Collaborative project led by Human Ecology researcher, alumna comes to fruition
From soup kitchens set up to feed people during the Great Depression to food stamp programs founded in the 1960, millions of Americans have relied on community and government organizations to provide them food.
Community-based organizations across the country, however, have been working to find better ways. In a seven-year-long project called Food Dignity, funded by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leaders of five community-based food justice organizations and academics from three universities collaborated to continue, expand and document those ways. Their goal was to strengthen local food systems and enable more people to not only choose what they eat, but how their food is produced and processed, and what role they wanted to play in the food system.
More than three dozen researchers and activists from diverse backgrounds and communities worked on the project, including two lead investigators associated with the College of Human Ecology. This year, the project collaborators published a full special issue of the Cornell-hosted Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development.
The concept of food dignity is complex, spanning beyond community gardens and school lunch programs, explained Christine Porter Ph.D. DNS ’10, associate professor at the University of Wyoming and the Food Dignity principal investigator who developed the idea for the project eight years ago as a Cornell doctoral student in nutrition.
“Food dignity is not being handed an almost-rotten banana after having waited in line for two hours,” she said. “It is about finding what promotes dignity and what violates dignity. Not having enough to eat violates it. Being able to feed your family what you believe is healthy and right promotes dignity.”
Project co-lead Monica Hargraves, extension associate within the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and associate director of Evaluation Partnerships in the Cornell Office for Research on Evaluation, collaborated with community partners to develop innovative tools for representing the theories of change driving community-led work, and to evaluate their minigrant programs. In addition, nearly a dozen more Cornell faculty, staff members and students contributed to the project.
“The premise was that community leaders and organizations are doing ground-breaking work; there is a lot that academics can learn from their expertise,” Hargraves said. “The idea was to form a larger partnership in which they were co-researchers with the academics.”
A central element was not only the research, action and education collaborators worked on, but how they worked together. As a participatory action research project, the community and academic organizations strived for establishing equitable partnerships. The project won an award in 2014 from Community-Campus Partnerships for Health for its example of bringing together community-based organization and academic institutions to improve social justice.
Not surprisingly, one of the key conclusions of the project is that community partnerships are key to creating a society where people have “food dignity.”
“The most radical and important thing the community organizations in this project accomplished was investing in leadership development and mentorship, investing in ideas and capacity, at the local level,” Porter said. “These investments are less visible than the actual products of their work, such as starting a multigenerational garden or a free summer lunch program for children. But we found they were the most important elements in promoting food dignity.”
Different communities, different approaches
A broad range of community organizations participated in the project. Dig Deep Farms was founded by community activists and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to build a network of food-related businesses that would provide access to food and jobs to local community members. The organization’s ultimate goal was to improve the quality of life for local residents and reduce crime rates in this urban area outside of Oakland, California.
More than 1,000 miles east, two organizations in Wyoming supported vastly different communities. The non-profit Feeding Laramie Valley offers a free summer lunch program for kids; delivers fresh, local vegetables to people who cannot afford them; and helps people with chronic health conditions start home gardens. Blue Mountain Associates of Wind River Indian Reservation started a tribal farmers market, supported dozens of gardeners, and helped people restore Indian corn and root cellars to the Reservation.
And nearly 2,000 miles east of Wyoming, East New York Farms! in Brooklyn, New York created urban gardens, started an internship program for local youth and launched two community-run farmers markets. Whole Community Project of Ithaca supported dozens of grassroots community leaders in remaking and diversifying the local food system, from intergenerational gardening to incubating farms led by people of color.
Gayle Woodsum, the founder and director of Feeding Laramie Valley, also took a project-wide role by serving as the liaison and advocate for all five community organizations with the academic partners. Her role was challenging at times. But those difficult conversations and interactions are exactly what made the project successful, she said.
“If the Food Dignity research project ended up accomplishing anything at all, it succeeded in providing a five-year opportunity for a diverse array of activists, scholars, and students to dig at, uncover, and radically challenge both the notion and reality of truth-saying on topics that extend beyond its surface mainstay of community-generated responses to food insecurity,” she said.
The partnership itself was one of the project’s main achievements, Hargraves said. “There were rocky paths in the early years, but we were committed to that struggle,” she said. “Working through different ways of communicating, different priorities, different ways of working, is hard, but it is incredibly important for the quality of the work. That ended up being as much an accomplishment as the food system work itself.”
Investing in communities
In addition to the lessons learned about building community partnerships, the Food Dignity project reported its findings about some of the most promising ways to build more equitable and secure food systems. They found that working to provide food is more effective if it is used to improve communities overall.
“We are talking about food as a form of democracy,” Porter said. “It’s about being a food citizen, a participant in shaping our society.” The community food justice leaders invested most in people and communities, she said, with food as not just an end but as a means for community leadership and power development.
In other words, people working to improve food access and systems do and should focus on people and communities, more than on food or food systems. “Community leaders have a deep expertise you won’t find anywhere else,” Hargraves said. “The insights and strategies that drive their work are deeply grounded in their particular communities.”
The biggest conclusion, Porter said, was that supporting food justice work requires investment. “If you think of these community organizations as cars, then they need fuel to power their dreams,” she said.