Cultivate Your Food Economy

By 2013 Tufts Practical Visionaries Field Project team: Kathleen O’Brien, Marcy Ostberg, Becca Schofield, Hannah Sobel, and Heidi Stucker

Food isn’t just what you eat – it’s also an economic system that we all interact with. Because it is so fundamental to our lives, food is a powerful window through which to better understand how economies work (or not) and how they sustain our communities and ecosystems (or not). With this view, the spring 2013 Practical Visionaries Field Project student team recently completed a project “Cultivate Your Food Economy” to help our community partners catalyze community action for food systems change.

Check out the project outputs at They include a popular education curriculum, Food Economy Engagement Tool (FEET), and community mapping resources, designed to be used by the Practical Visionaries Workshop Steering Committee organizations. However, they are also offered to any other groups interested in catalyzing community-directed action for food systems change.

Cultivate screen

The curriculum engages community members in strengthening collective ownership and control of the food system. FEET helps to guide critical self reflection of our relationship to the food economy, as well as gather data on our food spending and acquisition patterns. The website and dynamic mapping platform are accessible and invite community participation. These resources can guide an evaluation of community food systems and community economy assets and needs at a range of scales and for a range of populations.

This project is motivated by a common vision for a more sovereign regional food economy. It is rooted in the belief that community-based knowledge can bring positive change to our food economy and food system. We expect that these tools will support our Steering Committee organizations’ existing efforts, identify new opportunities for community building, and encourage collaboration between partners.

What is a Field Project?

All first-year graduate students in the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) program at Tufts University take the Field Projects course. With the help of professors and many community partners, these students are divided into groups and assigned a client organization, agency, or group. This client presents a real world problem or need to the student Field Project team, and then the team uses their practical skills and university resources to address this problem or need. The client for this Field Project was the Practical Visionaries Workshop Steering Committee: Kalila Barnett (Alternatives for Community and Environment – ACE), Harry Smith (Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative – DSNI), Meridith Levy (Somerville Community Corporation – SCC), and Penn Loh (Tufts UEP). These groups work in the Roxbury and Dorchester in Boston and City of Somerville. These community leaders asked us to help them engage their constituents in discussion and action towards strengthening the regional food economy. With this goal in mind, we explored the conditions of the food economy in several Boston neighborhoods.

The Practical Visionaries Approach

In order to better understand local food economy conditions, we researched, drafted, piloted, and revised tools for community engagement. Through a review of relevant literature (on community economies, food system assessments, and popular education models) and expert interviews, we defined the purpose of our project and the shape of our deliverables.  We also participated in the Practical Visionaries Workshop, which introduced us to an incredible collection of projects, people, and ideas that informed our work.

Pilots of one of our Popular Education workshops and the FEET survey also helped us revise and improve these tools. The workshop was facilitated at the “Cultivating a New Food Economy” summit, hosted by the Tufts New Economy Group and the New Economics Institute. Approximately 50 people participated and provided feedback on the workshop. This feedback, which was generally positive and supportive, has improved the structure and clarity of the workshop. While the FEET sample size was more limited, feedback from survey participants also helped improve the structure and clarity of the survey. In its current form, FEET can help workshop participants or community members think more deeply about their food purchasing.  After further development, it could also serve as an effective tool for food economy data collection and community mapping.

Next Steps

Through our Practical Visionaries Field Project experience, we came to believe that food is a useful lens for discussing the community economy and popular education is an effective tool for engaging people in this discussion. There are several paths that this project will take over the next several months – we will continue to develop and implement the workshops with our Steering Committee partners, continue mapping food economy assets, and expand our research on job potential within the food economy in the neighborhoods they work in.

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Distinguished Senior Lecturer and Director of Master of Public Policy and Community Practice, Tufts University Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning

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