Approach and Data
I have always been interested in how people collectively navigate their social worlds in the context of uneven power relations as well as how power manifests and is contested. This curiosity pushed me in this study to investigate dialectically the perceptions and actions of many different activists and organizations. I use ethnography, case study, and historical comparative methods of analysis. Triangulating these methodological approaches helps me explain the relationships between the social struggles identified in this book and the processual idea and practice of food justice. While people know and can express their views on something like food justice, these thoughts do not emerge in a vacuum. They manifest into action in relation to the material conditions of social life.
Karl Marx’s famous dictum, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that people make history but not under conditions of their own choosing, is especially apt. Marx was interested in why the French revolution of 1848 took a dictatorial form when fifty years prior the first French revolution hinted that the country was bound for a more democratic and equal society. He arrived at answers through a dialectical historical materialist method. The method is based in the understanding that groups fight for their interests by navigating present conditions shaped by the past. Social conditions are interconnected materially and ideologically, but will inevitably change because of the human capacity to know this, which reinforces the perennial possibility for social change. As Frederick Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, “Dialectics . . . comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending.” The dialectical method suggests the processual nature of society, its openness to contestation, and the utopian horizon of better futures.
To operationalize this dialectical approach, I designed the study and plan for the book with key considerations around my case selection. First, the organizations have an explicit commitment to food and equity (e.g., economic, health, social, political). Given the increasing significance of equity concerns in the food movement, my organizations mirror a major universe of cases. Second, all my cases are enmeshed in distinct social problems — in this case, the prison industrial complex, immigration, and labor conditions. Third, the organizations have clear goals and a distinct population they serve, represent, or cooperatively struggle for social change with. Having such organizational structure afforded me a way to draw broader conclusions about organizational efficacy and location within a larger set of social conditions. Fourth, my cases offer a diverse racial and ethnic makeup to center voices often marginalized within the food movement and to compare them with more dominant voices. Fifth, the cases are all located in major metropolitan areas with sizable urban agriculture movements and close to agriculturally productive rural areas. Although California is distinct, it is the most populated state in the United States, with major metropolitan areas that contain path-blazing food activism and many kinds of food politics common elsewhere. Moreover, given the themes I cover in chapter 5, collective power, diversity, and solidarity, I am attentive to the value of cases reflecting the complexities of large and socially and economically diverse populations. Sixth, the cases speak to explicit forms of food politics. Given my focus on the dialectical development of food politics committed to food justice, my cases each help to unearth a range of power relations. Last, I focus on cases never researched in systematic detail. It is important to shed light on the operation and political context of groups who lack much public attention outside of their immediate community to learn more about the contours of contemporary food politics.
With these considerations in mind, I chose Planting Justice, San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project (San Diego Roots), and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 (UFCW 770) as my cases. I then split seven months of fieldwork roughly between the three organizations, each in a different city. In Oakland beginning in June 2012, I interned with Planting Justice, assisting the organization with administrative office duties, such as developing a database and internal personnel and programmatic evaluation materials, and installing edible landscapes at people’s homes. Additionally, because I was on the board of directors during fieldwork, I also attended board meetings and functions. A little more than two months later, I interned with San Diego Roots on its six-acre farm, Wild Willow Farm. I prepared compost; formed rows; planted seeds; managed the nursery; watered plants; pulled weeds; harvested crops; fed the chickens; prepared CSA baskets, teas, and herbal tinctures; and attended weekly sustainable farming workshops. For the last two and a half months, in Los Angeles, I interned with UFCW 770 in its Organizing Department. I assisted with administrative office duties such as developing maps and surveys; called strategic community partners to participate in various demonstrations; helped prepare for meetings with community activists and business owners; visited food processing, distribution, and grocery workplaces; and joined union-sponsored or union-supported protests. Then over a three-year period through 2015, I maintained informal communication with key informants within each organization and made occasional visits to learn about any changes.
During my time in the field, I was especially attentive to the hopes and pressures faced by each organization. Given that each organization is made up of people who hold perceptions that inform their behavior, I uncovered major similarities and differences by collecting in-depth semistructured interviews with staff, volunteers, participants, and important community allies and supporters. The research depended on an initial seventy interviews. I conducted sixty-four in person and six over the phone. The breakdown was twenty-five interviews with Planting Justice, twenty-six with San Diego Roots, and nineteen with UFCW 770. My interview sample included a cross section of each organization’s participants based on their roles and responsibilities. In the cases of Planting Justice and San Diego Roots, I interviewed over 90 percent of current active participants. In the case of UFCW 770, I primarily interviewed organizers, union representatives, shop stewards, and key union leaders. The interviews were conducted one time with each participant, ran between one and two hours, and were digitally recorded and then transcribed. I then completed a second intensive phase of interviewing in the summer of 2015 to learn more about the experiences of formerly incarcerated people working with Planting Justice. During this time, I conducted ten phone interviews, primarily with formerly incarcerated staff but also with key community partners involved in restorative justice work.
I was interested not only in organizational issues but also in how these organizations, as proxies, helped me detect structural conditions that shape their work and the social movements of which they are part. By considering what people think about conjunctures in the food system and elsewhere, I tracked the discursive and interpretive patterns people use to navigate their food politics. Conversely, by unpacking some of the historical and sociological conditions that inform the realm of political practices, I read these food politics against a broader set of social forces. This iterative process reveals the importance of reading activists’ views of the present against their practices as they relate to the structuring of race and class inequities. Disentangling these relationships helped me identify social contradictions, like the fact that the interpretation of the exploitation of immigrant labor within San Diego conditions views on volunteer labor practices at San Diego Roots. Tracing these dialectical relations helped me to determine possible ideological and strategic shifts — in this case, to eliminate ethnoracial and labor exploitation in agriculture.
To gain a complete sense of the experiences and perspectives that inform activism within each organization as well as how the lessons portend for the food politics of the food movement, I deliberately interviewed people from many different backgrounds. As a native Californian who has lived in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, I am very familiar with the geographic differences and demographic diversity of the state. It was important to me to deliberately try to reflect this diversity in my research. Except in the case of San Diego Roots, most of the people I spoke with were people of color. While I worked with UFCW 770, my interviewees were primarily Latinx and Asian, and when I worked with Planting Justice, my interviewees were mostly black and Latinx, and with Planting Justice there was also a sizable white minority. I did not collect deliberately much information on class, but education served as a rough proxy. Most of the people I interviewed had earned a college degree or completed some college. Except in the case of Planting Justice, I spoke with an almost even number of men and women. Given my interest in speaking with many formerly incarcerated men who were working for Planting Justice, men skewed the distribution in that case.
Throughout the research process and writing of this book, I also collected and analyzed digital and physical texts. These enrich the dialectical method and conjunctural analysis used in this book because they provide broader sociological explanations for how food justice represents a front for expanding the politics of social struggle. First, while working with each organization, I amassed internal documents, posters, leaflets, financial records, personnel information, promotional materials, and reports. These physical materials offer clues into how organizations perceive themselves and their work. They also provide important information on internal processes and the outcomes of various decision-making processes. Second, I collected digital materials on each organization. This includes YouTube videos, Facebook postings, Google Groups, listservs, and blogs. Some materials are organizational products, while others come from friends, critics, dispassionate observers, or other sources of social media. This leads to my third textual source, digital news media. All the issues and organizations in this study received different forms of news coverage. I first searched for these materials through various databases such as LexisNexis and Access World News to collect national and local newspaper coverage on each organization. I also used these databases to search for specific sectors within which each organization works. These searches included the relevant cities and the types of activism taking place. Fourth, I sought reports by nonprofits; foundations; policy institutes; and local, state, and federal agencies on matters of relevance to this study. These reports are essential as sources of information to cross-check statements made in interviews or in the field. Relatedly, I build on and synthesize the academic and activist work of writers who focus on the social movements I cover in the book. Bringing these works into conversation with my other texts and data offers yet another archival feedback into a dialectical narrative charting the expansive possibilities of food justice.
I undertake research not just to understand the world, but to change it. Paolo Freire suggests, “Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture.” Because solidarity aims to get at the root of the problem, this raises a series of questions. What does it mean to act in solidarity? What are the obligations scholars have toward the movements they work in and study? What is the difference between “speaking for” and “speaking with” the food movements we study? How do scholars make useful critiques without just being critical? How can we orient our scholarship to support policy changes that help favorably restructure the conditions under which food movements work?
My book offers one approach to answering these questions, perhaps even practicing food justice from the vantage of a professor who straddles the world of social movements. I found through this study that researching grassroots organizations placed me in a position where I might be viewed as an exploiter extracting “data” to surmise some “fact” or “finding.” My approach to dealing with this power dynamic was to engage reciprocally with the organizations that center my cases. Ethnographic methods put me into close and ongoing interaction with the protagonists of the research, so I felt the need to find concrete ways to act in solidarity. I remained flexible in the early stages of each case study to learn about the goals and needs that organizations and their social movement networks prioritized. Instead of having fully formed questions about particular aspects of how food politics were understood and practiced, I remained open to some of the questions organizations asked about their own activism. This sensitized me to their daily hopes and pressures. Additionally, I expressed my solidarity through the reciprocal act of sweat equity. Each organization put some of my skill sets to work to address its immediate needs. These organizations operated on thin budgets and faced an array of daunting problems. Knowing that researchers who fail to “pull their weight” can be a burden, I offered my labor in myriad ways and made sure to ask questions in interviews that facilitated a reflexive deepening of their work.
With this research of reciprocity in mind, I portray food politics in their unique, yet incomplete, conjunctures. I connect how people come to know and act in regard to food politically to new available avenues for the food movement to further food justice. The process of giving entails offering new lenses for social movements to view themselves and their social change targets. When I offer critiques, they are in the spirit of writing as but one part of the contestation between competing interests that drive the dialectical process. I share the perspective of the anarchist and political theorist Murray Bookchin, who proposed, “Only a dialectic that combines searching critique with social creativity can disassemble the best materials from our shattered world and bring them to the service of remaking a new one.” Racist, xenophobic, capitalist, and neoliberal ideologies help reproduce conjunctures that social movements confront in Oakland, San Diego, Los Angeles, and more broadly throughout the United States. I break down how these ideologies manifest materially as inequities and chronicle how this inspires reimagining food justice. My hope is that a critical engagement with the challenges and prospects of revolutionizing food politics to center food justice is generative of food movement mobilizations capable of advancing human flourishing.