Food deserts and supermarket development programs in the United States

PhD Research Project – 2017 to 2020 – Michael Chrobok

BACKGROUND: Since 2004, government programs promoting grocery store construction have spread across the United States, a response to accessibility concerns raised by the ‘food desert’ discourse. While studies have already taken place examining the effects of new retail on diets, research on supermarket development programs remains limited in 3 ways:

  • First, accounts of policy creation have often treated events as happening in a “bubble”, neglecting the links that actually exist between places and policies.
  • Second, not much attention has been given to the decision-making processes that have led to the adoption of retail-based ‘solutions’ to accessibility issues – issues that have more complex structural causes.
  • Finally, little is known about how incentive programs actually operate compared to their stated goals, and what impacts these initiatives have beyond food consumption patterns.

CASE STUDY: My research addresses these knowledge gaps through a study of the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program in New York: the first municipal policy in the U.S. to use a combination of zoning and financial tools to promote supermarket development at an urban scale.

My thesis asks and seeks to answer 3 related questions:

  1. How is the development and functioning of FRESH linked to policy action occurring in other spaces and scales?
  2. Why was a retail-based solution chosen as the preferred policy ‘fix’ for food access issues in New York?
  3. How does the operation of FRESH compare to how the program, its aims, and outcomes have been spoken of by its champions? To what extent does this program work towards food ‘justice’?

METHODS: Document analysis of public policies, meeting minutes, and incentive applications will let me trace the history of supermarket development programs in the U.S., and will show how key players have spoken about these initiatives over time. Geographic information systems (GIS) analysis will allow me to map the distribution of development incentives and explore their connections with neighborhood need in New York. Interviews with actors involved in the design, administration, and outcomes of FRESH will shed more light on how the program is linked to other jurisdictions, and will reveal who has been helped or harmed by the development projects this program has encouraged.

CONTRIBUTIONS: Academically, my work will offer new insights into policy circulation and transformation, contributing to a “policy mobilities” literature that hasn’t really considered the recent explosion of interest in food-related government programming. My study will also be of interest to scholars of ‘revitalization’ as my thesis highlights the implications – for community members, small businesses, and civic leaders – of development incentives in neighborhoods experiencing economic decline and disinvestment. Beyond the university, my thesis will help American policymakers better understand the impact their programs are having on key stakeholders and could shape how initiatives like FRESH emerge or evolve. Finally, as programs promoting supermarket development remain rare in Canada despite local struggles with food insecurity, my work will provide officials here with valuable lessons to learn from.

CONTACT INFORMATION: For more information about this study, or to volunteer for an interview, please contact me by telephone at (929) 215-1323 or by email at


  • Alkon, A. H. (2013). Food justice: An overview. In K. Albala (Ed.), Routledge international handbook of food studies (pp. 295-305). New York: Routledge.
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  • Birch, K., & Siemiatycki, M. (2016). Neoliberalism and the geographies of marketization: The entangling of state and markets. Progress in Human Geography, 40 (2), 177-198.
  • Cummins, S., Flint, E., & Matthews, S. A. (2014). New neighbourhood grocery store increased awareness of food access but did not alter dietary habits or obesity. Health Affairs, 33 (2), 283-291.
  • Elbel, B., Mijanovich, T., Kiszko, K., Abrams, C., Cantor, J., & Dixon, L. B. (2017). The introduction of a supermarket via tax-credits in a low-income area: The influence on purchasing and consumption. American Journal of Health Promotion, 31 (1), 59-66.
  • Gottlieb, R., & Joshi, A. (2010). Food justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Infahsaeng, T. (2014). Inner-city grocery store development as community economic development: A case study of the New York City Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program (FRESH). Unpublished master’s thesis, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts.
  • Levkoe, C. Z., & Sheedy, A. (2017). A people-centred approach to food policy making: Lessons from Canada’s People’s Food Policy project. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 1-21.
  • McCann, E., & Ward, K. (2013). A multi-disciplinary approach to policy transfer research: Geographies, assemblages, mobilities and mutations. Policy Studies, 34 (1), 2-18.
  • Peck, J. (2011). Geographies of policy: From transfer diffusion to mobility-mutation. Progress in Human Geography, 35 (6), 773-797.
  • Shannon, J. (2013). Should we fix food deserts? The politics and practice of mapping food access. In A. Hayes-Conroy & J. Hayes-Conroy (Eds.), Doing nutrition differently (pp. 249-274). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  • Swyngedouw, E., Moulaert, F., & Rodriguez, A. (2004). Neoliberal urbanization in Europe: Large-scale urban development projects and the new urban policy. In N. Brenner & N. Theodore (Eds.), Spaces of neoliberalism: Urban restructuring in North America and Western Europe (pp. 195-229). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Temenos, C., & McCann, E. (2013). Geographies of policy mobilities. Geography Compass, 7 (5), 344-357.
  • Ulmer, V. M., Rathert, A. R., & Rose, D. (2012). Understanding policy enactment: The New Orleans Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 43 (3S2), S116-S122.
  • Usher, K. M. (2015). Valuing all knowledges through an expanded definition of access. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 5 (4), 109-114.

Local Food, Global People: Community Report

Over the 2016 growing season, interviews were held with immigrants growing food locally in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to learn more about their experiences. The following report summarizes the common experiences shared and main concerns raised by participants, as well as a series of recommendations that were offered to improve the food system as a whole. The report notes the many reasons that immigrants choose to grow, the importance of farm organizations/incubators in providing physical spaces and supportive communities essential to growing food, the challenges of running a farm business, racialization in the farm community, and the need for more government funding and support.

Read more by clicking the link below:

Local Food Global People Final Community Report 2017

Sam’s AAG 2017 and “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop Roundup

I just got back from attending the American Association of Geographers’ 2017 annual meeting in Boston, MA. The day before I also participated in the  “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop at the University of British Columbia. Both events went pretty well and I thought I’d try recapping some of the major points like I did last year, as I found it a helpful exercise for processing what I saw. Note that like last year, I’m summarizing here from memory and incomplete notes, so if I misrepresent anyone’s research feel free to get in touch at s… and tell me!

Doing Critical Geography I and II

Our research team FEAST organized a paper session and a panel on ‘doing critical geography’ that was designed to invite everyone to reflect on challenges they faced translating critical geographic theory into method. This was a common challenge we graduate students faced and ended up talking about a lot at our weekly team meetings. The paper session saw a nice variety of challenges and approaches, with Jillian providing some great examples of how she tried to incorporate three methodological principles into her work: 1) mutual benefit, 2) restructuring power relations through research and 3) challenging the idea of neutrality.

I spoke about two major methodological challenges I faced (participants having different recollections of past events and my own adopting of the ‘program speak’ of planners and nonprofit staff I was speaking to) and how I tried to view these as a form of data and indicative of my positionality rather than the ‘shortcoming’ they might be viewed as by a positivist paradigm.

Paul-Antoine Cardin gave us an interesting look at his role in the Tshishipiminu Partnership of the Mashteuiatsh reserve (of the Montagnais du Lac St-Jean Innu band) and Laval University, which is working on collaborative Community Impact Assessment of hydroelectric and natural resource projects in the area. He argued that their process of “engaged acclimatization” was a form of slow and embedded scholarship that saw mutual benefit for both sides of the partnership and worked towards decolonizing knowledges.

Désirée Rochat and Leslie Touré Kapo presented some collaborative work based on a debate they are having regarding the role of activist-scholars in researching popular education, racialization, and youth in the global city. They argued that the majority of research on racialized urban youth ignore complexity in favor of fitting research findings into established stereotypes. Instead they argue that activist-research needs to incorporate a greater focus on 1) orality, finding ways to communicate beyond written text, 2) avoiding exploitative partnerships that shift the burden of research onto participants, and 3) a focus on conflict and youths’ own theorizing about their everyday experiences over time to avoid unhelpful generalizations.

In the panel session we had some very grounded discussions of scholar-activism and positionality on researching nonprofits, social justice, and food. Participating were FEAST’s own Madelaine Cahuas and Lauren Kepkiewicz in addition to Naya Armendarez Jones, Kristin Reynolds, and Sarah Nelson. While each panelist (and audience member!) had different approaches, one takeaway for me was the need to breakdown expert/non-expert or academic/activist binaries through different forms of knowledge production and dissemination, characterized by e.g. Madelaine’s use of testimonio, Lauren’s member-checking, or Naya’s use of the university system to benefit activists through e.g. distributing money from grants.

Overall I thought the sessions went well; we’ll be meeting shortly to discuss potential venues for publishing some of this work.

“The Whiteness of Theory” – Ananya Roy

For the rest of the post I’ll just be summarizing and commenting on a few of the talks I found most interesting this year. First up is Ananya Roy’s “The Whiteness of Theory” from the session 2444 Who’s Afraid of Racial Geographies? Variations on Anti-racist Critique. Fraser started her talk by referring to Dawson’s (2016) critique of Nancy Fraser’s (2014) “expanded conception of capitalism.” Fraser argues that capitalism requires patriarchy for its reproduction, but as Dawson points out, she fails to incorporate an analysis of racism in the reproduction of capitalism.  Roy uses this as a prominent example of the failure of “capital T” Theory (i.e. formal architectonic academic theory) to account for race. She proposes connecting the black radical tradition and postcolonial theory to form a global theory of racial capitalism. While she agrees in principle with Fraser that any critical theory requires a theory of capitalism and its reproduction, she argues that starting from theories of capitalism that center the experience of people of color (she points to Du Bois, Robinson, and Fanon, among others) will work against the color blindness of much critical theory within geography.

I found the talk interesting for two main reasons. First, I find it interesting that Roy is pretty explicitly waging this critique within geography. She mentioned Laura Pulido’s (2002) essay “Reflections on a white discipline” that details her (and others’) need to engage less with geography and more with ethnic studies due to the multiple forms of intellectual and personal ignorance of race and racism she encountered in the discipline. While Pulido has maintained a relationship with geography, it seems to me she works more selectively in geography today due to the tiring work of having to continually explain or bring up race in the discipline. The (what seems to me) increasing discussion around race and postcolonial theory in geography and the path forward suggested here by Roy gives me hope that a generational shift might be occurring. However, as many have pointed out, the institutional structures maintaining the “unbearable whiteness” of geography persist and it will take continued sustained and coordinated action – especially through antiracist work on the part of white people – to make change (Derickson, 2016).

Second, her talk fit in well with the sessions I was attending this year. It seems lots of geographers are (re)turning to Du Bois’ (1935) Black Reconstruction in the Trump Era. This work was engaged with in at least five of the talks I saw this year as geographers continue to ask the perennial question of how to work towards liberation under racial capitalism and democracy. Of course, there are no easy answers, but this passage from Black Reconstruction chosen by Lisa Lowe in her discussion of how the British Empire imported Chinese bonded labor to the Caribbean to break/avoid slave revolts presents an inspiring vision of global solidarity:

“It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power.

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny. [. . .]

Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts. [. . .] The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” (1935, p. 15–16)


Planetary urbanization and comparative urbanism

For this last section of the post I want to reflect a bit on the comparative urbanism, postcolonial theory, and planetary urbanization debates in urban studies/geography. While this is of course a long-standing and on-going debate, I engaged with it a bit more than usual this year with a conference before the AAG and at several sessions at the conference.

The discussion occurring at the “Doing Urban Studies Differently” workshop at UBC was part of a continuing conversation happening in urban studies around comparative urbanism, postcolonial theory, and planetary urbanization, arguably the central debate in the field today. Attending the workshop were Jennifer Robinson from UCL, Eric Sheppard and Helga Leitner from UCLA, Jamie Peck from UBC, and an assortment of graduate students. There was a panel with faculty, a panel with graduate students discussing their research, and break-out sessions where we discussed some empirically-focused papers. Thanks to UBC Geography graduate students for organizing the event.

I thought the workshop went well, at least leading to some productive discussion about modes of comparison and more detailed discussion of the empirical case studies. In reading and discussing I found Robinson (2016a, b) the most useful statement of her positions. The tables in both pieces summarizing comparative tactics or schemas are useful for thinking through the possibilities of comparing cities or processes of urbanization. I wish I had seen them when considering my comparative method for my Master’s!

However, the central point I found lacking in the discussion at the workshop (and at the conference as I detail below) was the question: what is theory for? While Leitner and Sheppard made reference to ethico-political commitments in motivating their theorizing, to me praxis is central here. To get a bit cheesy I’d return (surprise, surprise) to Marx’s Thesis 11: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Theory should be evaluated based on how it helps you understand the world in order to change it. The follow-up here is that in order to evaluate theories you have to have some way of comparing or evaluating them, i.e. you have to think about explanation. I don’t mean that you have to revert to a positivist scientific idea of an empirical truth, but you do have to have some standards for assessing the relative merit of theories for understanding the world. This was a point of agreement at the AAG session I’ll talk about later: if your theory can explain the phenomena you are interested in, that’s great. It is conceivable that urban studies will have different competing theories, many of which offer compelling explanations.

The conversation continued in a different venue at the AAG. Christian Schmid (one of the primary theorists of planetary urbanization along with Neil Brenner) organized six sessions on the topic. I only attended the final one (3213 Planetary Urbanization 6: Critical Appropriations), where they invited a few of their interlocutors to come and present. Jennifer Robinson was there, along with architecture professor Milica Topalovic and urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone. Robinson urged the planetary urbanization team to again consider a more revisable and modest mode of theorizing, suggesting that the empirical issues they were wrestling over in the previous sessions should be taken as proof that the particular and the universal will always be held in tension. Topalovic said she found the ideas of planetary urbanization compelling, but has been unable to articulate them with architectural practice. I wish she’d said something more concrete about her struggles to do so.

I found Simone’s talk perhaps the most interesting of all the planetary urbanization stream talks at the AAG. He was the discussant, so no paper title, but it was something like, “Extended/Extensive, Intensive/Compression.” I’d never seen him speak before; he has a very distinctive spoken word style of delivery. He distinguished himself from the other talks by engaging directly with some of Lefebvre’s ideas from planetary urbanization theory, in his case the ideas of extended and concentrated urbanization (see Brenner, 2013). These ideas were originally presented in a materialist political economy mode of the expansion of logistical and infrastructural networks (extension) and the concentration and accumulation of capital (concentration). Simone, however, playfully adopted the same ideas to think about multiple coexisting and overlapping temporalities, modes of inhabitation, global connections, etc. He thinks from Jakarta to ask Brenner, Schmid, and collaborators, under contemporary processes of urbanization, “what is concentrated? What is extended?” He finds that it is not only material political economic relations, but a multitude of forces. He questioned their “romance with integration” and the need to find explanation in the accrual of details. I’m not sure their projects are ultimately fully at odds, but I certainly found his presentation (and its style) thought-provoking.

Starting directly after that session (likely not a coincidence) were four sessions titled “Critical urban theory in the ‘urban age’: Voices from another planet” (3449, 3459, 3649, 4249) organized by Natalie Oswin from McGill University and Geraldine Pratt from UBC. I went to the first three sessions and overall I thought there were many great papers. I was a bit disappointed that many of the papers didn’t directly engage with the ideas of planetary urbanization (like Simone did above), but also recognize that this was explicitly theorizing “from another planet” (a feminist, postcolonial, and queer one) and that there is a certain politics to simply presenting another way of doing things rather than directly engaging. There has also already been a lot of that direct engagement at past AAGs and in journal articles.

I’ll just talk briefly about one of the papers from this track, “Splanetary Urbanization” by Cindi Katz, mainly because it offered the most direct critique of planetary urbanization – and it has a great title. Katz is playing on the idea of “man-splaining” here and that summarizes the central critique she’s making here: that planetary urbanization is very much a “theory boys” project. She supports efforts to move away from technocratic empiricism in urban studies, but finds their mode of theorizing masculinist. She offers two critiques:

  1. Brenner and Schmid’s theory evacuates social difference and agency. They pay very little attention to social reproduction, difference, and subjectivity. A key critique for me is that she points out that while they have done much to translate and understand Lefebvre’s work on the production of space, they do not include his work on everyday life. Katz therefore concludes they focus too much on one side of the dialectic of Lefebvre’s work.
  2. In their theory there is no outside to the urban, which again has the effect of removing agency and leading to accounts of social activity devoid of people or a sense of political possibility. A key point for me that she made here is that social practices are analytically separable from urbanization processes. She instead continues to advocate for a minor theory approach, making more revisable, relational, fluid, modest, and populated theory claims.

Katz illustrated thes points through two examples. First, she discussed her ongoing collaboration with Gwendolyn Warren, who was the young community researcher involved in Bill Bunge’s Fitzgerald project in Detroit in the 1960s. By working with Warren, she is uncovering the hidden history of the project, in which Warren was largely absent (erased?). She views this as a way of minor theorizing from another planet by drawing connections across time and space, gesturing towards structural theory, but always peopling the account and dwelling in subjectivities and interpersonal relations.

Her second example was the map Riot! from Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro’s (2016) Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. This map also draws speculative connections across space and time, for example by showing that the Fugitive Slave Riot of 1826 occurred just blocks away from 2011’s Occupy Wall Street.

Overall I thought Katz did a great job identifying the masculinist presentation of planetary urbanization theory. However, I’m personally not ready to give up fully on the idea of “capital T” theory. I still see value in being able to make generalizable, large-scale conjectures about how the world is and how it is changing. I think one needs to have some idea of that in mind to inform one’s research and politics. How else can one theorize social structures and systems like capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc.? I suppose I need to do more work to think about how to both offer compelling explanatory theories that are politically helpful while avoiding masculinist cultures of theorizing. I will turn to Katz’s (1995, 1996) earlier work on “minor theory” and the other oft-discussed approach at the workshop and conference: conjunctural or relational comparison approaches (Hart, 2016; Peck, 2016, 2017).


Brenner, N. (2013). Theses on Urbanization. Public Culture, 25(1), 85–

Dawson, M. C. (2016). Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order. Critical Historical Studies, 3(1), 143–

Derickson, K. D. (2016). Urban geography II: Urban geography in the Age of Ferguson. Progress in Human

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction in America: an essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and

Fraser, N. (2014). Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism. New Left Review, 86, 55–

Hart, G. (2016). Relational comparison revisited: Marxist postcolonial geographies in practice. Progress in Human

Katz, C. (1995). Major/Minor: Theory, Nature, and Politics. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 85(1), 164–

Katz, C. (1996). Towards Minor Theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(4), 487–

Peck, J. (2016). Transatlantic city, part 1: Conjunctural urbanism. Urban

Peck, Jamie. (2017). Transatlantic city, part 2: Late entrepreneurialism. Urban Studies, 54(2), 327–

Pulido, L. (2002). Reflections on a White Discipline. The Professional Geographer, 54(1), 42–49.

Robinson, J. (2016a). Comparative Urbanism: New Geographies and Cultures of Theorizing the Urban. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(1), 187–199.

Robinson, J. (2016b). Thinking cities through elsewhere: Comparative tactics for a more global urban studies. Progress in Human Geography, 40(1), 3–29.

Solnit, R., & Jelly-Schapiro, J. (2016). Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

My Summer Working with the FEAST Group-in 250 Words or Less

Though I’m pretty sure I went over.

What an honour it is to briefly detail my time working as a research assistant! I am positively bubbling with joy at having made a mark with this collaborative research as well as weighted down by sorrow at the realization that summer has ended (it’s in fact winter at the moment I’m writing this) along with my time working with FEAST. In any case, let me begin!

Let’s talk about my summer working with the FEAST group~


I was blessed to spend my summer doing quite a lot of different things. I spent a lot of hours at work, eating, hanging with friends, eating, going to church, and eating my way out of my former pants size…did I mention eating? Honestly, it could and should be said that working for the Food Equity and Activism Study Team (FEAST) this past summer as their very first research assistant represented one of the most productive ways I spend my time. As a die-hard food lover, I am grateful to have been able to study food issues through this RA-ship, and am thankful to God for the opportunity to do so.

To say that this RAship fed my interests would be an understatement. I’m exceedingly glad to have spent a little under four months with my nose buried in writings about Indigenous food systems, recipes and dish preparation. I’m still revelling over thoughts of frybread (see Danovich 2015)!

My academic adventures this summer did not only cover topics of food. I also explored, reviewed, and catalogued issues of education, sovereignty, territory, land rights and more. Further, I read about disparities in health, politics, and economics, including inequitable pricing of commodities. I was distressed to learn of Indigenous histories in residential schools that have continuing effects today that contribute to ongoing problems and inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Learning about the Canadian government as well as other settler governments’ treatment and interactions with different groups of Indigenous peoples really opened my eyes to the damage governing powers in modern times are able to wreak and subsequently “justify” and “rationalize”. Even after working on this study, I remain unsure how settler governments and communities, and even myself now more conscious of these issues, can begin to address the violence Indigenous peoples have faced and continue to face. But I know that I am glad for this FEAST group, which represents a positive step in a more informed and conscious direction.

Ever since I left the city of Toronto at the end of my 4th year in my undergraduate career, I hoped to receive the opportunity to work as a research assistant. And so to see this desire realized places me over the moon and beyond the stars. I’m still attempting to process the skills I was able to develop running through tasks, including first-hand experience with the University’s prestigious archive system.

I have officially completed my contracted work with the FEAST group but my hope is to continue the research I began this past summer. It’s been a pleasure to work with a group as heavily invested in its work as its members. I’m looking very forward to seeing the future impact FEAST may bring about.

And so I say goodbye, but hopefully this will not be the last you hear from me!

Yours truly,

Sara TurnerTurner

Ps: Please check out some of my favourite links!


AAG 2017 CFP: ‘Doing’ Critical Human Geography Research? Processes, Practices, Challenges, and Possibilities

CFP: ‘Doing’ Critical Human Geography Research? Processes, Practices, Challenges, and Possibilities

Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting
Boston, MA — April 5-9, 2017

What do daily engagements with research look like for critical geographers? How do researchers connect critical methodological frameworks with the methods they use without reproducing dominant subjectivities? Taking guidance from woman of colour scholars (e.g., Ali, 2013; Nagar, 2013) as well as anti-colonial and decolonizing methodologies (e.g., Battiste 2008; Kovach 2009; Smith 1999; Wilson 2008), we wish to expand the conversation about how everyday methodologies in geography work to challenge power dynamics shaped by white supremacy, patriarchy, neo-liberalism, and colonialism.

While critical geographers have articulated a variety of epistemological and methodological commitments (see, for example, Cloke et al., 2004; Gomez & Jones, 2010; Moss 2002; Tickell et al., 2007), figuring out how to put these commitments into practice in ways that challenge existing power relations is often unclear, as critical geographers rarely describe their methods or collaboration processes in detail, and because “geography departments continue to reflect a pervasive persistence of racialized and gendered inequities in the workplace” (Mahtani 2004, 91). The accounts that do exist tend to gloss over challenges and (im)possibilities along the way, particularly in relation to the ways that geographical methodologies often reproduce (white) academics as ‘those who know.’ In this context we are particularly interested in working through the ways that critical methodologies such as self-reflexivity, participatory action-based methodologies, and community-based research can challenge geographers to understand and do new types of research.

Within two consecutive sessions, we seek to increase the transparency of critical geography research by providing space to discuss the nitty-gritty of the process, practices, challenges, and possibilities that characterize this research. In the first paper session, presenters are invited to focus on the methodologies they use in their work, focusing on how critical scholarship influences their everyday concrete methods and research relationships. The goal here is to dig in and describe the actual, real-life processes and practices used to carry out critical geographical research. Potential topics include:

– Examples of difficulties in the field, giving space to scholars to reflect on challenges that are often smoothed out or entirely removed in final written work.
– Sharing frustrations around methods, with the goal of thinking about the (im)possibilities of “critical” academic research.
– Discussing how designing and using methods might change researchers’ understanding of theory (what we know), methods (how we come to know), and how these relate to each other

The second session will be organized as a panel discussion, inspired by “kitchen table reflexivity” (Kohl & McCutcheon, 2014), offering a space for researchers to reflect on the relationships between researchers’ positionality and their research, research methods, and the communities with whom they work. Participants will be posed a series of questions to reflect on, such as:
– How do you negotiate positionality in your work, and how has this changed over time?
– (How) can we disrupt the reproduction of power structures and dominant subjectivities through academic research?
– What does participating in knowledge production processes that speak to/with/through communities mean to you, and (how) do you do it?

Both sessions will involve a mix of senior and junior scholars working on a variety of empirical topics, and will provide plenty of time for question and answer and group discussion. Our hope is to use the papers and discussions as the basis for a book or special issue.

If you are interested in participating in either the paper session or the panel, please contact Sarah Wakefield at before October 25, 2016.


Ali, R. (2015). Rethinking Representation: Negotiating Positionality, Power and Space in the Field. Gender, Place & Culture 22(6), 783–800.

Battiste, M. (2008). Research ethics for protecting Indigenous knowledge and heritage: Institutional and researcher responsibilities. Handbook of critical and Indigenous methodologies, 497-510.

Berg, L. D. (2010). Critical human geography. In B. Warf (Ed.), Encyclopedia of geography (pp. 616–621). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Cloke, P. J., Cook, I., Crang, P., Goodwin, M., Painter, J., & Philo, C. (2004). Practising human geography. London, UK; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

England, Kim VL. “Getting Personal: Reflexivity, Positionality, and Feminist Research.” The Professional Geographer 46, no. 1 (1994): 80–89.

Gomez, B., & Jones, J. P. (Eds.). (2010). Research methods in geography: a critical introduction. Chichester, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kohl, E., & McCutcheon, P. (2015). Kitchen table reflexivity: negotiating positionality through everyday talk. Gender, Place & Culture, 22(6), 747–763.

Kovach, M. (2009). Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mahtani, M. (2004). Mapping race and gender in the academy: The experiences of women of colour faculty and graduate students in Britain, the US and Canada. Journal of Geography in Higher Education. 28(1), 91-99.

Moss, P. (Ed.). (2002). Feminist geography in practice: research and methods. Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Nagar, Richa and Susan Geiger. 2007. Reflexivity and Positionality in Feminist Fieldwork Revisited. In eds. Adam Tickell, Eric Sheppard, Jamie Peck and Trevor Barnes, Politics and Practice in Economic Geography. London: Sage, pp. 267-278.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. New York: Zed books.

Tickell, A., Sheppard, E., Peck, J. A., & Barnes, T. J. (Eds.). (2007). Politics and Practice in Economic Geography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Toward Anti-Colonial Food Policy in Canada? A Reflection on the People’s Food Policy Project

This is the first blog post in a series of reflections about our research team’s experiences at the Canadian Association of Food Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, June 2016.

By Lauren Kepkiewicz and Sarah Rotz

From the leadership of the late Cathleen Kneen (who will always be a role model for us) to Food Secure Canada’s (FSC) hearty Screen shot 2011-04-19 at 3_27_37 PMendorsement of the People’s Food Policy Project (Kneen, 2011) and all of their work bringing together grassroots groups from across Canada, we have long been inspired by the work of FSC. We have also been encouraged by their work with the Indigenous Circle based on the “First Principles Protocol for Building Cross-Cultural Relationships” (2010) which looks “to Indigenous people for guidance” and aims to “work in partnership in changing destructive relationships” while building shared, caring and respectful relationships between each other and Mother Earth.

We went back to this document along with the People’s Food Policy after a lunch roundtable discussion co-organized with FSC about building a national food policy at the most recent CAFS conference in Toronto (2016). During the roundtable question period, an audience member brought up the need to consider how the 3 pillar approach to a food policy might be rooted in a colonial framework that fragments different parts of the food system. This was followed by other comments about the need to “include”, “give voice to” and “involve” Indigenous peoples in developing this national food policy. As the conversation wrapped up, one of the panellists asked, “how can we use conflict as a tool in process?” while another asked, “what are the conversations we want to have as Canadians across food?”, pointing to the opportunities the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offers to talk about Indigenous food sovereignty while linking it with other movements.

We would like to highlight the ways that these opening and closing comments speak to how we settlers might move forward – for example, by emphasizing the importance of process, of conflict/discomfort, and of recognizing how non-Indigenous frameworks are often rooted in colonial narratives. We also want to consider the ways in which the conversations in between these opening and ending comments make visible some of the tensions within Indigenous-settler relations (i.e. calls to include, give voice, and involve).


First, let us consider the language of inclusion. Anti-colonial and anti-racist scholars and activists have shown that the language of inclusion must be used with caution (e.g. Jodi Byrd, Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Bonita Lawrence, and Lee Maracle, to name a few). On one hand, this language involves welcoming and working together. On the other hand, it is important to consider the ways that dominant groups, such as the ones that the two of us are apart of (white, settler, able-bodied, etc.), often use “inclusion” to call for the participation of nondominant groups, without engaging with the ways that this participation might require transforming underlying projects themselves. From our perspective, food justice work isn’t about including those who are marginalized in nation state related projects spearheaded by primarily white settler people, but rather, engaging in ways that support the work and resistance already happening within these communities. Moreover, food justice is about working within our own communities to understand how everyday actions make us complicit in—and help reproduce—the structures and institutions that marginalize certain communities in the first place.

More specifically, settler people such as ourselves need to consider the ways that inclusion has continually been used to coopt Indigenous peoples into the Canadian colonial project. For example, Lee Maracle explains that “Constitutional inclusion [of Indigenous peoples] has only served to maintain the colonial history and practice of dismantling Indigenous national governments by sanctioning colonial rule” (2003, 310). Jodi Byrd further explains that “As indigenous scholars have argued, inclusion into the multicultural cosmopole, built on top of indigenous lands, does not solve colonialism: that inclusion is the very site of the colonization that feeds U.S. empire” (2011, 10).

Giving Voice

Second, we want to address the common phrase of “giving voice” to marginalized groups. For us, this phrase and action fails to recognize the obvious truth that marginalized communities have long had their own voices and have continually articulated the most important and complex understandings of oppression. It also fails to recognize that dominant groups are often the root of the problem: that it is their/our ears who have refused (or are unable) to listen due to their/our positionality within the structure of settler colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy. “Giving voice” suggests that dominant groups are the ones with the power to produce liberatory politics, rather than focusing on the ways that marginalized communities continue to struggle for their own liberation (regardless of the fact that the ears of dominant groups remain plugged). In this context, we suggest discarding the move to “give voice” and instead suggest the possibilities of breaking down structures that deafen ears in the first place and taking action guided by the struggles and voices of marginalized communities.


Third, we want to tease apart some of the tensions around settler calls to involve Indigenous peoples in developing governmental policies, such as a national food policy. In one sense, yes, as settlers it would be ideal to develop policy in collaboration with Indigenous nations. However, when settlers ask for (and increasingly expect) this kind of involvement, we need to be clear about the context and relation within which we are asking for Indigenous involvement. The Canadian government’s relation to Indigenous nations continues to be one of settler colonialism. This relationship is based in the logic of Indigenous elimination: settler colonialism “destroys to replace” (Wolfe, 2006). Indeed, settler colonial logics allow settlers to feel as though they have rightful claim over land and resources that are not theirs. Within this context, it is crucial to consider what it means to ask for Indigenous involvement in the development of government policies and strategies. For settlers, inclusion/involvement might feel like a step toward reconciliation. However, are we actually giving up power if we enter into the development process with pre-formed frameworks, scales, and limits in place? Additionally, how might these pre-formed frameworks, scales, and limits impact Indigenous work toward a decolonization that involves the repatriation of Indigenous land and ways of life?

Regarding Indigenous involvement in national food policy development, we think it is essential to continually ask: a national strategy for what and for whom? It is so often assumed that these kinds of policies address everyone’s needs, when in reality, that would be impossible without, for instance, demanding equal rights and citizenship for migrant food workers and repatriating lands to Indigenous peoples: demands that may feel indeterminate and uncomfortable for many white settlers.

Ways Forward?

So what does this mean for those of us interested in developing a national food policy while working within current structures? With this blog post, we advocate for beginning with the PFPP and First Principles Protocol in developing a national food policy strategy. No doubt these documents will change, as they are living documents, but we believe they provide an important starting place, particularly to continue relationships and conversations with Indigenous communities. We echo Indigenous activists and academics who emphasize the ways that process is vital. We also think it necessary to ask questions like: How do we work through this process in a way that respects nation-to-nation relationships between Indigenous and settler peoples on this land? And perhaps more uncomfortably, how do settlers continue to strive for good relationships, especially when decolonization becomes, as Tuck and Yang describe (2012), incommensurable with settler processes and objectives, and requires white settlers to cede power, land or privilege?

In thinking through these questions, we return to the First Principles Protocol and the People’s Food Policy Project (particularly policy discussion paper one on Indigenous food sovereignty), which offer a number of useful tenets. Specifically, the First Principles Protocol commits to engaging in ‘activities and policy creation that is not ‘about’ Indigenous peoples’ food systems but learns from and is informed by the experiences and expertise gained through a multi-millennia of practice.’ For us, this means that food work moving forward should be premised on the actions and resistance of Indigenous nations, and directed by their visions of liberation and decolonization. This might mean a policy that integrates both settler and Indigenous nations, but not necessarily; alternatively, it may mean creating a “national” policy for Canada that works together but separate from Indigenous nations and their frameworks for food sovereignty. The key point is moving forward in ways that respect Indigenous autonomy and nation-to-nation relationships.

As the People’s Food Policy Project stresses, Indigenous peoples speak for themselves, an assertion that applies to all aspects of the discussion. Also, the addition of a 7th pillar of food sovereignty – food is sacred – can guide our work through its emphasis on the ways that “food, water, soil, and air are not viewed as “resources” but as sources of life itself” (PFPP, 9). The priority recommendations in the PFPP (11-12) include that we “return to the original nation-to-nation agreements” and “heal and rebuild (reconcile) contemporary relationships.” To advance these recommendations, settler peoples have a particular responsibility to “deepen our understanding and work towards respectful relationships”—as identified in the First Principles Protocol.

These documents together provide space to consider how these conversations have developed, and offer a valuable framework for moving forward. The more difficult matter concerns how we, as non-Indigenous to this land, resist against the structures of settler colonialism that we all live within and that condition us in various (and often deceiving) ways. That is not to say that this conditioning is inevitable, but rather that as settlers we have a responsibility to have uncomfortable conversations and consider uncomfortable options, and further, to remain reflexive about how deeply privilege can permeate within us. Our hope is that through these personal and collective actions, settlers can move (and often stumble, buts that’s okay!) towards spaces that not only look and sound like, but embody, for Indigenous nations and peoples especially, solidarity, respect and resistance.



Byrd, Jodi. 2011. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

First Principles Protocol for Building Cross-cultural Relationships. 2010. Indigenous Circle of the People’s Food Policy Project.  Retrieved from:

Maracle, Lee. 2003. The Operation was Successful, But the Patient Died. In: Ardith Walkmen and Haile Bruce (eds.) Box of Treasures of Empty Box?: Twenty Years of Section 35. Penticton, BC: Theytus Books Ltd. 308-314

People’s Food Policy Project. 2011. Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada. Montreal, QC: Food Secure Canada. Retrieved from:

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society 1 (1): 1–40.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8 (4): 387–409. doi:10.1080/14623520601056240.


Reflections on Citizenship, Latin American Identities and Decolonization

madelaine c. cahuas, PhD

Over the course of my research project this past year I’ve encountered numerous, engaging and at times difficult discussions on identity, race and decolonization across Latin American community organizing spaces. I hear youth asking, who are we? What do we call ourselves? What does it mean to be Black, Indigenous and Latin American in this place? This place, that is Toronto and settler colonial Canada. This kind of questioning was especially seen in the debates surrounding Bill 28 – An Act to proclaim the month of October as Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) in Ontario – passed last spring of 2015. In my project, I show how the kinds of discourses mobilized around this cultural celebration provide a telling example of how racialized migrant communities can reinforce and disrupt colonial relationships through particular citizenship and identity-building practices.

Sunera Thobani (2007) argues that in the context of a white settler state like…

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Local Food Production in Canada’s First National Urban Park

We all know that there is a lot of pressure on graduate researchers to produce work that is authentic and unique. While this pressure can be stressful and overwhelming, it is a great opportunity to grow as a researcher and a writer – something we often fail to embrace in the moment. With this pressure in mind, when I started looking into my research project, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to articulate my contribution in an informative and productive manner. I have spent my entire life in Scarborough, Ontario so when I heard about the Rouge National Urban Park initiative it piqued my interest. An important focus of this initiative is to provide a sustainable and healthy community through locally based food production (RNUP Management Plan, 2014). According to the Rouge National Urban Park management plan, the national urban park status will allow park visitors to reconnect with farms and farmers while providing farmers with the opportunities to showcase new ways of farming that are effective and rewarding for the community (2014). This initiative is a first for Canada and the park is expected to be among the biggest national urban parks in Canada and the United States.

While this is a great opportunity for Canada – especially for cities like Toronto, Markham and Pickering – there are several external factors associated with an initiative of such magnitude. A lot of my research looks at community participation, environmental governance and power dynamics in the creation of Canada’s first national urban park. The purpose here has been to investigate if and how the diversity of local communities is being included in the development of the park, how “relevant communities” are defined and incorporated into park planning processes; and to explore the impacts of the park on these communities, particularly in relation to the stated goals of the park (e.g. local food production and the distribution of food to low income neighbourhoods).

As I analyzed the management plan to see how the proposed land expansion will benefit the community, it became evident that the language in which the objectives are outlined is vague and unclear. While it discusses the potential for a sustainable and healthy community through locally based food production, it does not provide the contextual information that is needed to understand the proposed objectives. As of now it fails to mention if there are current farming practices that are ecologically sustainable, what kind of diversity currently exists, leasing concerns for tenant farmers, information on current stewardship and how this park is expected to improve farm infrastructure and productivity for surrounding communities. Several environmental organizations have also argued that the type of language used throughout this management plan, along with the vague descriptions of how community members have been included throughout the process, make it difficult to appreciate and/or support such a plan.

It has been an extraordinary experience to do interviews and attend events geared towards this initiative. While the writing process can be overwhelming at times, it has been remarkable and motivating to hear how others feel about this project. The Rouge National Urban Park presents both challenges and opportunities for the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) as issues of inclusion, exclusion and sustainable development remain at the forefront. Keep a look out for important research findings and more on productive conversations I’ve had with local farmers and community members in the GTA!



Fish, R., Seymour, S., & Watkins, C. (2006). Sustainable Farmland Management as Political and Cultural Discourse. The Geographic Journal, 172(3), 183-189.

Macaraig, M. (2011). Nature’s Keepers: Civil society actors and the neoliberalisation of conservation in the Rouge Park. Local Environment, 16(4), 357-374.

Parks Canada. (2014) Rouge National Urban Park Management Plan. Retrieved from…/rouge/~/…/rouge/…/Rouge_Plan_Draft_EN.ashx

Pond, D. (2009). Ontario’s Greenbelt: Growth Management, Farmland Protection, and Regime Change in Southern Ontario. Canadian Public Policy, 35(4), 413-432.

Beyond Street Meat?

Hot Dog Cart

The official motto of Toronto (2015) is “diversity our strength”; yet, when it comes to the local street food scene, the city has been critiqued for failing to live up to this banner (Siabanis, 2012). This is arguably not a result of a lack of initiative. In 2009, the City of Toronto started the “A La Cart” program, a government-supported initiative that aimed to widen street food offerings by introducing branded carts with expanded, “healthier” menus (Siabanis, 2012). This project, however, was terminated in 2011 by City Council (Cook, 2014); it was ultimately not profitable for vendors, and featured several barriers to participation, such as a ban on making modifications to existing carts (Siabanis, 2012).

Following A La Cart’s demise, a Street Food Working Group was established to explore the possibility of expanding menus at Toronto’s hot dog carts. In June 2012, City Council approved the Working Group’s recommendations, amending municipal by-laws to remove legal restrictions on the types of food that street food vendors may sell from their carts or trucks. Vendors became permitted to serve what they wished, so long as their premises met Toronto Public Health’s standards regarding preparation capacity and food storage (Cook, 2014).

This change theoretically opened the door for street food vendors in Toronto to feature a wider array of product offerings at their stands. However, as of late 2014, the menus at many carts remained limited, with few selling more than an assortment of hot dogs and sausages. Why was this the case? Could things actually change? Would it be feasible to have a greater assortment of food sold at Toronto’s hot dog carts?

Working in partnership with the Toronto Food Strategy, two undergraduate colleagues and I set out to provide preliminary answers to these questions.

Over the fall and winter of 2014-2015, we held informal conversations with a sample of the city’s hot dog vendors from the downtown core. My collaborators and I asked vendors about the challenges they faced in running their businesses, their current menus, and whether they had any “dream dish” ideas of their own. While the full version of our report can be found here, the central findings of our research are worth briefly highlighting.

Downtown Map

Through our conversations with vendors, we learned that cart owners and operators were indeed interested in expanding their menus. Nearly everyone we spoke with had at least one dream dish that they wanted to add to their lineups and sell from their carts. Multiple vendors stated that they wished to supply fries, burgers, steak, and souvlaki from their stands. Others furnished more unique responses: shawarma, biryani, Japanese noodles, and Bulgarian-style ground spiced meat; chicken, ribs, lettuce wraps, and bean chili; sandwiches, salads, and warm breakfast muffins; coffee, hot chocolate, and organic honey beer were all mentioned by vendors as potential additions to their existing menus.

Dream Dish 2

Many of these dream dishes reflected a desire by vendors to express their own cultural backgrounds in their carts; however, business considerations also guided these suggestions. The product ideas that vendors discussed were seen as ways to make additional profits during slow winter months, to offset competition from fast food restaurants and food courts, and to keep up with rival cart and food truck operators. In asking about their dream dishes, then, my collaborators and I learned that vendors did wish to expand their menus to include a wider selection of items.

Yet, despite these desires, vendors were reluctant to make any tangible changes to their current product lineups. The reasons for this were four-fold.


Space: In order to be able to add more items to their menus, vendors needed additional space to prepare, refrigerate, and store this food. Some also said the design or layout of their cart would have to change to accommodate the equipment that selling new products would require. Vendors argued that existing regulations were preventing them from making these changes. City bylaws specify that vendors are not allowed to take up more than 2.32 square metres of sidewalk space. Cart owners and operators felt these sidewalk footprint rules were too restrictive. They wanted the City to give them more room to operate. One vendor specifically requested “an extra 4 feet” of space on the sidewalk, a change he felt would allow him to introduce shawarma to his cart. Another vendor feared that modifying his grill setup – an adjustment he thought was necessary to expand his menu – would draw the attention of the City and cause him to be shut down. He complained: “We’re limited – they like to micromanage.” There was a general consensus among vendors that the City must allow them to take up more space on the sidewalk, and adopt a more hands-off approach when it came to cart layout, in order for them to effectively expand their menus.

Permits: Permits were seen as another barrier. Vendors thought that excessive paperwork would be involved in expanding their menus. Many were also unclear about how the permit process worked or what City permits allowed for. Some vendors thought their dream dish ideas would not be approved by the City, and that they would be shut down if they tried to introduce new items. Others believed, incorrectly, that they had to seek out a special permit to sell new products. Talk of needing to get a “fries permit” at an additional fee was common. One vendor knew that he would have to request a change to his existing permit if he was to introduce new items, but he viewed this process as too much of a hassle. There was thus a lot of uncertainty and animosity among vendors about the permitting process, and this was partly to blame for a lack of action on the part of vendors to expand their menus.

Demand: A perceived lack of public demand and fears of high competition were a third barrier. Some vendors felt it would be too risky to sell new items in their carts. There was no guarantee that people would buy them, especially if food trucks or restaurants were nearby that already sold similar products. In addition, a few vendors were concerned that people would never go to a hot dog cart to buy something other than a hot dog or sausage. To quote one vendor: “If you’re gonna eat healthy, you’re not gonna come here.” A fear that any new items simply would not sell was another factor responsible for keeping cart menus limited.

Employment Status: A final barrier to menu expansion raised by vendors was their employment status. Some who had compelling ideas for new products were simply waged or salaried employees, and were not the actual cart owners. These workers felt that their thoughts could not result in action because they did not have the power to challenge their bosses about the current cart menus. This sense of precarity also functioned to maintain the menu status-quo.

The revelation of these four barriers prompted my collaborators and I to present the following recommendations to the Toronto Food Strategy:

1) The City should work with vendors, local business improvement areas, and other actors to reformulate its by-laws about the use of sidewalk space. Spatial constraints were, by far, the most-cited barrier to menu expansion. Providing vendors with more room to prepare, store, and refrigerate their food could allow them to add to their menus. At the same time, issuing more space may help alleviate prospective public fears of spoilage or poor sanitation, if potential customers can see that vendors are able to make adjustments to keep pace with enhanced offerings.

2) The City should strengthen its communication with hot dog vendors, particularly in terms of conveying its rules. There seemed to be a lot of confusion surrounding permits, what vendors were legally allowed to sell, and how they were to go about getting permission to do so. Better outreach could help address this uncertainty, increase trust with the City, and reduce fears of spontaneous shut-downs that many cart operators worried may occur if they decided to modify their menus. Information that is shared with cart owners should also be communicated to their employees, wherever this is applicable.

3) Finally, vendors must be shown that an actual demand does indeed exist for expanded menu offerings. Cart owners will not make changes to their menus unless they can be assured that the public will respond favourably. Surveys, product taste-tests, and marketing assistance, perhaps with help from the City or the private sector, are some of the potential ways that this demand can be demonstrated to those with the greatest capacity to effect change.

As this preliminary research demonstrates, food carts in Toronto need not just sell hot dogs – the potential is there, in our city, to move beyond street meat.



City of Toronto. (2015). Coat of arms and city motto. Retrieved from

Cook, T. (2014). New opportunities for Toronto’s street food vendors. Retrieved from

Province of Ontario. (2010). Appendix: Nutrition standards for Ontario schools. Retrieved from

Siabanis, N. (2012, Jan. 6). Grey Toronto: The food vending situation. Spacing. Retrieved from