Implementing Equity in our Food Systems Work: Considerations for Cooperative Extension


Jannety Mosley,Cooperative Extension Program,North Carolina A&T State University
Shorlette Ammons,Center for Environmental Farming Systems Small Farms Unit, North Carolina A&T State University, 
Heather Hyden,Department of Community, Leadership and Development, University of Kentucky



The 2014 CLRFS CoP Food Security Conference was focused on the question, “How do Land Grant Universities (LGUs) and Cooperative Extension address issues of racial equity and food insecurity?” In this article we will provide LGU and Cooperative Extension Educators (CEEs) seeking ways to frame the conversation about addressing the root causes of food insecurity a model of how North Carolina A&T State University (NCA&TSU), as part of the Center for Environmental Farmings Systems (CEFS), is currently addressing the issue of structural racism through a transparent community involvement process as well as an internal process.

Addressing Structural Racism and Food Insecurity in Extension

At the conference, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) facilitated training for CEEs on “Undoing Racism in Our Food Security Work”. As part of the training the PISAB facilitators divided CEEs into small groups by region to further discuss the historical context of institutional racism and its impact on how Extension programs are developed and delivered. The facilitators focused the scope of the discussion from a national level to a regional level because of the profound impact that racial segregation has on racial inequality in the U.S. For example, as a result of residential segregation, communities face inadequate distribution of resources and services (e.g. housing, schools, health care, employment opportunities, access to supermarkets and healthy food) (Zenk et al., 2005; Siegleman, 1999; Williams and Collins, 2001; Larson et al., 2009). However, segregation and racial inequality not only impact the communities that CEEs work with but also impacts the very foundation of the LGU system, particularly in the south. 

In the breakout session the divide among the southern region LGUs was evident. Each southern state is comprised of two LGUs, an 1862 and 1890. During the discussion CEEs expressed a lack of collaboration between the two institutions, differences in clients they service (i.e small minority farmers vs. large scale farmers), differences in the types of programs that are developed, and a history of funding disparities among the 1890s (this may impact facilities, program development/implementation and access to continuing education/training). The discussion among the CEEs from the southern region provided implications for an institution founded upon inherently racist and implicitly biased principles, which makes understanding the historical context of LGUs imperative.

Historical Context: Land Grant Universities and the Role of Cooperative Extension

Although LGUs are often prescribed as the “foundation of America’s agricultural productivity”, the U.S. LGU system holds a poignant history that is predicated on the impacts of slavery and the tarnished political fabric left by the Jim Crow south (South Carolina State University, n.d.). The second Morrill Act, which established 1890 LGUs (namely, southern black colleges and universities), made space for young black students to achieve their educational dreams despite the segregated demands of the first Morrill Act. Subsequent legislation made similar provisions for other students of color, with the 1994 Land Grant Act, maintaining the contradiction of the “separate but equal” tradition born out of structurally racist agricultural, economic and educational practices in the U.S., beginning with the colonization of Native peoples (USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, n.d.).

Contextualizing this history in terms of its current relationship to U.S. agriculture and our food system, allows us to better understand the history of disproportionate distribution and dissemination of information, educational opportunity and resources, particularly among underserved populations–poor, rural growers and people of color–during a critical period in the maturation of America’s food economy. The landmark civil rights case, Pigford vs. Glickman, in which black farmers raised discrimination claims against the USDA, is a real life representation of the systemic impact of that disproportion (Black Farmer Case, 2011). This legacy lays the foundation for the necessity of Cooperative Extension and relevance of the LGU mission, to address “the critical needs of individuals, families and communities with limited resources”, which extends from its inception to present day.

According to the National Equity Atlas, in 1980, America was 80% white. By 2044, the U.S. will be comprised of a majority people of color, the segment of our country that has historically been most limited in access to resources and opportunity (National Equity Atlas, 2014). The longevity of Extension deeply depends on our obligation to sustaining that mission as it relates to the shifting landscape of our country. The commitment to addressing structural racism in the food system along with the successful model of LGU partnership through CEFS, NCA&TSU is poised to anchor genuine relationship building, centering the communities we serve to develop long-term solutions that will transform systemic conditions.

Implementing Change: NCA&TSU’s Process to Address Structural Racism in the Food System

NC A&T State University and NC State University, as part of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems*(CEFS), has received a planning grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) to develop a process to address structural racism in the food system. This effort, based out of NCA&TSU, is two-fold and multidimensional. The initiative begins with internal work leading to a model of institutional change. One lesson that has become clear through our internal process to build our analysis around racial equity & begin to address the impacts of structural racism in our food system, is that we are making a long-term investment in the transformation of our institution and this certainly will not happen overnight. We strongly believe that this process of transformation requires time, commitment and determination, in order to be sustainable and long-term. We acknowledge that individuals and the institutions themselves are at different spectrums of understanding and recognizing the dynamics and impacts of race in this country. We have worked closely with our NC-based facilitation team (dRWorks, OpenSource Leadership Strategies and Resourceful Communities) to develop these initial steps which will involve: 1) establishment of an internal “core team” made up of diverse and inclusive representation from CEFS leadership, researchers, Extension, youth and outreach staff 2) facilitated training on dismantling racism for our core team to develop a shared language, understanding and analysis around food systems inequities using the lens of structural racism 3) survey, research and analyze how structural racism affects our food system, organization and our team itself 4) convene to assess what was learned and gathered from the process thus far and 5) strengthen capacity and engage stakeholders and staff around this process. Check-in, study and discussion group sessions will be held throughout, facilitating opportunities to engage each other as we build a collective process. An evaluation of our organizational dynamic was helpful in unveiling the need to intentionally begin our work internally as a means to better understand our power and privilege as an institution of “higher learning” as we begin to transform how we work alongside our community partners.

The next phase of our work will involve ongoing engagement with community partners to build genuine relationships in order to co-create strategies that will address root causes of food insecurity and increase access to healthy food and opportunities within the food system, particularly for youth of color.

Although we are in the initial phase of this transformational process, CEFS at NCA&TSU feels poised and ready to play a role. Because of our LGU partnership, CEFS is in a strong position to work in a supportive role in order to convene and coordinate the components of this process. Both NCSU and NCA&TSU are centers for agriculture education in the South; and NCA&TSU, located in Greensboro, NC, holds the legacy of being a historic location for key struggles of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, led by its students. The already existing and mostly successful partnership, and this history puts LGUs and Extension in a unique position to convene and develop regional leaders in food equity and racial justice for research and practice-based solutions on how to stop the ongoing harm to our vulnerable and at-risk populations, which are disproportionately youth of color. As former CEFS Co-Director and WKKF Endowed Chair at NCA&TSU reiterates, “it is important to acknowledge that not all solutions have been adequately and properly researched nor explored”, as much of our traditional research methods omits the lived experience of communities most directly affected by systemic inequities born from structurally racist policies and practices. Therefore, internal organizational transformation as well as dismantling stigmas and long-held institutional practices that are not community-based is critical in order to create the sustained change for our youth and community members who our broken food system consistently fails.


Our initial goals have been identified as part of this process and may morph as the process becomes more concrete and will continuously be developed that parallel the goals and needs of the communities we serve:

  • Build and develop a collective analysis about structural racism that will be embedded across the CEFS team in order to enhance CEFS overall work.
  • Strengthen the overall team culture internally as well as relationships with community partners and across the two LGU’s and Extension communities.
  • Build a unified culture across the diverse stakeholders that comprise the CEFS team, and more fully engage partners in developing a plan to increase access to healthy food and transform food system opportunities among vulnerable children.

Centralizing this work is critical in order to create cohesion. Therefore, as part of this project and to insure that the process is community-led in a genuine and intentional way, one of the long-term project goals is to develop the CEFS Campus-Community Collaboration for Social Equity (CCCSE) on the campus of NCA&TSU. CCCSE will potentially host an annual regional summit made up of university and grassroots leaders for idea production, documentation and dissemination at the intersection of racial and food equity. We will also create opportunities for the campus community to intersect with the community at large through regular engagement opportunities and events.

Overall institutional change work will prepare academia to transform engagement strategies between universities and community leaders. This will anchor the institution in the community — focusing on addressing issues of food access collectively, both in the immediate and in the longer term, solidifying our role as Extension.



*The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) is a partnership between North Carolina’s two land-grant universities, NC A&T State University and NC State University. A third key partner, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS), provides a physical base for research and demonstration projects at Cherry Research Farm in Goldsboro, NC: two thousand acres of land, along with personnel and equipment. CEFS works to accomplish the following four objectives through high-quality interdisciplinary research, teaching and extension programs: 1) provide new economic opportunities in NC, 2) develop technologies that promote a cleaner and healthier environment, 3) educate the next generation of farmers, consumers and scientists, and 4) engage communities in the food system. For more info visit:


Black Farmer Case. (2011). Detailed background information: the original pigford case. Retrieved from

Larson, N. I., Story, M. T., & Nelson, M. C. (2009). Neighborhood environments: disparities in access to healthy foods in the US. American journal of preventive medicine, 36(1), 74-81.

National Equity Atlas. (2014). Data summaries: the face of america is changing. Retrieved from

Siegelman, P. (1999). Racial discrimination in ‘everyday’ commercial transactions: what do we know, what do we need to know, and how can we find out?

South Carolina State University. (n.d.). 1890 research & extension background. Retrieved from

USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. (n.d.).  Frequently asked questions 1994 land grant institutions. Retrieved from

Williams, D. R., & Collins, C. (2001). Racial residential segregation: a fundamental cause of racial disparities in health. Public health reports, 116(5), 404.

Zenk, S. N., Schulz, A. J., Israel, B. A., James, S. A., Bao, S., & Wilson, M. L. (2005). Neighborhood racial composition, neighborhood poverty, and the spatial accessibility of supermarkets in metropolitan Detroit. American journal of public health, 95(4), 660-667.

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