Panel Paper: The Role of Organizations in Food Justice an Illustrative Example

Saturday, November 8, 2014 : 3:50 PM
San Juan (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Martin Greller, The New School
The global issue of food justice is usually addressed as an economic or policy problem. While organizations inevitably figure into the response, their role is not always considered. This paper claims a place for organization analysis and theory in the discussion of food justice, using the experience of one organization (CHF) “providing nutritious food to those who need it most” in food deserts within New York City while connecting consumers with farmers and changing their relationship with the food system.

Traditional CSAs are grounded in an economic model where consumers buy futures contracts for a portion of specific farmers’ harvests – usually a season’s worth in advance. Food sovereignty calls for shared ownership and responsibility by those who grow and consume, focusing on societal forces shaping the food system, but the solutions look to broad movements or narrow politics not the principals’ independent actions.

CHF acknowledged the food system was supported by existing markets and institutions but sought a space among those institutions to act in underserved markets. From an economic perspective CHF occupied a wholesaler space, squeezing costs from the system. It has stabilized the environment (reducing risk and waste) by creating stable relationships among a group of farms, an aggregator, trucking services, and urban community organizations through which food is distributed to consumers. Over time the size of the operation created economies of scale.

The economic effect is achieved partly through the relationships CHF established. CHF brought people together to work toward shared goals, developing common expectations, the ability to anticipate the actions of others, and behaviors that are mutually promotive. The resulting organization culture makes dealings more predictable. CHF built on existing networks of both farmers and urban community organizations. Beyond the economic effect, the social goals and values allow the parties to better pursue their objectives. The values of farmers, consumers, and other partners connect with CHF’s vision. Farmers and truckers chose to work with CHF because of its social mission and value of fair dealing.

Farmers and consumers experience an interdependent relationship and value the wellbeing of each other. The educational activities of CHF enhance consumers’ knowledge of food, nutrition, and culturally compatible food preparation. Youth visit and have hands-on experiences at the farms. Farmers support urban gardening projects of the community organizations. These activities bind people to the organization, its values, and each other.

In terms of traditional indicators of performance, CHF has increased the number of shares, community partners, and farms participating. There is increased participation in education. Farmer – consumer interaction is extensive. The proportion of consumers served who are in economic need has increased.

CHF illustrates an organization emerging in response to community needs playing a role in establishing an alternative within the food system. This is not a replacement for policy, political, and social action. It does suggest organizations are a consideration in the effort to address food justice and sovereignty.