’t okay; we have to say something.”
And, remember: the most successful advocates are passionate, but not angry; great orators, but also active listeners; and disillusioned with the status quo, but hopeful that change can happen.
As renowned cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: ““Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”