Flavors of Meaning: Using Principled Civic Engagement Practices to Understand Food Environments
Tannya Forcone and Glennon Sweeney
Food has meaning and relevance beyond the nutritive and biological value. Food reflects individual’s identity and place. It is a fluid tool through which individuals express themselves and define their place within society and in the larger world. Food research that focuses on geo-spatial and statistical data collection can bypass these symbolic and necessary factors, the consequences of which can include failing to understand the social and cultural context surrounding food experiences. However, when food systems research seeks to transform the food environment or the way that environment is experienced, the incorporation of principled civic engagement approaches enables individual’s lived experiences and the context of those experiences to be captured as part of the research process, providing the added component of ethnographic data that expands understanding and provides a more holistic perspective of complex issues, such as food insecurity. When principled civic engagement approaches are utilized to explore the lived experience, the voices of individuals and communities create pathways of communication that become vectors of transformative change.
Understanding the food environment has become a preoccupation of countless scholars, government agencies, practitioners, and activist alike. We can go to the USDA Food Desert Locator and find where food deserts are located throughout the country. We can visit local food bank websites and learn about where we can access emergency hunger relief in our locality. We can visit Feeding America’s and USDA’s websites and learn about food insecurity at the county level (Feeding America n.d.). However, it is incredibly difficult to find local-level information about food environments. There are a few exceptions of local initiatives such as Maryland Food System Map produced and maintained by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (JHU n.d.) or Food-mapping for Empowerment, Access, and Sustainable Transformation (FEAST), a community-university collaborative centered at The Ohio State University (FEAST n.d.).
The reality of food insecurity in America is that, like poverty, opportunity, and wealth, experiences of food insecurity are often clustered in specific places, places so specific that county-level food insecurity data tells us very little about conditions in certain neighborhoods. For example, Franklin County, Ohio experienced at 17.4% food insecurity rate in 2015 (Feeding America n.d.). This tells us very little about the food insecurity rates in specific Columbus neighborhoods such as struggling Linden or well-off Upper Arlington. Likewise, knowing the rate of food insecurity in a community is insufficient to inform policy solutions for this problem because food insecurity is multidimensional. It intersects with identity, place, and lived experience in ways that policymakers, academics, practitioners, and activists have yet to fully understand.
Mapping areas of scarcity can tell us where the food environment is resource-limited but it does not inform us about the meaning and effect on those who live and interact in these environments. Food insecurity is experienced differently by people living in urban versus suburban versus rural contexts, it varies for people of differing racial, ethnic, religious, and other identities, and can even vary throughout the month or year. Food insecurity is entangled with individuals and neighborhoods and the positions they hold within the larger community and
Having a leftover turkey sandwich for lunch says volumes about diet, family, economic status, and power. But how can that be? It is a few bits of meat and a slathering of mayo on wheat bread. Knowing that it is leftover turkey, assumptions can be about time of year and cultural orientation. Food is more than nutrients to build or maintain the biological mechanism of a human body. The food we eat, the way we prepare it and social rules around its consumption define us and our place in society. Pierre Bourdieu used food and its accessories to explain habitus, the place we inhabit within the greater community (Bourdieu 1977).
Consider the sandwich. Turkey is not a high class food, and neither is it “poor”. A turkey sandwich says American, middle class. It says that the consumer has enough money for food, but not for something snazzy like foie gras. A Sandwich is consumed without utensils; it can be eaten in transit or away from the table. The sandwich has mayonnaise, an item that requires refrigeration. The wheat bread indicates a dietary tolerance for gluten, and the turkey is a non-vegetarian or vegan choice. These implications of middle class indicate that the consumer may not have significant power that comes with wealth. Furthermore, you may conclude that leftover turkey implies a large feast and in comparing this to a calendar, you may also decide that this indicates a holiday celebration therefore the sandwich eater is probably Christian. This is a lot to determine just from a lunch and any one or more of these assumptions could be wrong. Maybe, like the Bumpuses’ dogs (Shepherd 1983), the sandwich muncher just likes turkey.
But food makes us, our individual bodies, and our identity. The nutritive value of food is necessary for cellular growth; the kilocalorie is a measurement of energy that the human body uses to function. A diet well balanced between the energy producing carbohydrates, the developmentally vital proteins and the cognitive powerhouses of micronutrients (Alaimo et al 2001, Gómez-Pinilla 2008, McEwan 2007) is necessary for the mechanistic function of a human body. The “right” foods are not just those that promote biological efficacy, but also those that define us socially. It is socially acceptable to have a turkey sandwich for lunch, but completely awful to consider a puppy sandwich. From a social standpoint, it is better to go hungry and skip eating, rather than consume a companion animal. But what if the turkey was not from the sandwich muncher’s own fridge? What if the turkey was a gift from a neighbor? What if the turkey came to the house as part of a charity basket indicating poverty? What if the muncher
Civic engagement brings these issues to light, illuminating the dissonance between accessible and acceptable. Too often, civic engagement is understood to be community inclusion in a project or research, like the hackneyed image of having a native guide to a developing culture. True civic engagement is not inclusion, but partnership; it is not working in a community, but as a part of the community (Holley et al 2016). It is long-term committed involvement. By using involved ethnographic methods we learn much more than just where the food access barriers are, but how they affect those that function in that environment. A grandmother can shop for items at the troubled convenience store because, “the riff-raff know me” but she does not let her grandson go to that store (FEAST n.d.). Civic engagement explains why that resource, that particular store, is of limited value, even as it provides suggestions for change. The college student does not utilize the homeless shelter for food or meals because it is perceived to be unsafe and that “real bums” go there. For this student to use the shelter he has to see himself as a bum and a loser, undermining his ability to see himself as, or be, academically successful (Forcone 2018). Engaging with the community can provide the university direction to understand the necessary supports that need to be emplaced for the food insecure student population.
The Value of Engagement in Informing Transformative Policy Solutions
In American society, policymakers are often the people making decisions that impact how communities experience their food environment. However, despite our forefather’s plan for representation in US politics, our policymakers are generally not representative of the population that they serve. They often do not look like, live like, or share the same socioeconomic class as the majority of the Americans that they represent. For example, there are 540 individuals serving in the 115th Congress and
We would hope that our policymakers would view obtaining an education about the lived experiences of their constituents as a responsibility inherent in their elected position. If this is the orientation of a policymaker, then direct engagement with their electorate is one way they could attain this education. Civic engagement can take many forms, and describing them is not the purpose of this commentary. Civic engagement is a critical tool in providing a humanist lens for privileged Americans to view problems and challenges that are distant from their own everyday experience (Chilton et al 2009, Holley et al 2016). Policymakers can learn from directly engaging with their constituents and by working with researchers to better understand how policy can be used as a tool to transform how people experience their food environment. By merging storytelling with data, researchers and community organizations can provide the education and resources that policymakers require to build legislative solutions to the barriers to healthy food access that specific communities may encounter.
Meaningful civic engagement results in people sharing experiences that they might not discuss in normal conversation. It is therefore crucial that the engagement environment be one that invites people to share these experiences; critically, a civic engagement environment must be perceived to be equitable and inclusive (Holley et al 2016). For example, a privileged, white, male legislator attempting to engage with constituents in a low-income majority minority urban neighborhood should consider the lasting impacts of policies like redlining, urban renewal, and highway construction on the community before attempting to build-trust. Acknowledging the communities troubled history with development policy and the makers of those policies may in fact help the policymaker to build trust and more effectively engage in listening to individual and community experiences.
Using Principled Civic Engagement Practices to Co-Create Transformative Change
While strictly structured civic engagement models can fail to create inviting and inclusive atmospheres where people feel comfortable sharing their experiences and stories (Holley et al 2016), civic engagement should be grounded in structured theoretical underpinnings or principles (Holley et al 2016). We argue for theoretically-based or principled civic engagement approaches because when we are practicing an approach informed by theory, we can justify each action that we take, understand why we are doing what we are doing, and can thus better explain our actions and approach to those we seek to engage (McCullum et al 2003). The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, drawing on over a decade of experience in engaged and transformational research has developed six principles of equitable and inclusive civic engagement (Holley et al 2016). These principles are not designed to structure the content of an engagement, rather, they are designed to provoke questions that encourage us to question our meanings and intent when structuring our own engagement environments. It is the answers to these questions that actually help us to create an equitable and inclusive engagement environment. The principles include embracing the gifts of diversity, realizing the role of race, power, and injustice, radical hospitality: invitation and listening, trust-building and commitment, honoring dissent and embracing protest, and adaptability to community change and are publicly available as a guide on the Kirwan Institute’s website (Holley et al 2016). These principles help us to question our own approaches, but also encourage us to consider the broader context within which our engagements take place. It is this context, the role that race, power, and injustice have played in influencing this particular community’s trajectory or considering the diverse gifts that community members already bring to the table to help address an issue that provides a critical education to policymakers seeking to address issues within our food system. Consideration of this broader context and thoughtful construction of our engagement environment also helps to mitigate our personal biases (Brannon and Walton 2013, Pettigrew and Tropp 2006), contributing to creating a more equitable and inclusive engagement environment.
Whether it is a turkey sandwich or falafel, food has meaning that influences how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived by others. It influences our attitude, our appearance, and our health and access to healthful food is critical to a healthy life style. Understanding how people experience food and their food environment can only contribute to a better understanding of the barriers to food opportunities that exist. In fact, understanding how people experience accessing food may just be the missing link to constructing policy that can eliminate barriers to healthfulness for many low- and moderate-income Americans. Without theoretically grounded and principled civic engagement approaches, we often fail to build the trust necessary to effectively and meaningfully engage and understand how our food environments are experienced.
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