On the very day I finished writing a manuscript about tensions between different perspectives in food system work, Jack Hedin, a farmer I had met during fieldwork in rural Minnesota, called to ask whether I would work with his community of local organic food producers, promoters, their neighbors, and potential allies. He was concerned that he and his colleagues were perceived as being on a "moral high horse"—and that maybe they did think that what they were doing was better than the agroecological practices of their row-cropping neighbors. It was possible that this confidence in their own ideals about food was keeping both camps from appreciating or learning from one another's experiences, particularly when it came to considering the possibilities and limits of their particular ways of producing and procuring food. He had heard, accurately, that I was game for walking into uncomfortable conversations and trying to keep them going until people had been able to learn from one another. I went on to work with Jack, the large regional network of people working on food issues around him, and many others around the state who were facing similar dilemmas. Over the past four years, we have engaged in traditional research as well as a series of games, events, interactive visualizations, and the creation of the interactive online field guide described here, in an attempt to make socially engaged research fun, interesting, accessible, and rewarding enough to be part of a tool kit to shape food policy at a range of scales—from within institutions to municipalities, counties, and states and to national and international governance bodies.

The central resource I describe here is a prototype for a "field guide" to what makes food "good," focusing on how to identify someone else's "good," even if you don't think you agree with that person. 1 I provide a brief description of the project that motivated us to see and understand the specific needs a field guide might fill and then describe the field guide, its uses as we envision them, and some implications and challenges related to these uses. I focus on ways this information-sharing tool may address interaction between competing perspectives on what makes food good, and the values different constituencies prioritize and attempt to institutionalize in the food system. I have been fortunate to work with a large group of collaborators on this project;2 we hope that our field guide may form the backbone of an online interface for organizing the many food system knowledge bases relevant to regional food networks—particularly as such domains of knowledge are rapidly proliferating or being rediscovered.

The southeast region of Minnesota where we began has a considerable history of collaborative multisector knowledge building around transformative and sustainable food systems work—and a parallel suspicion of relating that work to regulation or governance. Having struggled with the barriers this suspicion poses to systemic work on making food good, we have attempted to build a field guide to the food system that serves as a public platform for discussing key features of what people are trying to support and improve in the regional food system. The platform needs to be accessible and interesting, with legitimate and discussable content and knowledge that is at least potentially usable by people across sectors—particularly in contentious emerging food networks related to policy formation efforts.3

To introduce our field guide, I start with an overview of our project's main story line, concentrate on how we created the field guide and what it is, and end by looking ahead to one of its uses as a field guide to difficult dinner conversations (or, as we think of them, "uncomfortable dinner parties") in a new public collaboration, including, among other partners and members of the public, our university's dining service and two major public art institutions. This resource is a work in progress, but one I hope can enrich and be enriched by many different kinds of challenging conversations and dinner parties that might be taking place around the food system. By becoming comfortable with discomfort, and by publicly sharing what we learn from one another having braved hearing contrasting perspectives on what makes food good, we might significantly enhance our ability to work together across different food sectors and cultures to make healthy foods accessible to all.

Background: The Challenge of Finding Accessible Entry Points to Food System Knowledge

As part of a food planning initiative in our region coordinated by the Southeast Minnesota Regional Sustainability Development Partnership (a.k.a., SE, for "Southeast"), an entity connecting publicly led initiatives with resources at the University of Minnesota, a team of students, faculty, and public collaborators were charged by the SE partnership's board with a three-part task: (1) to provide information about how people have come to understand their local and regional food system in different ways; (2) to assess how these ways of understanding the value of local food and agriculture have related to food and agriculture practices; and (3) to elicit conversation about what goals and constraints people identify in relation to their food needs in the region. We held more than two dozen collaborative meetings between different teams of researchers and public collaborators, both at the university and in the region. We also conducted an extensive document and discourse review of ways that people in the region described what was happening in their food system and what they would like to see happen, and 25 in-person and 37 online interviews and surveys corroborating this review.4 We asked people to describe the current food system, their ideal food system, and how they would move from one to the other.

In reviewing the many feasibility studies, local production assessments, and projections of economic and health impacts associated with increasing consumption of food that had been produced in the region, we realized that knowledge about regional food systems was often produced by people with strong ideas about both what is happening and what should happen—usually without negotiation with other perspectives on the food system. Sectoral and ideological divisions in food knowledge have several implications for using such knowledge. These include the problems of both physical and conceptual fragmentation and the inaccessibility of much of the information collected about food systems. Most of this prior research we located was neither reviewed in ways that would make it legitimate to audiences beyond those that commissioned the work, nor systematically available to diverse stakeholders. Further, the entry points most people were likely to use to access food knowledge were associated with particular social networks and bore the baggage of tensions between those networks. For example, key sources of food knowledge included associations supporting: particular commodity producers (pork or dairy) or types of farming (Farm Bureau and FFA [Future Farmers of America] for production-oriented farming or the Land Stewardship Project and Sustainable Farming Association for ecologically oriented farming); economic development authorities (at the municipal or county level); and university public engagement programs and rural development–oriented nongovernmental organizations (such as the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs and Renewing the Countryside, one of our key collaborators).5 Working with mentors practiced in interdisciplinary tactics from across these different arenas as we collected regional food systems knowledge, we saw how difficult it was to navigate the wide range of perspectives on food and, even more, how difficult it was to make sense of the many different and often opposing positions.

We were motivated and impressed by the work in Belgium of Pierre Stassart and his colleagues, who have facilitated a negotiation between grassland beef graziers, the managers of their regional grasslands, and potential consumers of grass-fed beef. Their discussions over their goals for the beef practices they all endorsed resulted in a "standards book" that recorded the three groups' agreements on a set of practices—the product of a significant co-learning and adaptive management process (Stassart 2008). But as we collected food knowledge to support food planning, we found it hard to get our collaborators to agree on a parallel set of goals or practices. Although there was considerable interest in getting more locally produced food into institutions, and in pressing local legislators into legislating more public local food purchasing, we were repeatedly told that much of the low-hanging fruit of achievable local purchasing had already been gathered, and we repeatedly encountered considerable disconnects between the energy and enthusiasm of speechmaking about food goals and work on concrete action to achieve such goals.

Our initial discussions about the possibility of working with existing food processing businesses in the region were particularly polarizing. Our aims of reflecting both prior work and goals of regional groups back into their conversations were in tension with many community members' desire for us to help identify powerful people to whom to deliver effective propaganda. As has been widely observed (Allen and Hinrichs 2007), this was particularly true around issues of power, privilege, and trauma in the food system. Topics such as differential access to safe and decent food jobs and to food itself, despite being consistently front and center in food planning discussions, were mostly overlooked in plans that focused on convincing other people that their food purchasing, production, or regulations methods were wrong and needed repair.

We then attempted to join our desire to build supportive entry points into exploring existing knowledge about many difficult parts of the food system with our public collaborators' desire for clear speaking points and a more functional understanding of how and where power operates in the food system. Collaborating with working groups from the food planning initiative, we thus laid out the initial stages of our field guide to challenges in the food system by addressing three recurring questions:

  • What values are people prioritizing to build a healthy food system in the region?
  • How can people work together to develop community food networks to translate between different food system values in inclusive and reciprocal ways?
  • What do we need next to connect the knowledge we develop together to the decision-making structures that help us build a healthy food system for everyone in the region?
  • What do we need next to connect the knowledge we develop together to the decision-making structures that help us build a healthy food system for everyone in the region?
Figure 1: A Field Guide to What Makes Food Good: A Resource for Collaborative Exploration. The overview and entry diagram to our field guide of food system work: four steps lay out central processes in food production chains (production, processing, distribution, and consumption). Six key categories of food system values are arrayed across the top: economies, policy (which is usually linked with planning, on the left), culture, health, ecology, and fairness.
Click on the links sidebar icon to link to the interactive version of the diagram.
Courtesy of the author.

Drawing on the recent surge of academic literature on alternative agri-food scholarly praxis, we identified key categories in the regional and academic literature that showed common themes stretching across most perspectives, such as the goals of thriving economies, health, ecology, and fairness related to food, in addition to healthy food culture and policy (and planning), as shown in Figure 1.6 We shifted away from identity-based labels as signposts for specific domains of food system knowledge that can be problematic in designating disciplinary or professional expertise exclusive of other kinds of knowledge. Rather we attempted to identify neutral phrasing about what people know about food, organizing the results of our ongoing project in a series of concept diagrams answering the questions, "What makes food good?" and "What parts of the food system do you think could be most improved?" To develop the network of regional resources and potential partnerships identified during our review, and to increase usability of the framework we were using to organize our research process, we created an illustrated index—a text-and-image-based series of diagrams of food system values in Southeast Minnesota. Building these diagrams in the open source educational content mapping software Visual Understanding Environment,7 we used our concept diagrams to collect, to organize, and to link the various parts of our research.

We used the clear diagramming of different food system goals and related practices to support discussion of potentially contentious food system goals such as racial equality or clean water by providing clear context and explicit discussion of implications. Speaking points and clear data illustrations made areas of common ground and also reasons for disagreement clear and available to all participants in food-related efforts. As much as possible, we used familiar phrasing and data developed in the region both to conduct our research and to construct the field guide. Our research expanded into a diagram several layers deep—until we realized we had created the start of an exploratory "field guide" to the food system and began to make our team's conceptual map a public online resource.

We recognized that our guide to food system values needed to be dynamic and interactive to maintain relevance, accuracy, and usefulness (meaning ongoing crowdsourcing or at least continuous evaluation might be crucial for our diagrams to serve as an interactive tool for users to explore existing knowledge available on southeast Minnesota food). So we populated our diagram by compiling and categorizing as comprehensive a list of resources as we could find. We used an iterative process of reviewing diverse perspectives on the food system and evaluating how different people engaged with them, exploring how they talked about similar and different goals and aspirations for a healthy regional food system. We tried to represent the connections they described between these goals and resources in our field guide. For example, as shown in Figure 2, the section of the field guide on "economies" shows how we designed the concept diagram to help organize different economic goals and to embed the content of the large and diverse body of research available in a usable form.

Figure 2: Clicking on "economy / thriving local economies" in the central overview diagram brings the user to a more extensive explanation of the goals associated with "economies," including three subgoals (drawn from the American Planning Association typology, 2007): 2A, food system integration in economic development; 2B, food system viability; and 2C, local markets for local foods.
Courtesy of the author.
Figure 3: Clicking on one of these nodes, such as 2B, food system viability, brings the user to two key themes that have emerged in the southeast Minnesota regional discourse on food related to this subtheme (in darker green), along with examples from diverse sources that show how this priority is phrased in the region and what kind of work is being done about it. Each of these examples is linked back to the source documents (both the live websites from which they are drawn as well as archived copies, in case of website decay).
Courtesy of the author.

For each goal or value represented, we found at least two or three different perspectives, including statements from mainstream and critical perspectives in fields such as public health nutrition, agribusiness infrastructure, and food justice. We attempted to demonstrate bridges between perspectives and institutions by juxtaposing statements by groups that people were likely to think have little in common, such as, above, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (a national nongovernmental organization headquartered in Minnesota and very critical of the current global agri-food regime) and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (a production agriculture research hub). We also included key quotes and stories of practices and experiences from our interviews and observation of public meetings and are working to insert several dozen visual summaries of food research in the region, highlighting key findings along with important metadata, such as where to find the report or data, who to contact for further analysis, and possible uses for each body of research. An additional next step is to make it possible for people to link their own research, interviews, or other information to this database as it grows. We are seeking additional funding to support the development of an advisory board to steer this website to be most useful to Minnesota food networks.

A core organizational principle of our field guide is to highlight contrasts and tensions in ways we hope are supportive by showing some of the context and history of how different perspectives have developed and been maintained. We have made this context public, simple, and yet linked to ample supportive background to try to address the largely emotional and sometimes erroneous stereotyping that has marked some heated conflicts over the legitimacy of particular food system goals in the region. Our goal is not only to make useful projects available to larger audiences but also to engage communities of users in practicing etiquettes for organizing this information in helpful ways—so that when we figure out how to more successfully make such a resource into a participatory graphical wiki, we have templates, instructions, and other tools for keeping the field guide navigable.

We want to make use of the challenge of navigability by convening explicit conversations about what kinds of practices and etiquettes users value in this kind of common, collaborative knowledge tool. We would then hope to build the results of our explorations into the field guide itself. We emulate tools for making the processes of knowledge production explicit in exemplar knowledge commons such as Wikipedia (with its "talk" pages that explain the often contested revision stages of a particular entry). For example, we make explicit our deliberate decisions to partner with particular organizations, or to concentrate on specific combinations of statements about the food system (sometimes pairing moderate and radical statements, for example, to help exhibit social context for discourses about control of seed genetics or land access). As an example of the theme of community–university collaboration central to much food work, we are proposing that our university adopt some features of our field guide as it works to develop its own navigation tools for food research and particularly to consider the value of supportive guides for different kinds of users to interact and share knowledge as they work on food issues within and beyond the domains of scholarly research and higher education.

Learning from a Field Guide: A Process Tool for Equitable Knowledge Sharing

We have attempted to develop our field guide prototype as an arena for people from all parts of the regional food system to articulate their concerns with the current food system and their vision of the ideal. Divergent viewpoints and specific goals are often perceived as impassable obstacles. In this field guide, however, we have seen demonstrations of the value of addressing differences in perspectives. Addressing such difference helps to construct understandings of the food system that are much more complete, inclusive, and accurate—and hence provides better platforms for ongoing support and improvement of the regional food system. Such platforms make it easier to start with common ground about the value of building a healthy food system for all, rather than with disagreement about the diverse methods that will be needed to accomplish that goal.

Although our research has also demonstrated that people vary in how much they think the food system needs to be changed to provide healthy food access for all, most people share a vision of a future food system that is healthy, fair, and supportive of vibrant culture in the region—including agriculture, but also other diverse and satisfying livelihoods. Our project invites people further into conversation about how to achieve that food system by highlighting areas of agreement and putting contentious topics or complementary perspectives into context. This could enable people to facilitate future dialogue, translate between perspectives, and build food system institutions that embody diverse values in the region.

Understanding what is shared—and what is different—in the goals and values associated with specific interventions in food systems may help prioritize broader support for different attempts to improve the regional food system. Perhaps more importantly, presenting various goals and values in context and in relation to one another builds legitimacy for subgoals related to food access, ecology, and economy often subsumed under abstract labels that are themselves sometimes divisive or symbolic, such as the umbrella label of "local food." For example, although the original intent of the food planning initiative was focused around local food, just what local meant, or why particular kinds of local food should be supported over other kinds of food production, was not always made clear or explicit. Although local scales of food system organization may help address some problems of mainstream food systems—such as inequalities in access to healthy food, safe and fulfilling employment, financing, and land and markets that support sustainable agroecological practices—just being local does not necessarily ensure that these important values will be achievable (Born and Purcell 2006).8 As different producers and processors claim different meanings in their uses of labels such as "local," "healthy," and "fair," unpacking what values people want to support in the food system (long-term, more equitable contracts? healthy water and soil? food access for all?) may help address issues that are important to the way that people meet their food needs. Exploring explicitly how commonly used assumptions about local food practices play out across a region may also help cultivate dialogue across different boundaries of "us" and "them" that have created obstacles to cooperation in food systems.

We initially focused on the category of local or regional food: food produced within the region where it is also consumed. Over time, this focus was refined to the category of healthy food access for all within the region, recognizing that healthy people, food, economies, soil, and agroecosystems are all part of what people want and value in local food. Recognizing that regional food systems are valued for a broad range of reasons, from livelihood and health, to quality and culture, to resilient agricultural and ecological systems, we suggested that better understanding the plethora of goals for food systems held by a range of residents—and keeping them visible and available for exploration during food planning processes—could help participants in regional food system networks address difficult questions, including what are the problems that regional food systems might successfully address and how?

We continue to explore how to work with collaborators so that they will want to bring different understandings of the food system together to encourage improved outcomes, mutual learning, and healthy food communities and environments—whether through our field guide or through other processes and tools. We are using the field guide beyond its original functions of organizing meetings, online conversations, and our collective portrait of regional food work to structuring interactive games in public venues, such as the Minnesota State Fair (which gets over a million visitors each year). We are exploring how to incorporate interpretive content in the field guide through the planning and documentation of "uncomfortable dinner parties" at which to discuss challenging food topics and then to archive key insights. As we balance the need to retain navigability with our desire to take advantage of accessible technological tools to represent disparate ways of knowing the food system, a few key lessons learned are worth highlighting.

Developing our field guide has allowed us to broaden, explore, and complicate a series of conventional categories that were constraining negotiation between people in diverse food system positions. Moving beyond a focus on abstract ideas of local or "good" food in favor of a concrete set of efforts and aspirations to make food good in a particular locale has helped disrupt some of the problematic dynamics that Jack pointed out in the conversation that enrolled me in this fascinating line of research. Concentrating on how we have gotten to the food system's current configuration helps invert the problematic association between particular visions of the future and relatively exclusive and privileged identities distinguished by those visions and generates more sympathy for the people who are stuck with unfortunate decisions. This leads to more productive engagement with and the possibilities for changing the conditions that dictate those decisions—a significant departure from the tone of our earlier public meetings.

In addition, this more relational and institutional view of food systems helps people identify ways they can help one another—not only making difficult decisions about food, but even in talking about difficult food topics. A prevalent theme in our interviews was an overpowering sense of the difficulty of talking across different food sectors: people often felt they did not have the legitimacy to speak on a particular topic based on a lack of knowledge, but at the same time, they actively (if not entirely intentionally) discouraged the speaking of those they did not want to hear—and a little food knowledge is a notorious thing.9 As we develop the user manual for our field guide—for example, including how-to sections that function as "finding guides" for particular kinds of food knowledge, and glossaries that help translate between discourses used in differing food sectors and positions—we would like to think that this resource might provide a ready-to-hand manual for sticking with a difficult conversation a little longer, going one step deeper into the systemic nature of food, and one relationship further into the communicative practice that helps institutionalize our food system.

Works Cited

Abi-Nader, Jeanette et al. 2009. Whole Measures for Community Food Systems: Values-Based Planning and Evaluation. Fayston, VT: Center for Whole Communities. http://www.wholecommunities.org/pdf/WholeMeasuresCFS.pdf.

Allen, Patricia and Claire Hinrichs. 2007. "Buying into 'Buy Local': Engagements of United States Local Food Initiatives." In Alternative Food Geographies: Representation and Practice, edited by Damian Maye, Lewis Holloway, and Moya Kneafsey, 255–72. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

American Planning Association. 2007. Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food http://www.planning.org/policy/guides/adopted/food.htm.

Baker, Lauren. 2010. "10 Good Food Ideas." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnA7ifMsKBg

Born, Branden and Mark Purcell. 2006. "Avoiding the Local Trap Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research." Journal of Planning Education and Research 26 (2): 195–207. doi:10.1177/0739456X06291389.

Cadieux, Kirsten Valentine. 2013. "Survey and Communications Tool Exploring Different People's Understandings of Current and Ideal Food Systems: Stage 1." Report to the SE MN Food Planning Initiative. Available from the author or at http://localfoods.umn.edu/sefpi or http://blog.lib.umn.edu/rsdp/southeast/sustainable-agriculture-and-food-systems/southeast-foodshed-planning-initiative-sefpi/.

Guthman, Julie. 2008. "Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practice." Cultural Geographies 15 (4): 431–47.

Slocum, Rachel, Jerry Shannon, Kirsten Valentine Cadieux, and Matthew Beckman. 2011."'Properly, with Love, from Scratch': Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution." Radical History Review 110:178–91.

Stassart, Pierre. 2008. Running an Interdisciplinary Competency Group. Translated by Sue Bradley and Andrew Donaldson. Centre for Rural Economy Discussion Paper Series No.19. http://hdl.handle.net/2268/2228.


1 For more on the context of "good food" work, see Guthman (2008), Baker (2010), and Slocum et al. (2011).

2 For a full list of team members, please see the white paper report on the working process and progress of the Southeast Minnesota Food Planning Initiative, also known as the Southeast Foodshed Planning Initiative: SEFPI (Cadieux 2013). Key members of the team included Jerry Shannon, Jake Overgaard, Maria Frank, Ruth Styles, Natalie Ross, Renata Blumberg, and Molly Turnquist. Jan Joannides at Renewing the Countryside and Mike Greco at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs helped develop the project, and as the director of the SEFPI process, Erin Meier worked with us at all stages and coordinated much of our collaboration with the SE Regional Partnership's board and the SEFPI steering committee and members of the public involved in this project, most notably through a series of  over 25 meetings during which we developed working groups and research plans for better understanding and supporting the food system of the region.

3 Many of the research projects we built upon were archived and remain largely unused by those who would find them most useful. Several factors contribute to the difficulty of making research usable. Research is often conducted in and by particular food sectors that may not share basic assumptions or methods with each other. University-based research units often have a troubled history of equitable and trusting relationships with communities organized around healthy food, given their historical roles as knowledge brokers in agri-food regimes oriented toward concentration and rationalization. And even when there is significant cross-sector community investment in food system research, projects are often archived in offices or on websites where public access is difficult to facilitate and maintain.

4 Other parts of this project involved modeling regional food supply and demand, conducting focus group conversations with local Somali, Latina, and Hmong women, and reviewing food planning projects elsewhere. The part of the analysis my collaborators and I worked on had three central parts:

  • Reviewing as many statements as we could find in the region about what the food system is and what it should be;
  • Surveying people in as many different parts of the food system as we could about what they thought the food system was like and what it should be like; and
  • Facilitating discussions around how to assess and support the various activities through which people try to support and improve the food system, with a focus on how to:
    •  Explore how the food system works and how different values have been incorporated into it;
    • Negotiate and translate between different perspectives on which food system values should be prioritized; and
    • Build institutions that better incorporate diverse perspectives on how to maintain healthy food systems for all.

Additional sources were identified during continuous collaboration with local food projects. We emphasized resources specific to the region or the local chapter of a national organization. The list of resources encompasses a wide range of players in the food system, including nonprofits, industry associations and cooperatives, and commercial entities. Our search process focused on reviewing groups' missions, visions, and/or position statements. We compiled quotes and summaries of statements that best illustrated how each source fit into its salient categories. The sources for all quoted material were recorded, along with a summary of other types of information and resources available from each group's website or other information sources; copies or screenshots of these information source's key overviews were also archived, along with the date and time. All of this information has populated the database that we are using to compose our field guide, which will grow as people add more information.

5 Drawing on their rich history of social engagement practices (from books engaging a range of perspectives on sustaining and renewing rural landscapes and society to events featuring speed dating between farmers and chefs), the people at Renewing the Countryside mentored students and me, collaborating with us as we tried out a large range of methods for supporting challenging food conversations, from traditional surveys to performance art experiments to interactive exhibits and games on the food system at the Minnesota State Fair.

6 See Stassart, Pierre. (2008) and Allen, P. and Hinrichs, C. (2007).

7 VUE is available at http://vue.tufts.edu.

8 We organized the themes we found according to an interpretive scheme drawn from the Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning (American Planning Association 2007), and echoed in Whole Measures for Community Food Systems: Values-Based Planning and Evaluation (Abi-Nader et al. 2009). We used six categories central in both the APA (when combining policy and planning) and Whole Measures frameworks to represent what people value most in the food system. With these categories (and their subcategories), we built a framework to interpret the interviews we conducted by qualitative "coding" or "tagging" by theme. Although we have currently organized the information by food system value area, we would also like to develop an alternative set of entry points based on geography, in which users could click through the layers of the interface based on their geographic location to see which organizations and individuals working on various aspects of the food system are located nearest them.

9 Especially when the benefits of a particular scale of governance (such as the accountability or familiarity of the local or regional scale) are not specified, proponents of particular goals such as health or safety may find their goals difficult to institutionalize, especially in ways that challenge problems of local or regional scale, such as traditionalism or unequal access to privilege and power.

10 It is hard to underestimate the simultaneously energizing and disruptive force of the moral fervor of the converted, as people who had just discovered an enthusiasm for food system reform rushed into meetings of a well-established working group demanding that everyone stop everything to focus on some topic (this happens fairly often with topics like corn syrup and GMOs) about which the newcomer has just read a book whose evidence is often difficult for them to relate or evaluate in ways that support and integrate with the work at hand.

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