The alternative agrifood movement is a broad-based social movement that is working to build more sustainable and socially just agriculture and food systems in the United States. The movement is gaining influence among policy-makers, both at the municipal and state levels through new institutional structures such as Food Policy Councils, and at the national level, in debate concerning U.S. agricultural policy. Alternative agrifood movement politics emphasize the advantages of localized or regionalized agrifood systems, yet the imaginaries of local places that form the foundation for these alternative visions remain understudied. This doctoral dissertation research project works with the leaders of alternative agrifood movement organizations in one state (Massachusetts) to answer the following questions: (1) How do alternative agrifood movement actors envision future agrifood systems?; (2) What spatial imaginaries are present in narratives of agrifood system change?; and (3) How are alternative agrifood movement ideals communicated to policy makers? In-depth, narrative interviews with organization leaders and documentary analysis of organization publications will be used to conduct a thematic analysis of the objectives and visions for change present within the movement, and will focus on the role played by imaginaries of local places in the formation of these political objectives. In addition, focus groups will be used to bring movement leaders together to produce scenarios for future agrifood system change. The findings will demonstrate whether and how individuals and groups of actors within the alternative agrifood movement draw on imaginaries of "local" places to develop visions for future agrifood system change, and the ways in which these visions are communicated to policy-makers. The investigators expect to find a wide variety of visions for the future of agrifood systems and anticipate that this research will generate an improved understanding of the dynamics of such place-based politics and their role in contemporary debates surrounding sustainability and justice in the agrifood system.

Drawn from geographic theories of place and place-based politics, political ecology, and narrative approaches to social movement theory, this research will build a place-based analysis of visions for agrifood system change with the alternative agrifood movement in Massachusetts. The focus on movement narratives draws attention to the shared generation of meaning that is used to develop and communicate political goals to the public and to policy-makers. Contemporary alternative agrifood movement narratives are overwhelmingly place-based, focusing on a vision of small-scale, rural agriculture that is accessible to consumers and integrated into communities. The analysis conducted for this research will examine the ways in which such place-based narratives are constructed, and the ways in which movement organizations work to translate these political visions of agrifood system change through policy reform at the state level. This doctoral dissertation research project also contributes to an emerging national research agenda that seeks to better understand visions for transformative change in agrifood systems, and by focusing on the connection of agrifood politics to constructions place, will provide new tools for dialogue between policy-makers and the alternative agrifood movement.

Project Report

Motivated by the need to develop a coordinated response to intersecting crises in the US food system, this project examined efforts to bring together efforts to combat food insecurity and to build sustainable agricultural systems in Massachusetts. In particular, the project focused on the emerging field of food systems planning and on the process of mapping areas of food insecurity. The project’s findings are presented in three sections. The first section focuses on the role played by visions for future food systems in building collaboration within the alternative food movement. The visions explored in the project research are long-term, "big-picture" accounts of what an ideal future food system would be. The analysis presented in the first section demonstrates that when the visions described by alternative food movement organization leaders are compared, particular themes are common across the movement. Considering visions in addition to practical, everyday goals is important since identifying shared political objectives often requires stepping-back to see the forest — the complexity of the food system as a whole — in addition to the trees. The importance of shared visions in building collaboration highlights the significance of network- or alliance-organizations whose specific goals are to build new cross-sector collaborations among food systems professionals. Many of the food systems planning initiatives reviewed in the second section emerged from such organizations, and the rising number of Food Policy Councils across the country is also indicative of this finding. This research indicates that in food systems work today, shared visions lead to collaborative, concrete actions. The second section focused on the emerging field of food systems planning, and examines the increasing interest in regions as the appropriate scale for food systems reform. Comparative analysis of regionalism expressed in the Massachusetts alternative food movement and in existing food systems planning documents reveals a largely "aspirational regionalism" which is linked to sustainable and equitable food systems but is poorly defined in food systems planning documents and is rarely developed beyond rhetorical status. The role of regions in food systems planning also reveals a challenge for the governance of a future regional food system that sits between the state and federal levels. The third section focuses on the ways that policy responses to food insecurity are limited by the methods used to map food access. Dominant approaches to "food desert" mapping focus on the absence of supermarkets and use this spatial analysis to recommend policy interventions to incentivize supermarket development in food insecure communities. However, many working in the community food security field in Massachusetts are concerned about a supermarket-oriented approach to addressing food insecurity, expressing preference for solutions that offer communities greater leadership and control. Research participants highlighted a series of omissions in the dominant approach to food desert mapping, including the absence of existing small grocery stores, and methodologies use to measure store proximity. Based on concerns raised by community food security practitioners, this section suggests a community-based approach to food access mapping; alternative approaches that can better capture the potential to develop community self-determination, ownership and control in developing food access solutions rather than relying solely on large corporate investment to provide access to affordable healthy food. Many within the alternative food movement are currently reaching out to policy-makers and campaigning for public policy that supports sustainable and equitable food system development, and the movement’s spatial politics structure these outreach efforts. This outreach is taking place at a variety of scales, from the municipal to the federal levels, and targets a variety of policy areas including public health, agriculture, transportation, food safety, economic development, environmental protection, and transitional assistance. Overall, the project has produced an in-depth analysis of alternative food movement politics in Massachusetts that highlights a period of rapid growth in the movement’s ambitions for food systems reform. This growth is made possible by movement actors’ commitment to developing holistic understandings of food systems, in which work to address public health, small farm viability, food access, and agricultural land preservation are understood to be connected and complementary. Developing this whole-systems perspective requires that food systems professionals step out of traditional silos that isolate different components of the food system; a process that is illustrated by the development of shared visions described in the dissertation. This shift within the movement also reflects the next challenge beyond the movement; of demonstrating the importance of an integrated approach to food systems policy among government agencies — a setting in which the silo mentality remains heavily entrenched. Identifying successful approaches to building integrated food systems policy will be central in coming years as more municipalities, counties and states integrate food systems with broader planning and public policy agenda, creating new opportunities for growth in the alternative food movement.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Daniel Hammel
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Clark University
United States
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