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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 55, Number 2 Spring 2022

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International Committee

Edited by Douglas Perkins, Vanderbilt University and Olga Oliveira Chuna, NOVA University

How can community psychologists work with local food systems? Experiences from Asia and Oceania

Written by Daniel Kelly, University of Auckland, New Zealand and Sean Nicholas, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

We (Sean Nicholas and Dan Kelly) are two doctoral students interested in food systems and community psychology. Sean Nicholas is based in Singapore, volunteering and doing research with employees and volunteers at community and commercial urban farms. Urban farms are a subset of urban agriculture – defined as food production in cities (McClintock, 2018) – that engage in income-generating activities (Giacche et al., 2021; Poulsen et al., 2017).  Dan Kelly is based in Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland in New Zealand, and works with (and alongside) backyard growers, community gardeners and urban farmers. In this article, we explore the motivations for our work, the approaches we've been using, challenges we've encountered and why we think there is a need for more community psychologists to engage with food. In line with broader calls for decolonisation and its decentering of a singular perspective (e.g., Machado de Oliveira, 2021), we explore these ideas here as a dialogue between two connected but distinct voices: a “pre-figuring” of the diversity we hope to support.

Motivations

Dan: My interests in food started with compost and its transformative power. In contrast to the ‘do less harm’ that so often dominates climate discourse, compost (and the food production it enables) seemed to provide a more positive alternative, something we could do that was tangibly better. This focus was a little different from my academic background – I had studied law and science at an undergraduate level in Auckland but had not managed to find somewhere that matched my interest in policy with the extent of change demanded. I spent a few years working for a small sustainability charity then travelled widely, working on farms in France, California, and Michigan. As my involvement slowly deepened, I learned more about food sovereignty and the political dimension woven into the everyday practice of eating (e.g., Patel, 2009), from those excluded by economic inequality (e.g., Robson, 2019) all the way to the corporate capture (e.g., Scrinis, 2020) and fossil fuel dependency that characterises industrial food (e.g., Woods, Williams, Hughes, Black & Murphy, 2010). Then I learned about community psychology, action research, and the history of scholar activism (e.g., Okvat & Kautra, 2011), and it all came together. I knew this was something that I wanted to be part of and contribute to… a reason to celebrate instead of (just) despair.

Sean: My starting point was quite different. I wanted to do research that was directly beneficial to the people involved. This came about because after completing my undergraduate degree and Honours in Psychology, I worked at a healthcare research institute and witnessed how funded intervention-focused research projects often failed due to differences between what researchers thought was necessary, and what participants actually wanted and experienced. I felt that there had to be better approaches and was drawn to community psychology’s convergence of research and action and in particular, the emphasis on participants as collaborators. I sought to apply that in an area that was personally interesting and relevant to me – local food production and consumption. My base curiosity about growing food (and plants) was fueled by the increased political and public attention that was being paid to local food production in Singapore. 

Approach

Sean: Since I started with the intention of wanting to do right by communities, an important part of my research was to first understand the community of people I am working with, in this case, urban farmers in Singapore. I had virtually no links to the local food production scene and so decided to do an internship at an urban farm prior to my doctoral studies, where I was very fortunate to meet and interact with people involved in local food production. When I started my doctoral research, I first had to find farms interested in collaborating on research in this area. I sent many emails to various farms, introducing my open-ended project and gauging their interest. I also had the help of friends who introduced me to farms where they were employed or volunteers. 

I started volunteering weekly at a farm, with full disclosure about my research intentions. The farm is a 2-hectare, not-for-profit community urban farm that practises soil-based organic farming, growing a variety of vegetables and fruits that they sell to sustain their activities. They have a lean pool of employees but a large volunteer force and welcomed me as a volunteer. I discussed my ideas with the farm leader after volunteering for a few months, which resulted in a shift in how I was thinking. While I initially wanted to interview employees and volunteers to find out the challenges they faced and design solutions to these challenges together, the farm leader felt that the interviews would not yield new findings and instead, asked me to think about my own experiences as a volunteer and what experiences were important to me. Through this discussion, we decided that the interviews would focus on people’s experiences, centred around the farm’s goals, processes, and outcomes. These interviews formed a foundation that allowed us to discuss subsequent research areas in line with their needs. 

Dan: I think I share a similar focus, after all, you have to get to know the ‘landscape’ (and the people working in it!) before jumping in with offers to help. As Māori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith so memorably pointed out in Decolonising Methodologies, for many groups, research is “one of the dirtiest words” (Smith, 1999, p.1), tainted by exploitation. So, for me, the only way to address this is to engage deeply and genuinely, risking something of ourselves, which again is one of the big appeals of a community psychology lens. 

Fortunately, and entangled in my decision to start a PhD in this area, I had already been volunteering at an innovative urban farm in Auckland and so had a number of connections that seemed promising. The farm is small (310m2) but densely packed, growing a range of vegetable using what they describe as “regenerative organic” techniques. They sell 35 weekly food boxes via a community-supported agriculture scheme that covers farm wages, but not rent (which is subsidised by Auckland Council). The site has a big focus on education, and the two paid employees (one full-time manager, one part-time apprentice) are supported by a large and rotating roster of volunteers as well as an organising committee off-site. I increased my volunteering hours and eventually tried to initiate discussion with the project’s organisers, however, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as I might have hoped.

Challenges

Dan: Perhaps the first issue I had was the tension between university bureaucracy (needing to construct a PhD proposal that was deemed sufficiently robust) and the open-ended nature of community collaboration (where valuing collaborator agency requires considerable flexibility). In my lived experience and in the literature, I had seen volunteer engagement as a common challenge for urban agriculture and so decided to take a case study approach looking at what the farm I was working with had done well in this regard. This was my attempt to “get to know the landscape” in greater depth, and the first phase of an action research spiral that I hoped would be both collaborative and mutually beneficial as it progressed - something I attempted to explain to the project organisers.

However, even this diagnostic phase had its difficulty. The time scarcity that limits the participation of garden volunteers also affected the project organizers and to be honest, I think I lacked the standing as a young researcher to command their interest. I struggled to “change hats” from volunteer to researcher, and perhaps didn’t have the experience to explain how community psychology could be of benefit to their project in a way that was sufficiently compelling. In the end, my on-ground relationships came through and I was given permission to interview volunteers and several key organisers. However, while I had built strong relationships with the garden manager and other volunteers present day-to-day, our later efforts to collaborate on teaching resources were eventually stymied by the project’s (off-site) organising committee for not aligning with their closely held vision.  

This captured a key issue for me and perhaps reflects the inherently political nature of community collaboration. Even when we are part of a community, have strong relationships within it, and are attempting to be open about our research goals and the quid pro quo that entails, there are always other factors which can intervene. So, I learned that it is really important to figure out who to collaborate with and their standing and relationships – that is, their social power – within the community. 

Sean: Yes, farm work is time-consuming and employees had to juggle both farm and administrative tasks, so while I was able to talk to many other volunteers, I found it a lot harder to find time to speak to employees and the farm management about research-related matters. I worked around this by approaching them at the end of the day, when their tasks were done, and the volunteers were starting to leave. However, I neither used the term “community psychology” when introducing myself and my project, nor did I suggest that my project could be beneficial to them. Instead, I stressed the value of their collaboration to, what I hoped, would be something of wide benefit. I’m not sure what works best, and the answer probably differs in every setting, but what was useful to me was avoiding jargon that might seem pompous and truly believing that I do not have the knowledge that the community has, which makes me highly invested in their feedback and opinions. 

Speaking of power, I sometimes felt that my status as a novice researcher was advantageous because it reduced barriers between myself and the farm that may have arisen if I was an expert. It also helped that I was a complete beginner at farming and made a bunch of mistakes! To build a genuine relationship with the farm, I think it was important that I was perceived as a volunteer more than a researcher.

Dan: ​​That is so interesting hearing how you introduced your project. I agree with the need to drop academic jargon, emphasize collaboration and to trust in the community’s knowledge; I guess my experience has just taught me how imprecise “community” is as a term. I felt I was trying (imperfectly to be sure!) to engage at a “community level,” but didn’t pay sufficient attention to the knowledge or agenda coming from people who were never in the garden itself, but who nonetheless are still very much part of the community in a broader sense. Something I will definitely consider moving forward.

Steps forward

Sean: It is definitely hard to define who is part of the community, and for me, engaging the farm community was the most challenging aspect of my research. I feel that my previous academic and work experience did not adequately prepare me for research with communities. Because of this, I feel it’s imperative to encourage the teaching and practice of community psychology at undergraduate levels. My undergraduate psychology curriculum in Singapore was rather positivist and I was taught to approach research with a “problem solving” mind (that did not work with the farm!). I think it also made me think in a very linear way (for example, these variables will explain this amount of variance and predict this outcome), which I’ve come to realise does not capture the complexities of real-world situations. Hence, I would like to be able to introduce the principles and practices of community psychology to undergraduates, such that they not only appreciate the need to engage communities but are also equipped with the skills needed to work with communities to bring about positive social change. 

Earlier, you mentioned a challenge you faced balancing the uncertainties of a community psychology research project with the university’s need for a detailed research proposal. This is also something that should be addressed. As community psychology gains traction, it would be useful if research related infrastructure, like ethics applications and research proposals, can be adapted to suit the more open-ended, responsive approach of community psychologists (e.g. Campbell, 2016). Ethics applications currently require researchers to state exactly what they expect to happen, but research with communities is often unpredictable. 

Dan: I love the idea of teaching more about community psychology in undergraduate degrees and think there is a real hunger for its real-world applications. Providing opportunities for more hands-on experience or apprenticing also seems key, as there is so much that only seems to make sense when you are actually in that complex, messy and ever-moving social space. But with that said, I also appreciate how sometimes you just have to dive in, make mistakes, and keep showing up. I am definitely a rookie and have got a lot out of hearing other practitioners share their experiences, so am always keen for more opportunities there and the support that such networks provide.

And as for food, I would love for there to be a bigger public conversation around the energy required to produce it, the pollution modern techniques involve, and what sustainable production actually means, from the environmental to the social. As a general rule, farmers are overstressed and underappreciated (e.g., Vayro, Brownlow, Ireland, & March, 2019) and I don’t think existing scholarship is doing a great job of meeting them where they are, especially when we consider the added burden of climate disruption (e.g., Gaupp, Hall, Mitchell, & Dadson, 2019). Food is a huge area of academic inquiry, but as Okvat & Kautra (2011) write, community psychology’s focus and skills have a lot to offer efforts to raise awareness, engage producers and ultimately transform our food systems. This is particularly important given the focus of La Via Campesina – one of the world’s largest political movements (Provost, 2013) – on small farms, bottom-up organising, and grassroots change. 

Sean: I do see community psychology’s potential in helping connect existing insights from scholarship with farmers in ways that are effective for them and help transform our food systems from the bottom-up. As community psychologists, we can also work in interdisciplinary groups to enable collaborative work in the various aspects of food production that you mentioned (pollution, energy use, sustainable production), as these big topics would benefit greatly from diverse expertise, and we ultimately are unable to address these on our own (Brodsky, 2016). For example, we may not have the technical knowledge to measure soil contaminants, but we can design studies that ensure farmers not only want to measure these contaminants to improve their operations, but also learn how to collect such data and are provided with avenues to share their findings. 

We are grateful for this opportunity to share our experiences, and hope that our conversation opens the door (even if just a little) for more discourse on some of the different ways community psychology can contribute to social change. We hope we have provided some food for thought to spur actions to enhance the practice of community psychology and integrate it in teaching and learning. We are also more than happy to engage in conversations on communities and food - please don’t hesitate to reach out! (You may contact us at snic246@aucklanduni.ac.nz and dkel042@aucklanduni.ac.nz). 

Note: 

Proposals for future TCP International columns may be sent to: cunhaolgaoliveira@gmail.com and d.perkins@vanderbilt.edu 

 

References

Brodsky, A. E. (2016). Taking a stand: The next 50 years of community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 58(3-4), 284-293. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12045

Campbell, R. (2016). “It's the way that you do it”: Developing an ethical framework for community psychology research and action. American Journal of Community Psychology58(3-4), 294-302. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12037

Gaupp, F., Hall, J., Mitchell, D., & Dadson, S. (2019). Increasing risks of multiple breadbasket failure under 1.5 and 2 °C global warming. Agricultural Systems, 175, 34–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2019.05.010

Giacchè, G., Consalès, J. N., Grard, B. J., Daniel, A. C., & Chenu, C. (2021). Toward an evaluation of cultural ecosystem services delivered by urban micro-farms. Sustainability, 13(4), 1716. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13041716

Machado de Oliveira, V. (2021). Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism. North Atlantic Books. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/675703/hospicing-modernity-by-vanessa-machado-de-oliveira/

McClintock, N. (2018). Urban agriculture, racial capitalism, and resistance in the settler-colonial city. Geography Compass, 12(6). https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12373 

Okvat, H. A., & Zautra, A. J. (2011). Community Gardening: A Parsimonious Path to Individual, Community, and Environmental Resilience. American Journal of Community Psychology, 47(3), 374–387. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10464-010-9404-z

Patel, R. (2009). Food sovereignty. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 36(3), 663–706. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150903143079

Poulsen, M. N., Neff, R. A., & Winch, P. J. (2017). The multifunctionality of urban farming: perceived benefits for neighbourhood improvement. Local Environment, 22(11), 1411-1427. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2017.1357686 

Provost, C. (2013, June 17). La Via Campesina celebrates 20 years of standing up for food sovereignty. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/jun/17/la-via-campesina-food-sovereignty

Robson, S. (2019, October 16). Auckland City Mission: 10% of Kiwis experiencing food insecurity. RNZ. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/401082/auckland-city-mission-10-percent-of-kiwis-experiencing-food-insecurity

Scrinis, G. (2020). Ultra-processed foods and the corporate capture of nutrition—An essay by Gyorgy Scrinis. BMJ, 371, m4601. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4601

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1st ed.). Zed books.

Vayro, C., Brownlow, C., Ireland, M., & March, S. (2020). ‘Farming is not Just an Occupation [but] a Whole Lifestyle’: A Qualitative Examination of Lifestyle and Cultural Factors Affecting Mental Health Help-Seeking in Australian Farmers. Sociologia Ruralis, 60(1), 151–173. https://doi.org/10.1111/soru.12274

Woods, J., Williams, A., Hughes, J. K., Black, M., & Murphy, R. (2010). Energy and the food system. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1554), 2991–3006. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2010.0172