In the past decade, the local alternative food movement has been discussed as part of the solution to social problems, such as public health concerns about an obesity epidemic, environmental degradation, and economic stability. Yet, as this social movement has become more popular and visible, there has been criticism that activities, such as shopping at Farmers' Markets, belonging to food cooperatives, or participating in urban gardening are a luxury of middle and upper-class citizens who have the time, knowledge, and resources to be part of this movement. Disadvantaged citizens, such as the working poor, and racial/ethnic minorities, continue to have less access to quality food, and subsequently poorer health outcomes. Although there are common messages about how to best maintain one's health that are part of food system alternatives, how different citizens are encouraged to "seek health" varies. The goal of this research is to investigate whether and how alternative community food initiatives are used to address health inequalities, how these initiatives vary according to the social class, race, and gender of the targeted audience,and in turn, how these different populations engage with and/or seek to transform both the conventional and alternative food systems in their local communities. This research will investigate how different institutional spaces of alternative food activities (a food policy council, farmers' markets, and an urban garden) engage participants in different ways, how power is exercised, and where points of resistance lie. Broader Impact Results from this research stand to influence food policy at the local, state, or national level through federal agencies. They may help to improve the work of food-related non-profit organizations to more appropriately serve the needs of vulnerable populations, and they could have broader impacts on community betterment and empowerment.

Project Report

The doctoral dissertation research "Remedying Health Inequality or Body Policing?: The Class Politics of Urban Food System Alternatives" sought to understand how different groups of people "seek health" and govern their own bodies, and the parallel "policing" of others' bodies who are unwilling or unable to police their own. This can be seen visibly vis-à-vis the moral panic surrounding an American "obesity epidemic" in the past decade, and accompanying government, policy, and regulatory initiatives to combat what is viewed as a staggering public health problem. At the same time, there has been a broad interest and embracing of food system alternatives as a potential way to ameliorate inequalities around the production and consumption of food, and accompanying health inequalities. This research questioned whether or not a turn towards "civic agriculture" (Lyson 2004) represented a way for those without material or spatial access to "good food" to achieve healthy bodies. This qualitative research was based on over 2 years of participant observation in various facets of Rhode Island's local food movement - including volunteering at a number of farmers' markets, working on an urban farm and in a community garden, and being involved in community food councils and initiatives - and on 83 in-depth interviews with the following groups of actors who were involved in Rhode Island's local food efforts: 1) activists/non-profits/public interest groups, 2) hunger community, 3) university researchers, 4) agency/government actors, 3) farmers/agriculturalists/seafood/business owners, 5) chefs/nutritionists, and 6) community members. This research found that a "hierarchy of food needs" perspective (Satter 2007) is incomplete in understanding the myriad ways that different strata of people produce and consume food. Virtually all people regardless of socioeconomic status "seek health," yet the local food movement - despite striving to bridge inequalities - has largely become another alternative out of the reach (materially) from the majority of the American population. While there has been a plethora of non-governmental activism and efforts directed at bridging material and spatial divides to "good food," the underlying problem remains that there are inherent power differentials in the many attempts to get the disadvantaged in American society to lead healthier lives. Despite empirical examples of grassroots activity that positively impacts individuals and their communities, such micro-level efforts are not likely to ever be far-reaching enough to ameliorate durable structural inequalities. What results is a landscape fragmented with small pockets of optimistic activity, amidst a sea of stark social stratification continually exacerbated by post-industrial capitalism and neoliberal mentalities. Further, deeply rooted cultural, political, social, and economic values play a central role in creating and maintaining discourse, rhetoric, and ideology around food politics, health, and the body. In the United States, social inclusion and exclusion is worked out through moral policing, where notions about morality and health cohere with ideals of good citizenship, which ultimately rests on one's relationship to labor and economic capacities. Despite broad structural forces which continually reinforce social inequality and arguably prevent many from ever achieving their best health despite individual effort and alternative food activism, this research embraces an "imperfect politics" (Dupuis et al. 2011) whereby communities strive towards activism and change in a reflexive and recursive way. A plurality of approaches needs to and does exist, with a plethora of activity going on in different communities by way of "alternative" food that is not aware of nor concerned with labeling itself as "alternative." The main contributions of this work include 1) the combining of social theory with an empirical case to understand alternative food production and consumption as both a social movement/agent of change, and simultaneously a tool of governance; 2) using a historical approach to understand the cultural context of the case, which provides a deep and nuanced understanding; and 3) an in-depth study of the case of Rhode Island, and New England more broadly, and it's alternative foodscape. Findings from this dissertation are likely to be of interest to the fields of sociology of the body, food studies, human geography, anthropology of food/health/the body, environmental studies, political theory, and epidemiology/public health.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Saylor Breckenridge
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Brown University
United States
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