Carole Biewener On Alternative Food Initiatives

November 25, 2015

Carole Biewener

We talk to Professor Carole Biewener about her research, “Paid Work, Unpaid Work, and Economic Viability in Alternative Food Initiatives: Reflections from Three Boston Urban Agriculture Endeavors.”

What are alternative food initiatives?

People who are interested food system work are critical of what’s called the conventional agro-industrial food system. People have been thinking about trying to develop alternative food system initiatives. What that means is up for debate. Often it’s identified with being “local.” Sustainability is very much there and people are increasingly concerned about social justice issues, partly around food access issues, but also labor issues. You’ve seen that in the conventional food system, in some initiatives being concerned with farm workers or the Fight for Fifteen…. In terms of alternatives, I’m interested in to what extent they are addressing the economic practices involved.

How does urban agriculture differ from growing one's own garden?

Urban agriculture is generally defined as agriculture that is not community gardens and takes place in an urban area. It’s not growing food for yourself; it’s trying to have a commercial enterprise. In Boston, former Mayor Menino had a lot of interesting initiatives where he was promoting healthier, more sustainable access to food that was nutritious… they pushed through an important re-zoning, to allow for urban agriculture in Boston. Also, they did a survey of potentially vacant land that could be used for urban agriculture.

You seem to have an abiding interest in economics and social empowerment. Why did you decide to look at food and agriculture?

As a graduate student I was trained in economic development. Within economic development there’s theoretical and empirical work that you study about the transformation from agricultural to industrial systems. So I have a lot of that in my background. I’ve also done a lot of work in terms of community economic development. But it was a shift for me and a little audacious to move into. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next in my research when I had a sabbatical and I decided that I wanted to do things that were more focused where I live. And food system work is also very interdisciplinary in food alternative initiatives and I like that piece.... I like being able to have activist projects and combine that experiential learning for students in my teaching.

What are some of the problems facing the economic sustainability of alternative food initiatives?

Economically, agricultural initiatives throughout the state have a lot of challenges. Most farmers in Massachusetts have a second job and some of the farmer’s markets and CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture] are finding it hard to make ends meet…. It’s important to think about farm to institution linkages and the buying power of places like schools or hospitals to make bigger, sustainable changes.

What are the large-scale economic implications of alternative food initiatives and urban agriculture?

A Massachusetts Food Plan was just released, so that’s huge. At the state level there are a lot of key players and there’s a lot of support. Governor Deval Patrick developed the Massachusetts Food Policy Council. Unlike some places, there’s a lot of coordination between practitioners, policy people, and academics to figure out how to be supportive. On the other hand, it is hard to compete with the conventional food system.

You can get so focused on this alternative work that you neglect the conventional food system. And that’s where most food system workers work. When you’re thinking about enhancing that, things like the Fight for Fifteen are important as part of big institutional changes, as well as learning how to network with people who are looking for positive policy changes. One of the things that the Massachusetts Food System Plan says is that you want to give people a living wage so that they can afford to buy good food. That’s a bigger issue than just alternative food. It’s about trying to support some of that broad institutional change.

What did you personally find most striking as you were completing this research? Do any specific facts or anecdotes stand out?

It was trying to grapple with the amount of unpaid work in food and how to make sense of the volunteer work. On the one had it’s a real testament to the ways in which people are motivated to contribute to these initiatives. That is an alternative ethos and a different set of politics – which is great. But to what extent is this volunteer work sustainable in the long term? To what extent is it predicated upon people having the time and money to contribute in these ways? That’s one thing I think we’ll continue to wrestle with.