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Learning Guide: Introduction to Food Dignity


From 2011-2016, over three dozen people at five community-based organizations (CBOs), three universities, and one college collaborated on the action, research and education project we called Food Dignity. During those five funded years and two additional ones, we collaborated in mapping and traveling the most appropriate and effective roads forward for creating sustainable community food systems that build food security in the US.


This installment in the series of Food Dignity Learning Guides is a guide to products from the Food Dignity project that summarize the work of and in the collaboration itself. It addresses the question, what was the Food Dignity project?


The project’s full title is Food Dignity: Action research on engaging food insecure communities and universities in building sustainable community food systems. The proposal for the $5-million grant that funded the project began with a request for applications  (RFA) from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s AFRI competitive grant program in 2010 for “Improved Sustainable Food Systems to Reduce Hunger and Food Insecurity Domestically and Globally.” Christine Porter, who became the project’s principal investigator and project director, saw that call and thought it was a perfect match for the case study action research she wanted to do with the community food justice project called the Whole Community Project in Ithaca and, hopefully, with similar CBOs in Wyoming, where Christine was going to start a public health professor job at the University of Wyoming (UW) in August 2010.

  1. Research is a formal and systematic way of generating and articulating new knowledge. The peer-reviewed scientific publications from Food Dignity represent this approach. What are some other ways of producing knowledge (e.g., in the Food Dignity I-stories,)?  How have you, personally, used one of these other ways in your own life and work?

  2. What are advantages and disadvantages of research vs. your example of another way of producing knowledge? For example, What kinds of questions can they answer, and not answer? How sure can you be if the answers are true? How much work does it involve? Who can access the process and the products? How compelling and believable are you and others likely to find the results (perhaps not entirely attached to the quality and quantity of evidence for their truth)? How important or relevant is the knowledge to you?

  3. In a landmark essay in 1989, Peggy McIntosh unpacks “the invisible knapsack” of white privilege, listing over two dozen ways she benefits daily from racism (which, unlike racial prejudice, is systemic and works only in one direction – against people of color and for white people). For example, number four is “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” We suggest that the academic supremacy discussed in Food Dignity in community-university research relations has a more limited social impact than other forms of systemic inequities in US society, such as sexism (or patriarch) and racism (or white supremacy), because universities are not as ubiquitous in most people’s daily lives. However, being part of academia, even if not in the position of a tenured professor, carries some privileges that are less common for people who work at a community-based organization (CBO). Invent at least two privilege statements, of the kind McIntosh wrote in her essay, from the perspective of (a) a university professor and (b) a graduate student in relation to an action-research collaboration with a CBO.   

  4. In a 1935 essay collection, Kurt Lewin has written, “If you want truly to understand something, try to change it.” In the context of food justice or food security, what would you want to better understand, and what kind of change, or experiment, could you try to improve your understanding?  (If you document the impacts of such a change systematically, using methods matched to the question, that would be an action research project.)​

Five food justice CBOs— Feeding Laramie Valley, East New York Farms!, Dig Deep Farms, Whole Community Project, and Blue Mountain Associates—agreed to collaborate with academics, at UW and Cornell University especially, on a five year project to document their work. That included trying and evaluating strategies supported with project funding such as minigrants.


Food Dignity is what USDA calls an “integrated” project, i.e., it included research, extension and education activities. Case studies about the work of each CBO—exploring how they do, could and should work for just, food secure and sustainable community food systems—formed the core of our research together. The RFA, unusually, explicitly included community organizing in its description of extension activities. The work of the CBOs, augmented with the grant support, composed the extension component of Food Dignity. Our education work mainly focused on founding new undergraduate minors in sustainable food systems at Cornell and UW.


Our research also included investigating how to form more equitable community-university action, research and education partnerships for food justice. (See pages about our approaches and lessons on this topic.)

Some of the defining and uncommon features of the Food Dignity project process have included:

  • Laying ethical foundations under our epistemological ones; e.g., the project’s official stance that enhancing community member powers in shaping their own local food systems is right, good, and a goal, regardless of whether increasing that power can be shown by research to “work” for any particular desired outcome such as increased food security or sustainability.

  • Having a large and highly diverse team—including geographically, socio-economically and racially—of over three dozen community-based and university-based coinvestigators across three states and nine organizations.

  • Articulating systemic inequities that our community-university partnership produced and reproduced as academic supremacy.

  • Calling not only for conventional epistemological rigor in action research, but also emotional and ethical rigor.

  • Conducting deep case study research with food justice CBOs over five years with multiple methods, including developing a collaborative approach to pathway modelling.   

  • Sharing the funding among partners, though not equitably, and providing detailed analysis of our budgeting and spending.

Some of our results-sharing products make relatively traditional contributions to scientific literature on food justice and food systems, such as quantifying garden harvests in Laramie, Wyoming and characterizing gardening in New York City. Others are more unusual, such as most of the papers in the Food Dignity special issue of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, the Food Dignity Collaborative Pathway Models, and the first-person video I-stories about the co-investigators’ journeys to food justice work.

Food for thinking

Additional Resources

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