Growing Culturally Acceptable Local Food Systems

Photo by nunavut is licensed under CC2.0

Photo by nunavut is licensed under CC2.0

In most cases when I try to explain in a brief sentence the focus of my research to family or friends unfamiliar with food studies and the recent debates of the field, they walk away with the two words: immigrants and local food. Their follow up question often hinges on the question of how immigrants, particularly new arrivals from countries with distinctly different climates, geographies and cuisines can maintain their traditional diets in a new country. Does supporting locally cultivated and produced food in a new country require giving up traditional diets? The question is a valid one, how can local food movements in the basic sense of food provisioning accommodate for non-local diets? Asked differently, how can products that are not native to Ontario’s local foodshed be produced locally? In some cases it can be effectively impossible. Despite a variety of technological and scientific improvements and changes, Canada, even in its more temperate locations, does not have the appropriate climate to grow certain plants. (Coconuts, plantains, coffee, and mangoes are just a few that come to mind).  However, there are several edible plants that have grown in Canada for generations, but have never been farmed or sold widely for general consumption. Similarly many plants that have not traditionally grown in Canada can thrive in our climate and soil. What has been lacking is often information and political will. This has slowly begun to change and a variety of organizations and actors in Toronto have in recent years been working to research the viability of increasing local production of this produce, which is referred to as world foods, ethnic crops, cultural foods, among other names.

Research has been varied, but largely focused on identifying the barriers to increasing production of ethnic crops, necessary steps to increase support for farmers interested in growing these crops and consumer surveys to evaluate demand (Adekunle et al., 2012.; Feeding Diversity) The Worlds Crop Initiative, a joint partnership of the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, The Stop Community Centre, and Vineland Research and Innovation Centre has researched the optimal growing and storage conditions of several of these crops and produced guides that are freely available for those interested in growing them. The McVean Farm Incubator Program run by FarmStart has offered new farmers interested in growing these crops the space and facilities required to get their projects off the ground. Increasing production of Locally Grown Global Crops is even one of the six broad projects supported by the Toronto Food Strategy team. Other initiatives have worked to increase the profile of locally grown crops of this variety, such as the Toronto Environmental Alliance Locally Grown Culturally-Specific Food Guides aimed at Chinese, South Asian, Middle Eastern and African/Caribbean populations. These initiatives show that providing locally grown global crops is definitely on the agenda in agricultural and political conversations about food in Ontario, but the conversation should not end here.

While it is extremely important that the local food system is able to provide a wider variety of produce to cater to the diverse population that lives and eats in Ontario today, to reduce the question of immigrant participation in local food to vegetables is to miss the larger picture. As stated by Hammelman and Hayes-Conroy, “When cultural acceptability becomes little more than access to ‘‘multicultural ingredients,’’ we risk losing sight of the original target—culturally sensitive food practice and policy” (2015, 40).  The local food system needs to move past the simple model of inclusion of immigrants through inclusion of new food items and actually restructure itself in a way that fundamentally represents the variety of people living in Ontario. New immigrants disproportionally experience food insecurity, with 19.7% of respondents compared to the national average of 12.5% (Tarasuk et al., 2013). Improving their rates of food security will require more than simply providing locally grown vegetables that are familiar. The initiatives listed above do not cease to be important, but need to be part of a larger strategy to reform the food system to represent marginalized populations, especially considering the continuing extremely high rates of food insecurity reported by Latin American, Aboriginal and black households. Fostering cultural acceptability in the food system must be seen as a process that is continually negotiated, not a list of produce. To better understand the ways in which the food system is currently failing certain groups, research needs to be conducted directly with these communities to record their stories and viewpoints. This research needs to move past analysing these groups solely as consumers and a potential market, but as actors with complex identities, experiences and viewpoints. Culturally acceptability depends on moving past diverse food provisioning to increasing representation of new immigrants, racialized communities and indigenous communities in the process of food system policy formation.

Read more:

Adekunle, B., G. Filson and S. Sethuratnam. (2012) Culturally appropriate vegetables and economic development: A contextual analysis. Appetite 59 (2012) 148-154

Feeding Diversity. Community Access and Commercialization of World Crops. (2013) Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, Toronto Public Health and the Toronto Food Policy Council.

Hammelman, C. and Hayes-Conroy, A. (2015) Understanding Cultural Acceptability for Urban Food Policy Journal of Planning Literature 30(1) 37-48

Kelleher, S, C. Lam, M. Skowronski and V Vaidyanathan. (2009) World Foods, Local Production Report. Ed. Ellise Goarley, Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation

Tarasuk, V, Mitchell, A, Dachner, N. (2015). Household food insecurity in Canada, 2013. Toronto: Research to identify policy options to reduce food insecurity (PROOF).

Looking for food, but finding much more

Looking for food, but finding much more

When I began my PhD I wanted to continue my study of the urban agriculture (UA) movement in North America. Not only did I have a personal interest in the opportunities for pursuing food justice and food sovereignty offered by this movement, but I also thought that the UA movement provides a particularly interesting research site for academic purposes. In this blog post, I will reflect on the path that my research has taken thus far. I hope to sketch out my thought process in pursuing my current research and the factors that have influenced my decisions. This kind of reflective writing is very useful for me and I hope it could also be helpful for others studying UA or the food movement.

Food and urban agriculture as ‘dense’ research sites

UA is appealing as a research site because one can examine it from many angles. It provides a tangible example of humans actively interacting with the nonhuman world,1 often succeeding in changing their natural environment, but also coming up against the real material obstacles faced in food production: contaminated or compacted soils, inclement weather, pests, drought, etc. Along similar lines, it can be theorized in terms of historical processes such as urbanization and the rise of industrial agriculture. It is also a site of production, with different forms of property ownership and social organization (public or private land, communal production or individual plots, for profit or not, etc.). Likewise, it is connected to changing patterns of food and leisure consumption in cities as the demand for local organic food increases. Like any social movement, it also has to contend with forms of social difference that affect participation, such as race, class, and gender.

These multiple angles are to some degree indicative of the wider relevance of studying food; many authors have made the argument that food provides a lens through which many social issues can be studied (e.g. Nestle & McIntosh, 2010). However, as I’ll detail below, I maintain it is important not to become too focused on food in isolation. This requires going ‘beyond food’ to connect food consumption and production to larger social structures of race, class, and gender (Passidomo, 2013).

Beyond food? Why food activists need to pay attention to land, labor, and governance

With this background knowledge in mind, I selected Cleveland, Ohio, the site of my dissertation research. As a native of Pittsburgh I have always been interested in the particular political economic situation faced by cities in the Rust Belt. I also see the availability of vacant land in these cities as an opportunity for the UA movement to capitalize on. Building on my research in Detroit (Walker, 2013, 2015), over time I have found that the particular context of Cleveland as a city with a declining inner-city population and an expanding (though nearly built-out) suburban metropolitan fringe has influenced the local food movement in particular ways.

Most notably, the more I investigated vacant land reuse, the more I came to see UA as a set of particular outcomes in a wider suite of responses to vacant land. For example, refer to Figure 1 below, taken from the Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland vacant land reuse study. This realization may seem obvious – and it is especially to people who live in Rust Belt cities – but I think it also has important implications for the food movement that have not been fully thought out.

Land Bank Flow Chart 2008

Figure 1. Land bank decision-making flow chart (produced by the Cleveland City Planning Commission and printed in Neighborhood Progress, Inc., Cleveland City Planning Commission, & Cleveland Land Lab at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Kent State University, 2008, p. 9).

Essentially, the current stance of the food movement towards acquiring land for UA is a pragmatic one –UA practitioners will try to get access to land however they can, preferably at no cost. Unsurprisingly, the cost of leasing or buying land is one of the key factors limiting the expansion of UA and its profitability (for an example from Vancouver, see Schutzbank, 2012). Across North America, UA practitioners and supportive planners and community members have been successful in passing zoning changes, acquiring funding, and forming partnerships with institutions and city governments to access land. These initiatives have been successful in fostering the growth of UA, but like the rest of the alternative food movement, a central challenge is ‘scaling up’ to increase production and to compete with industrial agriculture. While the kind of policies being generated now are helpful in this regard, I follow Nathan McClintock (2010, 2014) in identifying larger obstacles of land, labor, and capital as central in the challenge to change the food system through UA.

Through my dissertation work, I am seeking to understand the interaction between historical forces of investment and disinvestment in the built environment, racial segregation, and the politics of urban development that pose a challenge to the UA movement. I see this challenge occurring at two interrelated scales: one, at the neighborhood and parcel scale UA faces challenges in accessing land permanently due to the imperative to pursue economic development of a “highest and best use” (McClintock, 2014); two, at the city and regional scale Cleveland is attempting to rebrand itself as a sustainable city, but as with all municipal efforts for sustainability it faces the tension of pursuing a greenwashing of its image in the name of urban entrepreneurialism that supports elites or undertaking a more radical transformation that simultaneously pursues social and environmental justice (see e.g. Wolch, Byrne, & Newell, 2014).

Part of the challenge I am currently facing in the field is how to incorporate this critical perspective on UA and urban sustainability while recognizing the challenges that institutions and activists face on the ground. Cleveland has a long tradition of civic-mindedness and active nonprofits organizations, but as Randy Cunningham (2007) and Michael McQuarrie (2013) have shown, this active third sector is also a sign of the professionalization and incorporation of an oppositional and activist community organizing tradition into a corporate-led regime. As my colleague Emily Rosenman and I (2016) found when looking at Cleveland housing demolition policy, Cleveland actors have actively tried to hold banks accountable for the aftermath of the housing crisis in creative ways, but their non-local efforts were largely unsuccessful. Instead, nonprofits and community groups bear the burden of addressing the problems following vacancy and abandonment, a common situation in the era of neoliberal urbanism (Hackworth, 2007).2 It is my hope that a critical analysis of urban governance and the balance of political forces in Cleveland will help recover some of the critical energy that existed in the city before the 1970s, using UA as an entry point into building a larger oppositional political voice in the city.

  1. I use the phrase “nonhuman world” where many people would probably just say “nature.” By doing so I am trying to avoid reproducing a binary that considers humans outside of the natural world. The French academics Bruno Latour, John Law, and John Callon have been very influential in this shift (see e.g. Latour, 1993), which can generally be referred to as posthumanism (though this term has a much broader meaning, see Wolfe, 2010).
  2. I tried to avoid jargon but couldn’t help it in this case! For those unfamiliar, neoliberalism can generally be considered to be an ideology based on organizing social life around free markets, with the idea that market signals are the most accurate and efficient way of organizing social activity. Historically, this trend renews some of the central tenets of classical liberalism, but is perhaps most clearly distinguished from it by favoring an even smaller role for the state. While the concept has a complicated and often-debated history (Harvey, 2005; Peck, 2010), it is often identified with the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. In the context of urbanism (the material and cultural aspects of urban life), the neoliberal turn has had profound effects, including: the dismantling of public housing and the social safety net, including the shift from welfare to workfare; fiscal austerity for local governments and the rise of the municipal bond market and other forms of financialization; increasingly aggressive interurban competition for capital and concomitant corporate welfare, etc. For a nice overview see Hackworth (2007).

Cunningham, R. (2007). Democratizing Cleveland: the rise and fall of community organizing in Cleveland, Ohio, 1975-1985. Cleveland, OH: Arambala Press.

Hackworth, J. (2007). The neoliberal city: Governance, ideology, and development in American urbanism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McClintock, N. (2010). Why farm the city? Theorizing urban agriculture through a lens of metabolic rift. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 3(2), 191–207.

McClintock, N. (2014). Radical, reformist, and garden-variety neoliberal: coming to terms with urban agriculture’s contradictions. Local Environment, 19(2), 147–171.

McQuarrie, M. (2013). No Contest: Participatory Technologies and the Transformation of Urban Authority. Public Culture, 25(1), 143–175.

Neighborhood Progress, Inc., Cleveland City Planning Commission, & Cleveland Land Lab at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Kent State University. (2008). Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland: Citywide Strategies for Reuse of Vacant Land. Cleveland, OH: Neighborhood Progress, Inc. and Cleveland City Planning Commission. Retrieved from

Nestle, M., & McIntosh, W. A. (2010). Writing the Food Studies Movement. Food, Culture and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, 13(2), 159–179.

Passidomo, C. (2013). Going “Beyond Food”: Confronting Structures of Injustice in Food Systems Research and Praxis. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 3(4), 1–5.

Peck, J. (2010). Constructions of neoliberal reason. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosenman, E., & Walker, S. (2016). Tearing down the city to save it? ’Back-door regionalism and the demolition coalition in Cleveland, Ohio. Environment and Planning A, 48(2), 273–291.

Schutzbank, M. H. (2012). Growing vegetables in Metro Vancouver: An urban farming census (MSc thesis). University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Retrieved from

Walker, S. (2013). Growing ideology: urban agriculture in Vancouver and Detroit (MA Thesis). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from

Walker, S. (2015). Urban agriculture and the sustainability fix in Vancouver and Detroit. Urban Geography, 1–20.

Wolch, J. R., Byrne, J., & Newell, J. P. (2014). Urban green space, public health, and environmental justice: The challenge of making cities “just green enough.” Landscape and Urban Planning, 125, 234–244.

Wolfe, C. (2010). What is posthumanism? Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.