The following is a talk by Robert Gottlieb at a National Science Foundation workshop on Citizen Science in Agri-food Systems, at the University of Hawaii, Manoa campus on April 27, 2018.

I’d like to start by explaining why I use the words “action research” rather than “citizen science.” “Citizen,” for me, denotes citizenship, which is a loaded term in the US (due to undocumented immigrant status) and globally (due to refugees). For example, meat processing plants in the US over the past 3 decades have shifted from a unionized African-American work force to one consisting of non-union undocumented immigrants and, more recently, refugees (for example, Somalis). For food justice-related research that draws on people’s knowledge and direct experiences at work or in communities, such as conditions and impacts related to the meat processing plants, researchers necessarily need to engage with non-citizens.

With respect to science, we need to broaden our notion of what constitutes “science.” There’s a wonderful talk that Rachel Carson gave more than 60 years ago in accepting the National Book Award for her book The Sea Around Us that I’d like to quote. “This notion that ‘science’ is something that belongs in a separate compartment of its own, apart from everyday life is one that I should like to challenge,” Carson told her audience. “We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why in everything in our experience.”

As Carson suggests, to separate science from everyday experience – what Carson calls “the materials of life” – diminishes the role and the value of science in investigating, clarifying and making sense of everyday life. Science, moreover, cannot separate itself from how its findings are interpreted and used — or abused, ignored and disregarded — as the March for Science addressed. A common chant at the March, borrowing from decades of protestors, included “What do we want? Peer-Review! Evidence-Based Research!” The message is clear. The battle to isolate science from politics, in an age of climate and environmental impact deniers, has been supplanted by the need to act on what science has to share. Although it is easy to point to Donald Trump and his acolytes as the focus for action, these issues have been with us at least since Rachel Carson sought to open up the role of science as central to democratic discourse and action.

Instead of “citizen science,” I prefer the term “action research.” Action research broadens the concept of who participates in the knowledge creation (by investigating, clarifying, and making sense of everyday life) and towards what purpose (in what ways the knowledge is used).  Action can inform and modify the research and research can inform and modify the action. It offers the opportunity for the researcher to be part of an action agenda and for the activist/action participant to see herself/himself as engaging (and learning to engage) in research.

Let me give an example. In 2001, scientists from USC organized a conference on air quality. Through its outreach program, a number of community-based organizations, including some environmental justice groups, were invited to hear the scientists report their findings. The scientists were evaluating the sources and impacts from small particle-related air quality impacts and had highlighted where those impacts were most concentrated, a central environmental justice concern. One of those areas included the neighborhoods in Wilmington, near the Port of Los Angeles. At the meeting, Jesse Marquez, an environmental justice leader from Wilmington who had been mobilizing community residents about port-related air quality impacts, challenged the USC scientists to focus on the ports and the goods movement corridors emanating from the ports. “We experience and suffer from the pollution daily, yet the ports are not regulated,” Marquez told the scientists. “Well of course they are,” the scientists responded. The scientists subsequently learned that Marquez was right, and his argument and the knowledge of the environmental justice groups in pinpointing the sources of the pollution, such as through their strategies of “groundtruthing,” helped shift the research agenda of the scientists.

A community-science-policy collaborative called THE Impact Project was then subsequently formed. It included four of the environmental justice groups mobilizing around the freight traffic issues at the ports, and the impacts from the truck traffic, railyards and warehouses that constituted the regional goods movement system. In addition, the USC scientists and our own Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) participated in what became an effective action-research collaborative. The collaborative in turn helped influence the regional air regulator, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, to identify the ports and the goods movement transport and logistics operations as the largest combined source for the most serious air pollution issue in the Southern California region. The Southern California collaborative further helped stimulate a national network (the Moving Forward Network) that has highlighted port and goods movement impacts and has extended its action research framework to involve activists and researchers in port and goods movement communities across the US, as well as with groups outside the US such as Hong Kong.

UEPI has long modeled itself as an action research organization. This includes our food system-related action and research work. Food justice has become the overall framework for our approach around food issues. This approach was elaborated in a book with the name Food Justice that I co-authored with Anupama Joshi, a former UEPI staff member who is currently the director of the National Farm to School Network.

For us, this inclusive framework includes three aspects, each of which elaborates an action research approach. I’ll use the issues around meat processing to illustrate what we mean.

First, food justice requires a food system framework. To put it another way, a particular issue, such as air or water quality impacts from a meat processing facility, needs to be put in context with how that meat plant fits within a broader food system framework. This includes, among other aspects, the widespread adoption of concentrated animal feeding operations (or CAFOs) as well as vertical and concentrated ownership patterns. This also has a global dimension. If, for example, that facility were a pork processing plant, it would likely be owned by the largest pork producer in the world, the Chinese global company, the WH Group, which bought the largest US pork producer, Smithfield, about 5 years ago. By framing the research – and its action dimension – within a food system context, that broadens any particular findings or action agendas to better understand how particular impacts can be understood and evaluated and change agendas developed to reduce or eliminate those impacts.

Second, food justice is applicable to all populations, but prioritizes addressing the impacts of those who are the most vulnerable or exploited populations. When looking at an issue such as weight gain in populations, including among large consumers of meat (or meat eaters who are also heavy in weight!), we see weight gain trends in the past 30 years across all populations (nearly 40% among all adults in the latest research), and especially pronounced among low income populations. These vulnerable populations have been especially targeted by fast food chains with their large-sized portions. If one wanted to research the relationship between meat production (and consumption) and weight gain and develop a health-based action research agenda, a starting point, at least from the consumption end, would be to evaluate why and how such targeting takes place and its impacts.

Third, food justice issues need to be researched and acted on in a broader economic, social, political, and cultural context. This could include: food as a labor/workplace issue; food as an immigration issue; food as an environmental/biosphere issue; food as a health issue; food as a land use issue; and/or food as a climate issue. To use our meat processing plant, it is already clear that labor and immigrant-related issues are paramount from a food justice action research perspective. We’ve already pointed to the health issue connected to the production and consumption of meat, and a plant’s air and water quality impacts are among a range of environmental concerns. Moreover, meat production – from the feeding of animals to their processing into meat products – has been identified as a crucial climate issue. At the same time, the land footprint in meat production and processing, including for example its vast waste lagoons, identifies a major land use concern. Undertaking an action research agenda from a food justice perspective necessitates understanding how those broader economic, political, and cultural issues – for example, meat production, climate, and environment – intersect and inform each other.

Then, from a food justice action research context, how and where does food system change become possible and is that a legitimate goal of the action research participants? There is an interesting discussion taking place right now about why the food movement – itself a bit of a squirrely term – has not been able to accomplish significant food system change even as the numbers of its participants and its various projects have grown, even astronomically, in the past ten to twenty years. Part of the discussion points to the silo effect – issues and movements (and I would add research agendas) in their own separate domains. There is also interest in whether the nature and the practice of a Food Policy Council, one of the fastest growing approaches developed by the food movement, lends itself to more effective food system change. This is seen partly in relation to how Food Policy Councils seek to represent and engage multiple constituencies and focus on how policy innovation can lead to food system change.

From an action research perspective, let me give an example of how one Food Policy Council and its subsequent spinoff was able to pursue the three aspects of my talk: undertaking action research; meeting food justice goals; and bringing about food system change. The example involves the Los Angeles Food Policy Council and its spinoff organization the Center for Good Food Purchasing which is involved in multiple cities, regions, and states across the U.S. The LA Food Policy Council was established as an advisory group in 2009 and became a formal entity in 2011. Its structure includes a staff, a leadership board with as many as 40 food movement and food system participants, and several working groups that include more food activists, policy people, and researchers involved in a particular set of issues or themes, with the goal of bringing about specific changes in the working group areas identified.

One of the first Working Groups included a focus on food procurement issues and opportunities involving institutional and organizational buyers like school districts, city or county government, or hospitals, among others. The working group drew together several different participants interested in such issues as food hubs, distribution, animal welfare, health and nutrition, and labor and working conditions within the food system. Participants were interested in how a value-based procurement system could be developed that could be researched and evaluated with respect to how such values could be realized through procurement decisions.

Through a challenging process that sought to overcome the silo effect I’ve mentioned, the Working Group brought together activists and researchers from the different issue areas, including labor, environment, health and nutrition, community development and local purchasing, and animal welfare. These issue areas in turn became the basis for the five criteria guiding the procurement process: Labor, Environment, Local Economies (local purchasing), Health, and Animal Welfare. The Working Group sought to identify institutions that made food purchasing decisions like schools, hospitals and other health organizations, and city and county governments, each of whom might be amenable to what the Working Group called a “good food purchasing program.” The first institution targeted was the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the country, with its 620,000+ students. A good food purchasing program was initiated in 2012 and due to its success, the Working Group eventually spun off to become a nationally-based Center for Good Food Purchasing. Today, the Center has established programs or relationships in more than a dozen cities and more than two dozen institutions, with several new possibilities for expansion.

Here’s how their program works, which some of you may well be familiar. I would characterize its activities as a type of action research approach that the Center calls its inside-outside strategy. The inside or research-related component involves providing research capacity and the Center’s procurement template for an institution to reframe its food purchasing decisions, utilizing an elaborate evaluation and scoring system established by the Center. The outside or action component includes working with local and regional organizations – Center partners such as local Food Policy Councils or food and labor organizations — to advocate and organize in order to move the policy forward and insure its implementation. The Center, in conjunction with its partners, then focuses on the food providers, such as meat and poultry companies like Tyson and Smithfield. It includes research that identifies, evaluates, and scores a provider’s practices, whether its working conditions, environmental impacts, animal welfare, the healthful nature of its products, and where the products are sources from. This is also done to encourage the providers, through the scoring, to be more competitive for institutional contracts by changing specific practices that are highlighted in the evaluation and scoring system that the researchers have developed for each institutional buyer. For some food entities, institutional purchases can be a significant revenue source. Tyson, for example, depends on up to a third of its revenues from school food services.

I would challenge all of us to see where and how an action research model fits within our own work plans and projects. For academics, it also requires that the system of rewards and benefits of an academic institution, such as the tenure process, recognize and validate the action research approach as valuable in the language that Rachel Carson – a more democratic, community or social-centered use and engagement with knowledge. Food justice – and food systems – research, is an obvious area where Rachel Carson’s concept of science comes into play. To quote another wise-old adage: researchers have attempted to interpret the world; the point is also to help change it, perhaps now more than ever.


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