Waves grasping for wheat
art by Gerardo Valera

Research Approach

The Food Justice Lab is committed to the process of collective inquiry. We approach our research through service learning and active engagement. Grounded in ethnographic methodologies, our work with anti-hunger activists, farmers, community development organizations, governments, foundations, and civil society advocacy groups helps us to make sense of the integrated and complex social dynamics contributing to injustice in our food system. Engaging across institutional differences also helps us identify pathways to building more inclusive and equitable food futures. Our research approach centers on seven core fields of inquiry.

Participatory Action Research & Accompaniment

Our methodology supports capacity building of activists and organizations working toward food justice, engages with marginalized communities to elevate their stories and struggles, contributes to community projects, follows the lead of community members through multiple stages of the research process and shares ownership over the results.

Derived from the latin Ad Cum Panis, the etymology of accompaniment points to the act of breaking bread with another person, with a compañero, on a mutual journey toward liberation from oppression. The sharing of bread in this case is not a unidirectional act of charitable giving, but one of collective nourishment and common experience that comes from bearing witness to acts of violence and restitution, pain and healing, fellowship and struggle over time. Accompaniment prioritizes work by and with the poor, the landless, the dispossessed, in explicit opposition to oppressive forces and institutions that reinforce the marginalization of oppressed communities.

Solidarity Economies

We recognize that the economic levers currently guiding relationships between people the environment, including the ways we have structured our industrial food system are exploitative and ecologically unsustainable. We also recognize the hidden, marginalized and diverse economic experiments that challenge dominant ideas competitive profit seeking. Our research highlights alternative economic activities based on care, mutual aid and solidarity and their place in helping us imagine and build alternative food futures.

The Right to Food

Food is a basic human right. Everyone regardless of their age, race, gender, social class or history should have regular access to safe, healthy and culturally appropriate food. This right has been codified under international law since 1948 and over 30 countries have an explicit recognition of the right to adequate food in their constitutions. Our research highlights the institutional structures that fulfill or hinder this right in different places and works to advance the Right to Food both discursively and in practice.

Food Access

People’s access to food is shaped by political, economic, social and environmental factors. Household food access differs based on a variety of factors including income, identity, knowledge, location and crises. Our research highlights the causes of food access disparities and analyzes the various strategies people use to source and secure food including markets, the state, charities, self-provisioning and farming. 

Food Systems and Policy

The contemporary food system is a complex assemblage of social actors that include state governments, farmers, processors, retailers, consumers and civil society groups advocating for different policy goals.  Because food policy sets the rules that shape local, regional, national and global food systems, our research seeks to understand the laws governing food from production to distribution and the distribution of benefits and burdens across this system.

Critical GIS

While we draw heavily on GIS technologies to make sense of pressing food access issues, we remain acutely aware that the tools conceptualize reality in ways that are highly fraught and power laden. We encourage community stakeholders to engage and break our maps through an interative process of re-mapping and counter-mapping that offers useful tools and concepts for food system developers, policy makers and anti-hunger activists to engage with.  

Community Nutrition

We work closely with nutritionists through the WVU Family Nutrition Program to better understand the relationship between food and society. While nutritionists provide helpful knowledge about food, they are also key actors in food system development and advocates for the development of alternative food environments, placing their work at the intersection of public health, community well-being and food system change.

Health Disparities

Food and health are closely related. Health discourses are increasingly potent in shaping public policy as interventions that seek to mitigate problems of malnutrition borne out of uneven food environments. Our research seeks to make sense of the turn toward healthism in food system planning and the implications it has on farmers, social service agencies, healthcare providers, and states working to address healthy food access gaps.