Learning for Community Food Work through Story:  Possibilities for Hope and Transformation


Note:  This section is partially an adaption from Niewolny, K. and D'Adamo-Damery,  P (In Press).  Learning through story as political praxis: The role of narratives in community food work.  In Sumner, J. (Ed.), Learning, food, and sustainability:  Sites for resistance and change.  New York:  Palgrave/Macmillan.


One of the The Appalachian Foodshed Project’s (AFP) aims is to help build community capacity and organizational cohesion across the food system in the region.  This work is being addressed in a number of ways.  In spring 2013, an initiative was launched to create and share narratives or “stories” that illustrate the lived experiences of activists, educators, farmers, and practitioners who are involved in a variety of Appalachian organizations and groups that are connected to the broader issues of food system change in the region.  The impetus for creating a regional narrative of food system work comes from the practitioners themselves who are eager to create a regional network yet struggle with the formative process of crafting and weaving their stories and actions together.  The making of narratives has, therefore, been important to the regional community as a way to create hope for the work while circumventing the barriers to learning enacted by geographical and organizational boundaries.

For the purposes of this initiative, we have chosen to interact with three alternative food movement discourses according to the intended end goals of our narrative project to engage with the generative possibility of stories as sites of learning and knowing. Therefore, it is not our intention to focus on one alternative food movement (e.g., food security) or social movement sector (e.g., sustainable food production); instead, we embrace the intersections of community food systems, community food security, and community food work as fluid concepts and “community-level” discourses, to better embrace the multiplicity of “cultural worker” experiences and their possibilities for change in our food systems.

First, community food systems is a concept that has been under-theorized and consequently invoked in contradictory ways (Feenstra, 2002; Feenstra & Campbell, 1996). We view the concept as an attempted response to the “local trap”, which is building upon Born and Purcell’s (2006) argument challenging the popular notion that local food systems are inherently more sustainable or more socially just simply based on their scale. Whereas the supply chain element of local and regional food systems might be instrumentalized to economic ends and geographical scale, community food systems includes a more explicitly social component. In one article, Feenstra (2002) described a community food system as “a collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies – one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place” (p. 100). The system described here has the hallmarks of the local and regional food systems with the addition of an emphasis on social health. The meaning of social health is unclear, but it creates an (albeit, small) impediment to economic instrumentalization.  In the cited definition, Feenstra (2002) challenged the assumption of community food system as a noun by terming it a process—a verb. This may be read to illustrate the shifting composition of food systems—denoting their nature as one of process rather than a static and pre-determined end.

Related to the discourse of community food systems is community food security. Here we point to Hamm and Bellows’ (2003) definition as “a situation in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice” (p. 37).  Following the emergence of the local food movement in North America, we see a growing concern for our ability to fairly and justly address the “wicked problem” of food security (Hamm, 2009). Since the 1990s, publicly and privately funded initiatives have surged to tackle the complex issues of food access and availability with/in limited resource communities under the umbrella of community food security (Allen, 2004). These initiatives illustrate the complexity of food system politics that stretch across our urban and rural landscapes (Pothukuchi, Siedenburg, & Abi-Nader, 2007).

It should be noted, however, that Hamm and Bellows (2003) are perhaps describing an end goal or something to be attained. In the literature, we have found the connections between community food systems and security to be implicit; however, we suggest that community food systems are the process through which the goals of community food security might be achieved.  For instance, Abi-Nader et al. (2009) have posited six fields of practice that constitute community food security work: justice and fairness; strong communities; vibrant farms and gardens; healthy people; sustainable ecosystems; and thriving local economies. The first two fields underpin the latter four (Embry, Fryman, Habib, & Abi-Nader, 2012).

Lastly, we refer to the description of alternative food movements to be an expression of community food work.  Drawing from Slocum (2007), we embrace this terminology throughout our own praxis due to its politicized and inclusive meaning that embraces both the processes and end goals of alternative food movement work. Slocum articulated four domains that constitute alternative food efforts, those that focus on: 1) farm sustainability – related to connecting small-scale farmers to markets; 2) nutrition education – with emphases on the prevention of diet-related illnesses; 3) environmental sustainability – related to the development and support of more ecologically sound agricultural production; and 4) social justice – which consists of a bifurcated approach—producer/worker rights and hunger/food insecurity. Slocum termed the integration of these approaches, community food work. Tanaka et al. (2005) further acknowledge both movement processes and goals in defining community food work as “facilitating concerned citizens, activists, and professionals to build capacity to define and address food-security challenges in their own communities” (p 2).   

Learning for Community Food Work through Story with Narratives

Since 2013, we, as a scholar/practitioner community, have generated 54 narratives, or “practice stories,” from regional activists, educators, and practitioners who operate in community food work and, in some explicit instances, the community food security movement (Niewolny & D’Adamo-Damery, 2014; D’Adamo-Damery, 2014). These actors are involved in a variety of organizations, but each is in some way connected to the broader issues of food system change articulated in the previous sections of this chapter. The geographic region covered by the AFP is composed of mountains—hollers and hills—which can make travel from one community to another circuitous, time-consuming, and in many instances, downright difficult. On one level, the sharing of narratives of work and practice has been important to our regional community, a way to circumvent the barriers to learning enacted by geographic and geologic boundaries. On another level, we suggest that these narratives have epistemological and ontological connections across our immanently constructed hills and hollers—the essentialist patterns of thought that ossify current connections and make new thought circuitous, time-consuming, and downright difficult.

As we noted in the opening section, the material and corporeal effects of our food system are a maddening and wicked problem.  For some, food insecurity is a profound issue that cannot be “solved” with uniform solutions or technical answers but rather by systems and spaces of integration, coordination, and experimentation that are geared toward emergence and the generation of the new (N. D’Adamo-Damery, Ziegler, & P. D’Adamo-Damery, 2015; Snowden, 2002).  Particularly, we argue here, by drawing upon a philosophy of difference and possibility (see Deleuze & Guattari, 1980/1987), that such spaces are opulent places of new knowledges of community food work that productively contest and add to our conceptions of justice and hope, thus opening new possibilities for life-affirming effects with/in the food system. We suggest that narratives contain these spaces. Within the stories we have collected there lies an ordinary, singular, and unfinished quality that, “…is not so much a deficiency as a resource, like a fog of immanent forces still moving even though so much has already happened and there seems to be plenty that's set in stone” (Stewart, 2007, p. 127). The uneven unfinishedness of the narratives are connected, here and there, as the reader plugs into the narrative, but something ontological is done as the reader of the edited and compiled narratives reads. As Manning (2009) observed, “things aren’t as stable as you thought they were” (p. 97). Though they have been constrained through textual representation, narratives retain shreds of heterogeneity of difference, imbued with affect, in which the reader connects to and with.

We want to briefly cover some of our thought, methodology, and methods that went into generating the narratives. Our general approach is in the realm of narrative inquiry (Connelly & Clandinin, 2005). We use the definition of “narrative” to mean both a process and a product in this particular design and approach (Richmond, 2002). This includes treating the stories as both a process of reflexivity through storytelling and the products of engaging, activity and performativity, with everyday knowledges that inform community food work practice. In terms of community direction and involvement in this effort, we followed action research principles (Greenwood & Levin, 2007) with regional practitioners participating in the initial design of storytelling prompts, questions, and locations to conduct the narratives. This approach allowed the practitioners to tell their own stories of community food work through a series of “prompting” questions to emphasize their personal meanings and histories. The in-depth interview process took approximately two hours and was oriented for practitioners to share: 1) her/his/their past experiences in the community and/or community food work, 2) a current illustration of community food work that is significantly meaningful, and 3) future hopes, aspirations, and intentions for their community food work. Following our university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) processes, each narrative was consented to, audio-recorded, transcribed, re-transcribed with editing, and configured as a public “narrative” through a co-reading and framing process with the interviewers and practitioners. This co-authoring process included careful attention to practitioner responses and consent for public use. It is important to note that the narratives have a number of intersections with learning in the region and beyond. This includes the personal and reflexive experiences of the interviewers and practitioners as narrative authors. It also comprises newly crafted knowledges and realities of community food work from across our Appalachian communities through the dissemination of the stories. The narratives also have purpose in generating creativity and idea-making capacity within our university classrooms and public settings in the reading and (re)telling of these stories of cultural work. Lastly, building on previous points, we suggest that the generative quality of the narratives actually craft productive, “life affirming” possibilities and strategies in our learning of community food work, thus moving the needle towards “better” food security in our communities.         

In what follows, we have pulled three short excerpts from the narratives of central Appalachian community food work. These examples were selected for various reasons, not the least of which, are the multiplicity of resonances, waiting to be taken up by the reader. Consonant with D’Adamo-Damery (2014), we argue that the juxtaposition of multiple, affectively chosen narrative excerpts sets off series of vibrations and resonances between the text and the networked reader (Manning, 2009). In moments of engagement with the narrative, meaning is made immanently. To put it differently, the reader populates the excerpts with meaning as s/he/they read the text.  The meaning does not exist a priori. This means, making sense of the text as a “middle,” not necessarily a beginning or end (Deleuze & Guattari, 1980/1987). Although this experience may be disorienting, we have found it useful to enter the text with a degree of unknowing, uncertainty, and openness—reading for resonances, difference--probing the possible.

corner store

I think that this corner store project really shows that this work has to be benefitting all of the key players. The store-owner has to be making money off of it; it has to be at a price that the people are willing and able to pay for it, and then it needs to be reliable…. I think food systems work is very segregated, like “We’re doing it for obesity,” and “Well we’re doing it for farmers’ rights.” And then, “Well we’re doing it for animal rights.” And it’s like “No, no, we’re all doing the same thing.” If we could just find some common language and start breaking down some of those barriers. Like who doesn’t want healthy corner store options that the owner is making money off of? The more money she makes the more taxes she has to pay and the more we get that money back. So it’s like every single avenue. The more healthy food she sells the more healthy food she can buy. The more healthy food she can buy the more farmers get to produce them. It’s like there’s a whole cycle of people who are being affected, but because we so often only think of like “You only care about it being low calorie, you only care about it being local, and you only care…” It’s like, “We’re all working towards the same thing. Our partners can really look like anything as long as that common goal is shared.


I’ve found most people coming at farm-to-school come from a health perspective, so they’re not thinking about the farmer, and they’re not thinking about the economic piece of the work. Because when we actually started this farm-to-school work, our first question was, “Is this a market that’s good for farmers? Can farmers make money?” Access to other more lucrative markets would make farm-to-school less appealing to farmers, as it should. Farmers, bottom line, have to make money. We’ve really come around to thinking that the educational components are what are needed. The elephant in the room around school food is that schools just don’t have enough money to spend on food. After they pay everything they have to pay; their salaries, their equipment costs, their indirect costs, they have about a dollar left over per meal. That’s just not sufficient, not to do all the things we want it to do. And it’s not their fault. And so until we address the basic funding issue we’re not going to see it. We can grant support things all day in different parts of the country in different schools, but that’s not a long-term solution. So we’d rather focus on the educational components:  the school gardens, the cooking, the cafeteria taste tests, and the farm field trips. Even if you drastically change that plate, if there’s not the education to go with it, why would the kids respond to it? It’s just unknown.

moving forward

I am looking forward to not being so mad about decisions that are made for me instead of with me. I’m excited about that. I really do want to live in a world where we are more valued; especially these huge populations of people who are suffering from these systems that we’ve created. You can’t put blame on a person who is operating in a system that’s holding them down. And so whether that’s ageism or poverty or racism.  I’m looking forward to those things being a little less heavy on everything that we’re doing.  I mean we already do value people, we just do it wrong. The wrong people are getting paid the wrong amount of money for the wrong things. And not everyone. There are a lot of people out there making good dollars, and they should continue making it, but where do we place value? We aren’t giving people the skills they need, and then we’re mad that they are not able to produce anything. And I’m like “This was your system. They went through your public health care, your public school system, who do you have to blame for that?” I totally believe in those programs. I just believe that it’s too little too late. It needed to be done when they were six months old with health care and education and job training for their parents. We are constantly looking for the next policy or environment we can try to change. The youth are the ones telling us, especially because they’re the ones living it. And some of its funding. Right now we can get money to do food security work because the need is there. And so, in 10 years, wherever that funding need is, is where the need is, and hopefully it will be more of a holistic view.

 Considerations and Possibilities

We suggest that the narratives of the AFP in central Appalachia provide a space to engage with a particular methodology and the voices and realities this work embodies.  We also argue that the collecting, editing, and disseminating of community food narratives is not an apolitical fact of empirical documentation; rather it is cultural and ontological work—a generative process of (re)creating meanings about our food system. To this effort, actor narratives contain potentials and possibilities for emergent and transformative community food work. As noted above, the material and corporeal effects of our food system are a maddening and wicked problem. We argue that such wickedness, including food insecurity, hunger, and ecological unsustainability, are complex problems that intersect with larger systems of oppression and injustice that will not be “solved” by technical and rational “best practices” to be applied across time and space but rather, if engaged and embraced, by new systems of knowing, integration, coordination, and experimentation that both build upon, (de)construct, and deterritorialize our historical approaches to community food work—enabling new possibilities for life-affirming change in our systems and communities. 


To visit our site of “Stories of Community Food Work in Appalachia,” please folllow this link:  http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/niewolny/


Note:  The stories are co-created to highlight the voice of the practitioner in the journey to his or her current position, experiences in that position, and words of reflection and advice from the work. We will be adding to this site over the next few months.  Please revisit for updates.


The AFP Narratiave Initative Team:

Dr. Kim Niewolny, Virginia Tech: niewolny@vt.edu

Dr. Philip D'Adamo-Damery, Virginia Tech:  pdadamery@vt.edu

Rebecca Landis:  Lrebec4@vt.edu


For a list of references, please contact Kim Niewolny. 

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