Eating is an Agricultural Act: Local Food Policy in Bolivia and the U.S.

Eating is an agricultural act. The link between food and culture has been always present. How we pick and mix ingredients, their origin and seasonality define human behavior, helping sculpt culture. In recent years, advanced urbanization and globalization are pushing people away from the origin of their food and creating a gap between it and culture.

About 11,000 years ago, humans started domesticating animals and plants. Growing their own food enabled early humans to sustain bigger populations, so the first cities we created. A city needs rules for its citizens to coexist, which resulted in the creation of the first policies, i.e., the ability of people growing food triggered the transformation of early humans into modern cultures. It is surprising that today, modern cities have an extensive range of policies to ensure coexistence among their citizens, but there are few policies related to food.

La Paz, Bolivia is a large modern city. Its growing population is close to one million people and there are about 2.2 million in the whole metro area. The city faces issues like fast urbanization, heavy rural-urban migration and dependence on imported food. The citizenry is experiencing a globalization of their diet as well. The low purchasing power makes them more interested in the price of food rather than its origin or healthiness, and therefore, the poorest neighborhoods have both high malnourishment and overweight problems. La Paz is home to Fundación Alternativas, the Bolivian NGO I work for, and we aim to guarantee people’s right to food through the adoption of public policies.

On the other side, the city of Portland, where I spent my fellowship, is different from others in the U.S.  It has a strong food-orientated culture and a progressive local government that has designed policies for this particular population. The fertile soil and nearby rivers have historically made it compatible with food production. Even before the English conquered it, several Native American tribes inhabited this land and cultivated it. Portland experiences a temperate oceanic climate typified by warm, dry summers and mild, damp winters, making it suitable for vegetable and fruit production. The local government of Portland has been developing a food policy for the last 10 years with excellent results.

Both the cities of La Paz and Portland share common things. They have progressive governments compatible with innovative policies (like food); they have programs that aim towards a more sustainable way of living; they are cosmopolitans that attract young people and businesses; they have diverse ethnic groups; and both were built with a food design approach. The strongest similarity among them is their food policy. They have specialized teams supported by the local government to analyze the extent of the policies, and they also try to engage with citizens during the whole process as a way to maintain consistency of the policy priorities and respond to the realities of the city while looking for achievable goals.

La Paz and Portland are cities from very different countries, but they clearly share similarities related to food and culture. Their food policies reflect the people and their awareness, and the policy process actively involves the public and government, creating debate around food. It is an excellent mechanism to reinforce the relationship between food and culture and reintroduce the values that are being lost because all in all... eating is an agricultural act.