Equity and Environment in Scaled-Up Sustainable Food Systems Development

Progress report for GS21-242

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $15,109.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2023
Grant Recipient: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Nichola Lowe
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Project Information

Summary:

Excitement over sustainable food systems (SFS) has grown dramatically as a mechanism to combat environmental degradation and increasing risks from climate change. However, to be truly sustainable, equity must be a central component of SFS development. Little research examines equity in SFS 1) in consideration of labor, and 2) within processes of extending the access and benefits of SFS (and financial viability) through slightly longer supply chains (“scaling up”). As a result, momentum to build SFS may uphold systems of inequality rather than dismantle it.

My project narrows this gap. First, using job advertisements in the SFS over the last decade (2010-2019), I examine how social justice and sustainability are incorporated into labor demand and may vary with patterns of wage compensation. As a result, I identify novel strategies for achieving these priorities, with special attention to firms that have already achieved some level of increased scale. Second, I analyze the motivations and impacts of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) for supporting equitable SFS development and scaling. Using successful and unsuccessful grant data, and contextual information about applicants and host communities, I examine whether and how sustainability and economic and environmental justice motivate LFPP efforts. Together these research aims portray ways that equity and sustainability have been pursued at the firm and policy levels, and will yield existing successful strategies as well as areas for improvement for farmers, SFS businesses and non-profits, and policymakers to further enhance equity and sustainability in food systems development.

Project Objectives:

My first research aim analyzes labor demand in sustainable food systems (SFS) over the last decade in terms of compensation and appeals to sustainability, anti-racism, and demand for carework. These analyses will show the patterns in terms of job type and compensation as they relate to sustainability and social justice. Finally, I will explore these patterns within firms scaling up. The results of which provide a snapshot into the intellectual and physical labor in demand to build and scale sustainable food system over the last decade, the extent to which equity and environment have been a priority within sustainable food systems efforts, and highlight successful strategies among organizations to incorporate wage equity, sustainability, and other forms of social equity. This is the first test of labor quality within efforts to scale up, and the first which examines the role of equity and environment in those efforts.

My second research aim will analyze whether and how sustainability and climate change adaptation, as well as economic and environmental justice, motivate the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Local Food Promotion Program. The program funds organizations seeking to scale up local and regional food efforts, particularly in communities with current and historical patterns of disinvestment. However this program does not have a requirement to incorporate sustainability. This analysis will document the ways that equity and sustainability are imagined within SFS organizations applying for LFPP grants, and how they propose implementing these visions -- serving as another mechanism to uncover novel strategies that not only prioritize equity and sustainability, but have found financial strategies to implement them. By examining what the USDA funded, we also gain insight into how the USDA considers sustainability and equity in SFS development.

Together, these research aims portray how equity and sustainability have been pursued at the firm and policy levels, shedding light on underlying processes of structural change in SFS, and identifying policy implications for enhancing equity and environment in SFS development. Without assessing whether SFS efforts also prioritize equity, we risk replicating current systems of inequality. Further, this research will highlight the innovative ways practitioners (including but not limited to farmers) are already implementing positive social change in sustainability and equity.

Research

Materials and methods:

My first research aim analyzes labor demand in sustainable food systems (SFS) over the last decade in terms of compensation and appeals to sustainability, anti-racism, and demand for carework. I have already secured the data: 10 years of job opening advertisements in SFS (n = ~40,000 job postings), from a website that hosts “good” job postings in food systems work. Each job is individually vetted and may not include positions in industrial agriculture. Each posting provides the date of posting, location of job, text description of the company and a description of the job advertised. Jobs range from on the farm production jobs, to jobs engaged in media, non-profit work, food service, research, distribution, catering, food production, and others. This data reflects labor demand in alternative food systems. Each job posting has been paired with its Detailed 2018 Standard Occupation Code (SOC) to characterize the work involved based on title and responsibilities. In this classification system, created by Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), all workers are classified into one of 867 detailed occupations according to their responsibilities. Detailed occupations in the same SOC have very similar job duties and can be combined into increasingly general groups: there are 459 broad occupations, 98 minor groups, and 23 major groups. A machine learning algorithm created by the Center for Disease Control for the same purpose was used to externally confirm the accuracy of the occupation coding system. Wages for each job were compared with county-level living wages and local labor market compensation for similar jobs. Qualitative coding identified firms engaged in scaling up.

Going forward, I will adapt the computational social science methods of sentiment analyses and topic modeling to measure job advertisements’ appeals to gendered work, sustainability, anti-racism (Salganik, 2019). I will create lexicons of words for gendered language and carework, including categories that enable an analysis of masculinized language. I will measure the job advertisements’ incorporation of gendered work, and whether advertisements reveal gendered divisions of labor and compensation patterns. Similarly, I will create lexicons to measure the extent to which job postings appeal to sustainability and antiracism, and how this work is compensated. These analyses will show patterns in terms of job type and compensation for these priorities. Next, I will explore these patterns within firms scaling up. Finally, I will identify firms and occupations that uphold the pillars of sustainability as models of success.

The output from the first research aim includes an assessment of how much sustainability and social justice are centered in labor demand in alternative food systems work between 2010 and 2019 and compensation patterns. This will help identify where and how appeals to these priorities play a role in SFS work and enable a qualitative analysis of jobs and firms that engage in scaling up SFS. The lexicons alone will be a contribution to the research community, as it will be available for others to adapt for alternate analyses. This is the first test of labor quality within efforts to scale up, and the first to examines the role of equity and environment in those efforts, yielding a baseline measurement and existing successful models.

My second research aim will analyze the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP). This program “funds projects that develop, coordinate, and expand local and regional food business enterprises that engage as intermediaries in indirect producer to consumer marketing to help increase access to and availability of locally and regionally produced agricultural products” (United States Department of Agriculture, 2020). The program began in the fiscal year of 2014, and is ongoing today. Funds can be used for planning or implementation purposes; a 25% match is required. Any entity is eligible for the funding. Planning grants typically are less than or equal to $25,000, and provide a year for recipients to use the funds. Implementation grants are up to $200,000 larger and allow for two years to use the funds.

Using grant data provided by the USDA, I will identify how sustainability and climate change adaptation efforts contribute to efforts to scale up SFS, as well as the ways that economic, social, and environmental justice motivate these efforts. By overlaying grant application analyses with socioeconomic information about the host communities and information about the organizations applying for funding, the applications will paint a landscape of how communities understand their food system and hope to change it, and whether and how they center sustainability and equity in these efforts. It will also reveal how the USDA funds SFS work. I will create and implement a coding protocol to analyze grant applications that will combine automatic-text coding with traditional textual analysis techniques from archival research and qualitative research. These analyses will document the ways that equity and sustainability are imagined within AFS organizations and patterns of funding by USDA, as well as the wide range of approaches to implementing these visions. This work will complement existing research analyzing the impact of LFPP funding on farm sales, farms’ vegetable sales, and the number of small farms, as indicators of the grants' ability to foster community economic resilience.

The output from the second research aim includes an assessment of the types of project proposals nationally for scaling up alternative food systems, and their engagement with environment and equity. In addition, it assesses patterns in USDA funding priorities for local and regional food systems, environment, and equity. Finally, it identifies success stories and lessons learned with respect to equity and environment.

Together, these research aims portray how equity and sustainability have been pursued at the firm and policy levels, shedding light on the innovative ways practitioners (including but not limited to farmers) are already implementing positive social change in sustainability and equity. These findings will contribute to an understanding of the underlying processes of structural change in SFS, and identify best practices and policy implications for enhancing equity and environment in SFS development.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Journal articles
2 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The chapter of my dissertation first describing the jobs dataset used in my first research aim is about to conclude a phase of revise and re-submit that, with luck, will be accepted after this round of revisions. 

I have presented preliminary results of my second research aim, presenting an analysis of LFPP grant motivations at two conferences, and have another conference presentation scheduled in the coming months.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

I will begin finalizing the results of my first research aim in the coming months. 

The following represents preliminary results from my second research aim. 

These results show that counties that were home to an LFPP grant recipient were not more likely to have increased number of small farms or sales from small farms than counties that were home to unsuccessful grant applicants, but they were more likely to have increased local or regionally-oriented farms and farm sales than counties without any applicants. A secondary analysis is underway to vet these results by confirming the accuracy of the data provided by the USDA. 

With respect to the motivations and impacts of LFPP applicants and the program itself, I find that the LFPP grant structure heavily emphasizes the economic expansion opportunities of scaling up local and regional food system, and often misses an opportunity highlight the equity and environmental benefits that may be provided by grant recipient programs. Indeed, it is difficult to document environmental or equity benefits when much of the application is focused on market expansion. However, LFPP strongly encourages grant applicants to demonstrate connections with to people living in "low-income and low-access" areas. This shows a commitment to equity that could be deepened to consider additional ways of serving people living in communities that have been historically disinvested in, and to connect these investments with environmental and financial sustainability goals. 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.