Thinking ‘Outside the Box’ for Justice-Centered Food Security Work: Considerations for Cooperative Extension


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



The aim of this article is to discuss major takeaways from the 2014 Community, Local and Regional Food System (CLRFS) Extension Community of Practice (eCoP) Food Security Conference centered on addressing the root causes of food insecurity such as institutional racism, income inequality and the exclusion of those most affected by food insecurity in the definition, implementation and evaluation of services offered by Extension. Important questions emerged in conference discussions such as: “What are the barriers to doing this work?” and “What skills do we need?” But, an overarching question was “How do we think ‘outside the box’ of our current food security work?” We will suggest a possible framework for Cooperative Extension to engage in deep internal reflection on the role it serves as an institutional gatekeeper in the food justice movement. This is a small stepping stone that we hope will lead to further research and action in understanding to what extent Extension can transform its positionality to become a better partner to those most affected by poverty and racism. We will do this by guiding readers to critical literature and practitioner tools throughout the article and in a Further Reading appendix.

Internal Evaluation: First Steps

“It’s more than just food”. This was the powerful opening declaration made by Ohio State’s Extension Director to start off the conference. After he spoke, Molly Anderson, Partridge Chair in Food & Sustainable Ag Systems at College of the Atlantic, justified the eCoP’s agenda because, “We had to do this. There is no choice.” She further described the need for addressing food security through a human rights framework in order to, “Put people most affected front and center. Listen to them and start looking at the world differently” (Hyden, 2014). The agenda then shifted to the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PIFSB) who instructed us through an Undoing Racism training.

During the training introductions, PIFSB posed two questions to Cooperative Extension as an institution, which served as anchors for critical reflection throughout the day: “What is your history?” and “What is your culture?” Reflection on institutional, personal and community histories and how they have informed our current social consciousness about race and poverty is integral to moving towards more justice-centered research, service and partnerships. Agyeman and Alkon’s book, Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability (2011) provides several essays that explore these issues not only in the industrial food system, but also the reproduction of existing structures of oppression in alternative food initiatives such as farmers markets. With regard to questioning culture, the PIFB facilitators were referring to organizational culture, which calls for an analysis of Extension’s operating structures.

Next, conference participants identified barriers to doing this work (addressing racism and social injustice). Most responses were typical such as funding, time, skill sets and cultural competency. But, two responses struck me as particularly important: “Rules and Rule makers” and the “Institutionalization of Fear” or “Fear of Change”. These responses seemed to be the ‘elephant in the room’, leaving us to question the skills needed to “sell” a new way of working to the multiple layers of institutional gatekeepers from program administrators to funders.

Framing: Making the Case to Institutional Gate Keepers

As an elephant, the above concerns are in no way easy to move. But, in many ways the process of problematizing our existing work plans, reflects a major step towards engaging in a constructive internal evaluation process.

However, conference discussions did lead to recommendations for moving forward including: Flipping our accountability structure by allowing those we serve to evaluate our work; Examining our history; Involving more youth; Seeing ourselves as community organizers; Changing our funding structures to pay our collaborators; and Partner with larger social justice campaigns (i.e. living wage campaign). What is encouraging is that these questions align well with current research in the field of food justice. For example, see Scorza for guidance on how to move from trickle down engagement to change from the ground up. Also, Levkoe (2011) and Passidomo (2014) provide convincing arguments for “moving beyond food” to connect with broader social justice issues that address the root causes of food insecurity.

A review of literature on Cooperative Extension and food system development reveals that the term “food justice” is absent. Primarily, authors have used “local food system” either in the Journal of Extension (Thomson, Radhakrishna & Bagdonis, 2011; Colasanti, Wright & Reau, 2009; and Raison, 2010) or through the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development (Dunning, et al., 2012). A quantitative study by Thomson, Radhakrishna & Bagdonis (2011), provides an understanding of Extension agent’s perceptions of the local food movement and data was used to develop a framework for Extension agent’s role as educators, which include a “self-reflexive process” (pg. 11). The role of Cooperative Extension agents within the local food movement is a central concern of the literature.

Raison (2010) concludes that facilitation is optimal because agents should help communities build capacity to address food systems issues, while Dunning et al. (2012) uses institutional theory to prescribe ways that Cooperative Extension can support changes at the institutional level such as redesigning evaluation measures, switching out stagnant advisory board members and integrating food systems work across extension program areas. Moving towards a more justice-centered thesis, Colasanti, Wright & Reau (2009) describe a program in Michigan that reinvigorates the civic agriculture mission by “modeling leaderful traits and contributing to a food system that is more participatory, equitable and democratic” (pg. 8). Also, outside of the aforementioned literature, Fitzgerald and Morgan (2014) contribute a food policy council guide for Extension professionals that supports democratization of food systems. According to Winne (2012), food policy councils can be a space for citizens most affected by poor systems to shape policy. From a Community Development perspective, Majee et al. (2014) follows the conclusion of agents as facilitators and argues that they could play a “leading role in coordinating collaborative community and health promotion interventions” (pg. 100).

Beyond the available literature, another helpful resource for framing is work that is already being done to address structural injustice in the food system. North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University (NC A&TSU), as part of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)*, has received a planning grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to develop a process to address structural racism in the food system. As mentioned in another article in this series, the CEFS effort takes on a phased approach involving both internal, organizational work as well as genuine relationship building with community partners. The goal is to develop a shared language and analysis around structural racism and how it affects CEFS as an organization, North Carolina State University (NCSU) and NCA&TSU as land grant institutions, and the food system at large. From there, they intend to create strategies and an overall inclusive plan to tackle the root causes of food insecurity, using the lens of structural racism. Both institutions have taken the initiative to address structural racism in the food system by seeking to embed this analysis in the processes, programs and practices of the School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, NC Cooperative Extension Program Local Food Flagship Program, and CEFS.


As Cooperative Extension begins to critically evaluate its role as an institution supporting the food justice movement, it will be important to continue asking the questions posed at the CLRFS CoP conference. Also leadership and agency from university gatekeepers will be needed. Therefore, how we communicate and frame justice work will require further investigation. What we recommend is a framework based on: Uncovering histories of institutional racism at the national, state, regional and county levels; Reflecting on partnerships to identify how funding has been allocated and how communities hold us accountable; Changing the narrative; and Demystifying the fear of change by engaging in critical internal evaluation.

Lack of control and fear may be our biggest hurdle as we consider confronting the macro level power structures that control our resources. But we cannot be afraid of encouraging our funders to recognize that their current system may negate its potential impacts by rushing engagement with those that are meant to benefit from the funding to begin with. Perhaps the conference was a first step in developing collective agency to evaluate existing funding structures. It will never change, if we never voice our concerns. We have to keep up the momentum from conference discussions, which was our impetus to write this article. Exciting revelations that just remain ‘in the box’ of the conference space will stagnate.

*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.

Title and Author(s) Description

Rural Sociology, (2011) Vol. 75(4). Alternative Food Initiatives Special Issue

  • List of research topics needed for grounded scholarship in shaping alternative food initiatives
  • Explores the role(s) of academic institutions in alternative food movements
Hassanein,N. (2003). Practicing Food Democracy: a Pragmatic Politics of Transformation, Journal of Rural Studies
  • Defines ‘food democracy’ as a theoretical framework
  • Defines food citizenship
  • Supports coalition building to create new democratic spaces and build citizen power

Alkon, A.H. & Agyeman, J. (2011). Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class and Sustainability

  • Applies critical race theory to alternative food movements
  • Applies theories of culture to describe tensions in the local food movement
  • Provides critical reflection to the term ‘local’
  • Describes how market forces influence alternative food initiatives- asking: why are we distracted from addressing race, gender, culture and poverty?
Passidomo, C. (2013). Going “beyond food”: Confronting structures of injustice in food systems research and praxis, Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development
  • Argues for food to be used as a lens to address structural inequalities
  • Lists new research trajectories that explore corporate and state actors
Levkoe, C.Z. (2011). Towards a transformative food politics, Local Environment
  • Discusses the limitations of market-based social change
  • Describes broad scopes of Alternative Food Initiatives
  • Offers a theoretical framework for a transformative food politics as a tool
Sbicca, J. (2012). Growing food justice by planting an anti-oppression foundation: opportunities and obstacles for a budding social movement, Agriculture and Human Values
  • Case study of the People’s Grocery in West Oakland, California
  • Describes the anti-oppression ideology and how it is applied to food justice classes and organizational challenges of implementing it
  • Discusses challenges of diverse ideologies in the food justice movement
  • Argues for the use of anti-oppression framework by food justice organization
  • Describes challenges of food justice organizations implementing justice-oriented work and suggests collaboration with other social justice organizations
White Paper: Facilitating Change in the Food Justice Movement. by The Social Justice Learning Institute and the People’s Grocery
  • Directed towards practitioners
  • Describes recommendations for community-centered evaluation
  • Describes strategies for community engagement that build partnerships and leadership- argues for grassroots approach

“Brown” Paper: Shining a Light In Dark Places: Raising Up the Work of Southern Women of Color in the Food System. Report/Policy Brief provided by the Center for Social Inclusion Food Equity Fellow Shorlette Ammons

  • Describes how folks at all points in the food system can work together to transform our food system by:
    • Changing the narrative;
    • Identifying food systems policy that directly affects women and children;
    • Developing women of color leadership
    • Capacity building and organizational development; and
    • Finding ways to sustain small family farms.


Diem, K. G., Hino, J., Martin, D., & Meisenbach, T. (2011). Is Extension ready to adopt technology for delivering programs and reaching new audiences? Journal of Extension, 49(6), 6FEA1.

Alkon, Alison Hope, and Julian Agyeman. Cultivating food justice: race, class, and sustainability. MIT Press, 2011.

Ammons, S., (2014). Shining a Light in Dark Places: Raising up the work of Southern Women of Color in the Food System- a Policy Brief. Center for Social Inclusion

Bagdonis, J., Radhakrishna, R., & Thomson, J. (2011).Extension Educators’ Perceptions of the Local Food System. Journal of Extension, 49 (4), 1-13.

Colasanti, K., Wright,W., & Reau, B., (2009). Extension, the land-grant mission, and civic agriculture: cultivating change. Journal of Extension, 46(4), article no. 4FEA1.

Dunning, R., Creamer, N., Massey Lelekacs, J., O’Sullivan, J., Thraves, T., & Wymore, T. (2012). Educator and Institutional entrepreneur: Cooperative Extension and the building of localized food systems. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, 3(1), 99-112.

Fitzgerald, N. & Morgan, K., (2014). A Food Policy Guide for Extension Professionals. Journal of Extension, 52(2), Article #2FEA6.

Friedland, W., (2010). New ways of working and organization: Alternative agrifood movements and agrifood researchers. Rural Sociology, 75(4), 601-627. 

Friedland, W. & Ransom, E. & Wolf, S., (2010). Agrifood alternatives and reflexivity in academic practice. Rural Sociology, 75(4), 532-537.

Hassanein, N., (2003). Practicing food democracy: a pragmatic politics of transformation. Journal of Rural Studies, 19, 77-86.Jacob, J., (2013).

Hyden, H., (2014). Unpublished notes from 2014 CLRFS Food Security Conference. Sept.30, 2014

Levkoe, C. Z. (2011). Towards a transformative food politics. Local Environment16(7), 687-705.

Majee, W. & Maltsberger, B. et al., (2014). Collaboration: finding the place for cooperative extension in the intersection of community development and health promotion. Community Development: The Journal of the Community Development Society, 45(1), 90-102.

Passidomo, C. (2013). Going “beyond food”: Confronting structures of injustice in food systems research and praxis. Journal of Agriculture Food Systems and Community Development3(4), 89-93.

Raison, B. (2010). Educators or Facilitators? Clarifying Extension’s Role in the Emerging Local Food Systems Movement. Journal of Extension, 48 (3),1-5.

Sbicca, J. (2012). Growing food justice by planting an anti-oppression foundation: opportunities and obstacles for a budding social movement, Agriculture and Human Values29(4),    455-466.

Scorza, D. & Henderson, N. & Castillo, L., (2012). White Paper: Facilitating Change in the Food Justice Movement. The Social Justice Learning Institute, August.  

Winne, M., and Burgan, M. (2012). Doing Food Policy Councils Right: A Guide to Development and Action. Mark Winne Associates. September.

Winson, A., (2010). The Demand for Healthy Eating: Supporting a Transformative Food “Movement”. Rural Sociology, 75(4), 584-600.


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