In September 2013, Michael Powell was honored by the Mayor’s Office of Los Angeles “in appreciation and recognition for [his] participation in the Community Market Conversion Program to bring healthy food to all in Los Angeles.” For the past year and a half, Michael has volunteered to lead the process of converting a typical South LA corner store that sells mostly junk food into a healthier food destination. In places like South and East Los Angeles—areas known often labeled as “food deserts”—many Angelenos lack access to stores where they might buy fresh fruit, vegetables or other healthy food.
For three years, Hanna Garth has been working on an ethnographic project observing and interviewing leaders in the food justice movement. These leaders work with or run organizations with the goal of expanding quality food access among the urban poor, especially those in “food deserts.” The food justice movement includes hundreds of city, county, state, non-profit and private organizations, some with a sole focus on food, and others with food as a secondary focus to social justice.
Hanna has been studying Michael and his work for the past six months. In some ways, Michael is typical of many of Hanna’s interlocutors in her “Los Angeles Food Justice” project. Except that Michael is also a cultural anthropologist. His conversion project is one locale in a larger constellation of sites that make up the loosely-connected food justice movement in LA. Hanna defines participants in the food justice movement as those working toward improving equitable access to healthy food for communities that currently lack access, including parts of South and East LA. Whether or not this is actually a social movement, all of the organizations are engaged in changing the ways in which the urban poor access healthy food.
Because of their common interest and background, Michael and Hanna are now collaborating on an ethnographic project that examines this emerging food justice movement, as well as food deserts, and their intersection with the food policy world in Los Angeles.
Path 1: From Anthropology and Design, To Healthy Food Retail
Michael works at a Los Angeles strategy and design firm whose clients include mostly food retailers. The majority of these clients hire them to design their chain’s prototype “store of the future,” while also consulting on the company’s strategic direction. The firm’s retail innovations seek to create new value for businesses and are based on a strategic connection between a client organization’s capacities, market opportunities, competitive positioning, and the potential for these brands to have some broader social relevance or meaningful public presence.
Alongside this strategy and design work, Michael wanted to use his knowledge, experience and training in the food retail world for the benefit of his local community. He recognized an opportunity for both fieldwork and community engagement with the emerging national media concern about so-called food deserts. Michael knew that while this social problem was framed in a simple, straightforward manner—lower-income areas need stores with produce departments—consumer, shopper and retail dynamics of these markets would likely require a more complex response. He soon encountered the food justice movement, a kind of alternate universe of organizations trying to alter the food retail world, and hoped to both explore this world ethnographically, while simultaneously offering them his insight and expertise.
Michael’s project involved a level of engagement not typical to most anthropological work, but increasingly common. The conversion project, sponsored by the non-profit group Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC), has helped Michael gain access and become entwined in his fieldsite.
In this site, sharing knowledge about consumer habits, helping craft strategies for corner stores, and working on the design and construction to renovate a corner store are all elements of both engagement and ethnographic research with food policy and food justice actors, as well as corner store owners and operators. The project aims to rethink corner store conversion strategies and challenge some existing food justice discourses. Namely, Michael’s project seeks alternative paths towards creating healthier food retail, informed by his professional work. Instead of dropping a produce department into an existing corner store, Michael has questioned some generalizations of the food justice movement’s increasingly normative approach, especially in terms of the role of marketing and store design for shaping shopping behaviors.
While certainly a fruitful engagement, Michael had struggled to create form and clarity for his ethnographic work and cultural analysis. He was also challenged to find the time and necessary analytic distance that would help him make sense of what was happening. Without a preconceived notion of how a collaboration might further his project, an admittedly serendipitous encounter with a fellow anthropologist, Hanna Garth, became the impetus for a new way of looking at his own project.
Path 2: From Food in Cuba, To Food Justice in LA
After completing her dissertation research on how families acquire food in Cuba, Hanna became interested in how food distribution and acquisition differs in a setting like Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, there is an extensive network of organizations with the goal of improving the urban poor’s access to quality food. The organizations that make up the Los Angeles food justice movement and the Cuban families that struggle to get food on the table are two examples of communities responding to the waning of the welfare state, a phenomenon happening across the globe.
After years of slowly conducting the Los Angeles research while writing her dissertation, Hanna had learned a great deal about the lives and motivations of the food justice leaders, but hadn’t seen much action. She found projects and interventions were often stalled due to funding problems. When Hanna met Michael, she finally found someone in the midst of a successful intervention.
For Hanna, this project is still unfolding. She plans to publish a series of articles detailing the underlying motivations for food justice movement leaders, and how this type of movement, though often slow and ineffective, may be a central part of the operations of a post-welfare state. But because she wants this work to benefit people living in food deserts, she also hopes to present information in an easily accessible way to people working in food justice and food policy. Collaborating with Michael may be the best way for her to translate her knowledge into something that can improve the effectiveness of the food justice movement. Hanna provides a crucial perspective that allows both of them to analyze his store conversion for anthropologists and other scholars.
Advantages and Experiments of Collaboration
From the outset, their different, but overlapping perspectives have clearly benefited each other. And while still in a formative stage, they are optimistic that the collaboration may yield more unexpected outcomes.
From Hanna’s position as an academic, the study of policy-makers, knowledge-producers, or privileged actors is often challenging, especially in terms of gaining access and making this work more transparent or tangible. But due to Michael’s training in retail strategy and design, he quickly became part of this conversation. The fieldsite surrounded him. As a result, Michael’s perspective resembles that of a key informant for Hanna’s project, but Michael can also easily provide appropriate analytic support.
From Michael’s position, working with an academic-focused anthropologist helps anchor his writing and analysis. Hanna can analyze Michael’s project from a less engaged vantage point, and connect Michael’s work to broader food justice trends and anthropological discourses. . Without a community of fellow anthropologists, the critical aspect of Michael’s engagement might suffer. Michael’s goal is to not simply work in the service of a client or an existing context as “the anthropologist,” but to also continually challenge his approach to this project and his potentially precarious identity as a cultural anthropologist—not just a food retail or strategy expert.
The collaboration may also lead to methodological innovations. In the course of Michael’s conversion project, he has assembled a team of store designers, paired with a corner store owner, a food justice organization and community lending experts, as well as the insights of consumer packaged goods industry experts. These multiple, disparate discourses constitute a kind of multi-sited experimental system, inspired by the work of Kim and Mike Fortun’s The Asthma Files. In essence, Michael’s store conversion constitutes a new site within a larger multi-sited project that Hanna was already studying using more straightforward ethnographic methods. In this manner, more traditional fieldwork methods can co-exist and draw from the creative energy of a fieldwork experiment.
This collaborative ethnographic research is still a work-in-progress, and to be clear, Hanna and Michael each maintain their own independent projects. Thus far the most fruitful aspect of the collaborative work has been an ongoing intellectual conversation between the two anthropologists. Additionally, sharing networks has created new opportunities for interviews with actors from different perspectives. Dual interviews and participant-observation from both Michael and Hanna’s perspectives have allowed for a multi-faceted collaboration. Simply put, these two anthropologists ask two different sets of questions. While Michael focuses on the store environment as an artifact of material culture, the implications of design and an exploration of alternative business model strategies, Hanna focuses on the ideological challenges and political implications of the food justice movement in the current socioeconomic context of LA.
The outcomes of this anthropological collaboration are potentially productive in multiple registers. In the end, we envision a hybrid approach to an ethnography of and consulting within the food justice world. We hope this approach will enable us to further reflect on and contribute to broader issues in food policy.
Michael Powell has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Rice University. He works for Shook Kelley, a strategy and design firm in Los Angeles, California.
Hanna Garth is a cultural anthropology PhD candidate at UCLA. She studies how people use food systems in Cuba and Los Angeles. She also earned a Master’s in Public Health and implemented a nutrition program in the Philippines. She recently published the edited volume Food and Identity in the Caribbean.