Engaging with Environmental Justice: Community Asset Mapping and the Food System

Deborah Van Hoewyk

Community Asset Mapping and the Food System

“Environmental justice” can be massive, history-changing action—huge in its discovery, dramatic in its action, restorative in its outcome.  Think A Civil Action, the film that narrates the tragedy of toxic chemical waste poured into Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York—and the successful lawsuit that brought some recompense to the people poisoned by that waste.  Love Canal was responsible for the Superfund—the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980—and the entire notion of brownfield cleanups as integral to urban development.

Of course, environmental justice action can be a dragged-out struggle, and it’s not always successful.  (How are we doing on pipeline protests in 2017?)  But starting small, at the grassroots, from the ground up, almost always brings rewards.

Food Justice and the Food System

Food justice is not always linked to environmental justice, but it’s moving closer as more people recognize that the benefits and burdens of how and where food is produced and processed, transported and distributed, purchased and consumed, and finally disposed of—i.e., the “food system”—must be equitably shared across society.  There are any number of definitions of food justice, but at bottom the issue is whether any given person, neighborhood, or community has equal access and power to affect the workings of the food system to ensure that it meets their physical, financial, social, and cultural needs.

Community Asset Mapping → Community Food Assessment

Community asset mapping is a technique developed in the 1990s by a pair of Northwestern University professors, John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight.  Asset-based community development (ABCD) was concerned with existing community capacity and sustainable development, as opposed to the prevailing top-down, deficits-based, fix-it-with-external-resources approach.   ABCD introduced the ideas of community empowerment and marshalling internal assets to solve community problems.

A community food assessment builds on asset-mapping techniques to create a portrait of community food security at the food system level, rather than just identifying the number of individuals and/or families that suffer from food insecurity.

Using the food system perspective helps your assessment identify underlying causes of problems, thus leading to solutions that eliminate or prevent the cause.  When a community starts looking at the structure of the food system, people can create a vision of change.  The assessment process leads to community engagement and ownership, changes in the food system that truly benefit their own community, and cross-sector strategies that increase community capacity.

Bayside, Portland, Maine

With support from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund and partnerships with Avesta Housing, a major affordable housing developer in northern New England, as well as a private property owner, the Bayside Neighborhood Association has established a new garden in Portland’s most distressed neighborhood.  The ten plots of the Unity Pearls Family Community Garden established last summer were snapped up by African and Latino families; this summer’s plan is to build wider community engagement with these families and 30 more (funding from the City); the major tool for building engagement is a community food assessment.  

The basic steps in the assessment will be to develop community participation (always a difficult task in Bayside, since the substantial immigrant and low-income population is slow to engage with other groups, let alone organizations and City departments); we plan to start with bed-owners and social events to encourage participation, a strategy that has started working in a small way for us.  Initial discussions of the food system, using the garden itself as the starting point, will introduce the idea of assessment, develop the issues people need to know more about, and identify the information resources we need to do it.  (The assessment itself is already funded.)

This early phase is intended to build community ownership and last until we can begin collaboration with “consultants”:  students/interns from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, as well as volunteers from the recently-organized Portland Food Council; as the garden season closes, the community gardeners and the consultants will work together to design and conduct the actual research.  The teams will  meet to discuss findings, envision solutions, and prepare goals and objectives for food system work.  Along the way, the team(s) will start establishing relationships with agencies and organizations that can help identify strategies for achieving the goals and objectives of the “new and improved” Bayside Neighborhood Food System, whose chief stakeholders will be the families and kids of the Unity Pearls Family Community Garden.   

The clearest, most comprehensive resource for conducting a community food asset is What’s Cooking in Your Food System:  A Guide to Community Food Assessment, by Kami Pothukuchi, Hugh Joseph, Hannah Burton, and Andy Fisher, published by the Community Food Security Coalition in 2002.   The Guide is downloadable from http://alivebynature.com/pubs.html (it’s also available on a number of food policy websites by googling the title).