Equity and Environment in Scaled-Up Sustainable Food Systems Development

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $15,109.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2024
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


Not commodity specific


  • Sustainable Communities: ethnic differences/cultural and demographic change, local and regional food systems, public policy, quality of life, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    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 from proposal:

    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.

    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.