Food Sovereignty Report | spotlight

Last summer, Emily Braddock ’22 began a research project examining community perspectives on food justice and food sovereignty in Worcester. With support from A new Earth conversation and the ClarkCONNECT fellows program, she began interviewing community partners involved with food access work in the city to survey what is currently happening here, with an eye to further pathways toward food sovereignty for all.

While completing her project, Emily was actively involved in bringing these conversations to campus. In October, she worked with LEEP Fellows Kathryn Jeffreys and Adeline Hebert to host a community dialogue on the intersections between racial, climate, and food justice. Further dialogues on these issues are being planned for the coming year.

You can read Emily’s full report by clicking the link below.

Food Sovereignty in Worcester: Community Understandings and Possibilities for Action

In your report, you write that food sovereignty offers a transformative approach to our market-based food system, and “does not only demand the right of all people to food access… [but] demands the right of all people to have control over the means of that food access” (p. 5). Why do you think this framework is so critical now?  

With the COVID pandemic right now, we’re seeing food insecurity rise not only globally but also here in Massachusetts. What’s deadly about food insecurity right now especially, is that it is tied to diet-related illness and obesity, which contribute to adverse outcomes if you get COVID. I think the food sovereignty framework is so important during this time because it helps people to see that this is not just an issue of access, but rather an issue of who has control over the food system. The reason food deserts exist in the US, is because chain grocery stores, which dominate the food sales landscape, won’t set up shop in impoverished communities because of the crime risk, etc. And the reason the cheapest and most readily available foods in grocery stores are also the most unhealthy, is because the US Department of Agriculture subsidizes industrial crops like corn, soy, and wheat. I think the food sovereignty framework is important because it shows us that putting our food system in the hands of communities, by supporting small grocers, local farmers, and community-food cooperatives, is one of the best ways to combat the systemic injustices we’re dealing with around food.

I also think food sovereignty is really critical right now because of the climate crisis. Industrial agriculture puts large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and is a less understood contributor to the climate crisis. However, the food sovereignty framework prioritizes supporting small farmers. The more we can support small farmers, the more resilient and equitable our food system will be.

Looking back to when you started this research, what new questions have emerged for you through this process?  

One of the biggest questions that’s emerged for me is: what strategies can we use to increase community stakeholdership in the US food system? A lot of the folks I interviewed work for great programs in Worcester that are certainly trying to make the food system more just. However, aside from a few initiatives like YouthGrow (through the Regional Environmental Council), most are led by people who are not directly impacted by food insecurity. One interviewee mentioned that they’ve struggled to incorporate more diverse community leadership in their work. I think we need examples and case-studies from other places in the US on how to make this work. Another question that I’m interested in pursuing further, is what sort of knowledge base there is around purchasing local or organic foods, or growing your own food, in Worcester. Some of my interviewees said they think a lot of immigrants in Worcester have a knowledge of healthy eating and growing food for home consumption. Doing some kind of systematic survey to document this knowledge would be helpful in determining what programs are needed moving forward.

How has this research shaped your own thinking on food sovereignty and the work you’d like to do moving forward?   

This research really opened my eyes to the difficulties of achieving food sovereignty in the US. I think part of the challenge is that in the US, there are so many layers of separation between average citizens and the actors and interests that control the food system. For example, if you have a lower-income individual who receives Healthy Incentive Program (HIP) benefits, then they have more agency over their food access than they would have normally, and the local food economy is supported. That strengthens the possibility of community food sovereignty. But if you’re really trying to achieve a food sovereign system, then the community itself would ideally be controlling HIP benefits and deciding what foods are eligible, rather than the government. Moving forward, I’m interested in doing more research on cooperative food economies in New England, which I think is about the closest anything has gotten to food sovereignty here in the US. After finishing school, I also hope to travel overseas to learn from individuals working in the food sovereignty movement there, particularly Southeast Asia.

How did the community interviews impact the direction of this project?  

The community interviews really helped shape the interview questions I used. I started out with interview questions that were very broad, like “what populations does your organization serve?” and “how would you like to see your organization’s work grow over the next five years?”  But then I sat down for my first interview, and my interviewee had such a wealth of knowledge and expertise on the Worcester food system, and I really wanted to tap into that. So I started asking more sophisticated questions about the food system, like “what is your theory of change for the Worcester food system?” and “what do you think needs to happen for Worcester to achieve more food sovereignty/food justice?” And this really shaped how I structured my report in the end. I think that’s probably typical in research, where you go in with one set of questions that you think are important, but then once you start talking to people, realize these aren’t the questions you want to be asking at all. In general, my interviewees opened my eyes to a whole world of food advocacy in Worcester, which inspired me to keep going throughout this project.

What do you hope our Clark community will take away from this research?  

One of the things I hope the Clark community will take away from this research, is that there’s a lot we can do here at Clark to support the movement for food sovereignty. Clark is an important stakeholder in the local food system, and if Clark were to adopt practices that support the local food economy, including locally owned restaurants, this could have reverberating effects on the strength of the community food system in this entire region. In my report, I talk about how other schools in New England like UMass Amherst source a large percentage of their food locally. In the case of UMass Amherst, this was spearheaded by student activists. I hope that after reading this report, students and faculty in our Clark community will be excited to organize around food sovereignty at Clark. By increasing the control that we as students, faculty, and members of the Clark community have in determining the Clark food system, we would actually be asserting food sovereignty on a micro level. In my report, I discuss different ideas for organizing around food sovereignty here at Clark, as well as ideas for community action research.

Emily Braddock is a junior at Clark University majoring in International Development. She is passionate about environmental justice, food sovereignty, and education, and hopes to combine these topics in her future career. Before coming to Clark, she spent three months in Thailand and India learning about sustainable farming and development, and hopes to work in Southeast Asia after finishing school. Outside of academics, Emily enjoys organizing with the Clark Climate Justice club, traveling, and exploring new places to hike around Massachusetts and her home state of Colorado. She is grateful for the experience of being a student fellow with A new Earth conversation, and is excited to share her summer research on food sovereignty in Worcester!