01/20/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

50 Most Powerful People in Food? Whose Food?

This week The Daily Meal put out a list of America's 50 Most Powerful People in Food and the jumble of powerful people was by the site's own admission very subjective and a bit random but also a) a great indication of the schizophrenia at work in our food system right now and b) enough to make your head spin. Well mine, anyway.

At the bottom of the list we see urban farming hero Will Allen, Slow Food USA leader Josh Viertel, food safety champion Bill Marler, cookbook author turned food movement advocate Mark Bittman. A trip up the list towards number 1 introduces some more high profile characters including several celebrity chefs (especially ones with important social agendas like local food sourcing, ending hunger, addressing child health) and then increasingly, especially in the top 10, the CEOs of all the major industrial food giants: Cargill, McDonald's, Monsanto, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Tyson....

This duality of sustainable food advocates on one end and industrial food giants on the other shows the growing power of each of the poles of our food system: at one pole the increased consolidation and commodification of food (and hence power of Big Food), and at the other pole the increased interest in and passion for sustainable, fair food. Like two muscles growing at the same time. But a bicep bulging bigger and bigger while a pinky muscle grows impressively, too. A bicep vs. a pinky....?

And then what exactly does it mean to have power over our food system? When it comes to food, local power can have so much more meaning than a broader national/international power. I highly doubt that a fancy Chicago chef like Grant Achatz is having much power over the life of someone in urban Mobile, Alabama, for example. In my life, NYC Greenmarket is probably the most powerful force in my food system--they have created an infrastructure that brings food from farms to my urban "backyard."

In the life of some lucky children in 10 states around the country, their FoodCorps service members--who bring them into the garden each week and who do taste tests for them with squash "fries"-- might be the most powerful person in their food worlds. Or maybe their mothers. Or their grandmothers.

As is often the case with food, it's often most interesting when it's local, and personal.