Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp 595–609 | Cite as

“It’s hard to be strategic when your hair is on fire”: alternative food movement leaders’ motivation and capacity to act

  • Lesli HoeyEmail author
  • Allison Sponseller


Despite decades of struggle against the industrial food system, academics still question the impact of the alternative food movement. We consider what food movement leaders themselves say about their motivation to act and their capacity to scale up their impact. Based on semi-structured interviews with 27 food movement leaders in Michigan, our findings complicate the established academic narratives that revolve around notions of prefigurative and oppositional politics, and suggest pragmatic strategies that could scale up the pace and scope of food movement impacts. In contrast to the apolitical perspective some scholars see guiding alternative food movements, local leaders we interviewed see the food system from a structural-political lens. Though some see strength in fragmentation, most are not under the illusion that they can work alone and aspire to build their collective strength further. Concerns about organizational survival and conflicting views about the goals of the food movement, however, present ongoing challenges. Ultimately, we argue that there is a middle ground food movement leaders can walk between prefigurative and oppositional politics, one that still attempts to intentionally change the state, while also maintaining the inventiveness that can come from autonomous, grassroots initiatives. Specifically, interviewees suggested that increased strategic capacity around policy advocacy, critical food systems education, and negotiation could help them extend cross-movement networks and mainstream more equitable food policies, while continuing to experiment with customized solutions.


Food systems Alternative food movement Food governance Strategic capacity Michigan 



Community supported agriculture


Non-governmental organizations


Supplemental nutrition assistance program



We would like to thank the numerous food movement leaders in Michigan who shared their time and insight for the interviews we conducted in this study. We also thank Kameshwari (Kami) Pothukuchi, Rich Pirog, Kathryn Colasanti, Lilly Fink Shapiro, Robert Fishman, Scott Campbell, Harley Etienne, Ana Paula Pimentel Walker, Joy Knoblauch, and the blind reviewers for their invaluable feedback on earlier drafts. This project would also not have been possible without University of Michigan MCubed funding, and students who engaged in early discussions and literature reviews, including Danielle Rivera, Kelly McGraw and graduate research teams led by John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto. We chose not to directly identify individuals or organizations we interviewed, as most asked to remain anonymous and worried that revealing some, and not others, might contribute to inequitable representation of the accomplishments of some actors over others. However, we do want to dedicate this article to the memory of Charity Hicks, who asked us explicitly to name her as a contributor. We only had the chance to get to know Charity during the interview we conducted with her a month before her tragic death. She left us with a lasting impression of what it means to be a relentless activist and “movement weaver”, as someone who linked food movements with the fight for water rights and many other grassroots struggles in Detroit and nationally (see


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Learning for ActionSan FranciscoUSA

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