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Diversity and Engagement in Alternative Food Practice: Community Gardens in Vancouver, B.C.

Throughout my posts, I’ve referred in varying ways to my thesis topic, but as of yet have not fully explained the substance of my research, other than references to something related to food and gardening. I figured it might be useful to take the time now to relay a little a bit more about the question to which I’ve devoted the last year of my life, to give others an idea of what research topics and questions can look like, as well as study designs and methods.

On the broadest level, my research is on community gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia. I examine gardens as an illustrative microcosm of alternative food practice. By that, I basically refer to those initiatives and routines that differ – intentionally – from the conventional agri-food model.  The industrial food system is one which is generally marked by global supply chains, mass food processing and consumption, as well as concerns about environmental degradation and human and animal welfare. In contrast, examples of alternative food practices encompass a range of different initiatives tend to be concerned with themes of well being, embeddedness and scale, and can range from slow food or fair trade movements, organic or local food, to CSAs (community-supported agriculture) and community gardens.

What I am doing is using a social sustainability framework to look at these gardens to answer questions such as, “Who is participating in community gardens? What are individuals’ motivations to garden? What forms of social capital are being created in gardens?”

Part of the rationale of these questions stems from the idea that alternative food initiatives, particularly in North America, can be inaccessible to large swathes of the population, for a number of factors, ranging from race and ethnicity to income. I’m interested in seeing if and what kinds of demographic patterns exist in terms of participation, and how that affects the perception and allocation of benefits from and interactions in the garden.

In order to do this, I’ve been using mixed methods to collect data for my study. The first part involved a number of interviews with community garden coordinators, in order to get a better understanding of the gardens in general, and then to inform the sampling strategy and actual design of a questionnaire, which was phase two of my research.  The questionnaire was conducted primarily online – though I did provide paper questionnaires for a few gardens in order to check on response bias. Data collection finished in June, and I managed to receive almost two hundred responses, which I was very pleased with.

While I’m not quite ready to share my results and conclusions of the study, I must say that the experience of actually doing primary research in this way has been really satisfying and a great opportunity to think through the research process.  It’s also made me think more deeply about the potential of urban agriculture, and how to continue its growth in meaningful ways for all sectors of society.

As you might be able to tell, urban food and food justice are topics I’m pretty passionate about. It’s great to be in a city where there’s so much going on, food-wise. For those of you who are wondering more about my thoughts in this area, feel free to check out one of my posts about urban farming on a friend’s blog.









(A little picture of my own small garden – lettuce, broccoli, kale and more!)

Happy gardening to all!

Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.

Posted on: July 14, 2011, 9:30 am Category: The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , , ,

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