By Molly Fremes
There is increasing collaboration between academic institutions and community food security organizations in Canada. The advantage is a sharing of diverse skills, resources, expertise and networks to better achieve systemic change in food access. My experience as a FLEdGE Research Assistant (RA) at Ryerson University’s Centre for Studies in Food Security was exactly that – a chance to truly practice Participatory Action Research (PAR).
So how does a data collection desk job turn into participatory, community-based research? Well, the process started well before I came along, and in my eyes comes down to the strong leadership of the project’s Principle Investigators, Professor Fiona Yeudall and Distinguished Practitioner Debbie Field. Yeudall has a strong social justice lens and holds strong relationships with public, private and community partners, to the benefit of the Department of Nutrition. And Field brings with her 25 years as the Executive Director of FoodShare, a celebrated leader in in community food resiliency. There was an obvious expectation amongst these two women that, since this project was meant to examine the collective impact of community-based food work, it absolutely had to be shaped and tested by our community partners.
Signing on to this project then, I knew that I would not be working on your typical Systemic Literature Review (SLR). Conducting my first ever SLR was a decent learning curve in and of itself. On to it we added the very welcome challenge of integrating some atypical “grey” literature – not just the community reports or policy briefs of an organization, but rather, including the organization itself into the database. By including local community-based food security projects and communities themselves, we were recognizing the value and impact of grassroot leadership and solutions without demanding that their value be determined through an academic peer-reviewed process, or by their “scale”, impact reporting, or ability to attract big philanthropy. It was important for us to recognize those projects with minimal budgets and highly localized mandates that are too often left out of impact analysis because they cannot be “scaled” to a larger, more “sustainable” model for broader systemic impact. While systemic change, is of course, a vision we all share, we did not want to judge the efficacy and local impact of any organization that is making considerable change in food security in their neighbourhood. This approach was shaped in the informal community consultations that were conducted by Yeudall and Field as the project was being developed.
Our SLR Protocol and categorization system was also informed by the public outreach we had through our Vote on Food event, and our National Food Strategy panel at Ryerson’s WC2 Symposium. The diversity of actors that were involved in the planning and participation of all of these events highlighted the need to have these conversations openly and lean into group dynamics and tensions. It also highlighted the “brave” space that could be created at Ryerson when the academic sphere is neutralized through PAR, which has already opened up doors for further collaboration between groups that have had previous communication and ideological challenges.
Having wrapped up the main structure of the SLR, I now have the privilege of continuing my contract with Ryerson to help coordinate the first community partnership pilot to test our categorization with Ecology Action Centre, Heartwood Centre for Community Youth Development, and Dalhousie University’s College of Sustainability. A student capstone project will be using our categorization system in their community focus group to determine its usefulness in capturing the broad impact of food action and activism in Nova Scotia. Their feedback will help shape our revisions to ensure that our project findings are of benefit to communities across Canada. There is also potential for our typology to shape an event for community-based food projects and student collaboration in Toronto. Sharing and collecting feedback on the SLR from our community partners is shaping the next phase of our PAR practice.
Molly Fremes is a Research Assistant at Ryerson University’s Centre for Studies in Food Security (CSFS), and the Events and Communications Coordinator at Nourish. She is a recent graduate from York University’s Masters in Environmental Studies program, with certificates from the Economics for the Anthropocene Program and the Schulich School of Business “Business and Environment” Program. Further information about her 2018 FLEdGE RAship at CSFS can be shared by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org