Agroecology from A to Z

Adventures in Agroecology and Food Systems

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Using affinity diagramming to learn about the global food system

I first learned about affinity diagramming through my work with the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association which hosts participatory conferences using different types of group facilitation techniques. I later incorporated the technique into some public workshops I helped host through the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group at Cornell. I found it to be a fantastic tool for refining ideas after a huge brainstorming session and very useful in community organizing around food systems issues. But I wasn’t really sure that it would be helpful or even work in a classroom setting. When I first toured the room for my Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production class, I knew I had to try to squeeze it into my curriculum planning. The other faculty members lovingly referred to this classroom as “The Bowling Alley” because it was such a long, narrow room. The Mariposa building at Prescott College is a former carpet warehouse that has been creatively re-purposed as a teaching and public event space. If we had access to enormous empty walls, we were definitely going to put stuff on them!

On the first day of class, I asked my first year students to brainstorm topics that were in their mind part of the global food system. We wrote them on giant notepads in a frenzied and loud brainstorming session. That night I cut out all of the individual items and got some painter’s tape so as not to damage the paint job in my classroom. For the next class I introduced the affinity diagramming concept. When the students arrived all of the individual topics were posted on the left hand wall of the room. The only rule is “no talking” and the whole group was asked to move individual topics from the left hand wall to the right hand wall and cluster them into categories. Again, without talking. And the idea is to eventually reach consensus, although there was definitely some spirited back and forth with individual topics bouncing from one cluster to another. There was also some giggling, but that is to be expected when asking 12 students to do something this silly and new to them without talking.

We kept the clusters on the wall for the entire semester. For every new reading, we decided if new topics that we had learned about belonged on the “Global Food System Wall” and if so, in which cluster? I loved having it as a giant map to guide us as we delved into a wide variety of complex topics from food sovereignty, racism in the food system and the nuts and bolts of commodity markets. I also loved how it shook up the classroom dynamics by giving all students an equal say in the final result. Sometimes students who were not particularly vocal in class discussions felt comfortable physically leading much of the clustering process. I would definitely use this technique in the classroom again.

Students in this course also hosted a public education and outreach event on global food systems, the annual Global Food Dinner.


Results of initial brainstorming session
“What topics are part of the global food system?”


Refining the topics by clustering like items (without talking)



Global Food Dinner 2012

In fall 2012 I taught the first year course: Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production at Prescott College. For at least 20 years, this class has put on a community educational event called the Global Food Dinner. 100 community members were invited to attend. The students spent a good part of the semester researching different country’s food systems in detail and gave 40 minute presentations to their colleagues in class in small groups. They then chose three meals to prepare for the dinner, each one representative of a typical dish of people living in the lower, middle and upper classes of that country. We took a weekend trip to Phoenix where we toured and shopped at a wide range of ethnic markets to prepare for the dinner, including Baiz Marketplace and Lee Lee’s International Supermarket. Students prepared the meals in their dorm kitchens (or The Village), heated them at Crossroads Cafe and then served them to guests who drew a lottery of country and economic class combinations at the door.


Road trip to Phoenix for some shopping


I have to admit, I’m pretty jealous of the gorgeous kitchens in the new first year student housing, The Village.

Participants were seated in their country groups. There was a small amount of whining from the participants assigned Afghan internally displaced refugee meals, served plain lentils, many of whom quietly jumped ship to the Italy table for left over polenta, pasta and Osso Bucco. If it were only that easy to meet your food needs in the real world! Students gave 3 minute versions of their country presentations and prepared a compilation of global food system statistics. Participants’ place mats were labelled with different color stickers and they were asked to stand to give a nice visual representation of different aspects of the current food system. I was impressed with every group’s dedication to preparing authentic meals, and particularly impressed with the Somalia and Mexico group who bought a lamb on Craigslist and butchered it themselves, the Fiji group who built a traditional oven (lovo) in their driveway and the Brazil group who prepared a faux McDonald’s meal complete with a paper bag and packaging. I look forward to hosting this event again.

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We had a great discussion on Tuesday in my Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production class. We had just read a Raj Patel article in the Journal of Peasant Studies and were talking about what the world would look like if the ultimate goals of the food sovereignty movement were eventually realized.

Would there be international trade at all? Can countries even survive without international trade? What about places like Arizona where it actually makes more sense distance-wise to trade in agricultural crops with Mexico than with Minnesota? If ancient peoples traded long distances for important resources they didn’t have access to otherwise, is a goal of total regional self-sufficiency realistic or even desirable?

Luckily my friend and colleague M. Jahi Chappell just happened to write something directly in this vein today. Now I know what I will be assigning for reading tonight! I’m looking forward to seeing these publications when they are out.

Patel, R. (2009) Food sovereignty. Journal of Peasant Studies 36(3) 663-706.

Beginning to End Hunger

Parke Troutman tells us that “Carrots are not enough” in a compelling piece challenging the framing and potential of local food, and urging a nuanced but still forward-looking and positive vision of the movement.

Humans have never eaten “all locally”, he points out, which is quite certainly correct. Indeed, in a book chapter to be published next year, I call one of the goals of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (o MST) a “brazen and historically accurate” revival of the concept of subsistence:

“A subsistence parallel to the more complex forms outlined throughout this volume. Subsistence, it appears, has rarely meant production only for local provision or survival, at least in their pre- and early-penetration of imperial and global capital manifestations.  So we might replace [the MST’s stated goal of supporting] “small farm production above subsistence levels” to the tongue-in-cheek “brazen and historically accurate subsistence”… production for…

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Evolution or gentrification: Do urban farms lead to higher rents?

We just watched “Urban Roots” in in class yesterday, a film that profiles Patrick’s work, so this is great food for thought.

Thanks again to Mary Poole and her Psychology of Race students for joining my Security, Equality and Ecology of Global Food Production students for this screening.


I moved to Detroit almost 10 years ago, largely because I was interested in learning more about the city’s burgeoning community gardens. At the time, little media interest was being paid to Detroit or its urban agriculture movement, and it certainly was not a place folks were looking to for the future of city gardening.

Not long after my arrival, my sister hit me with a sucker punch of a question: “Don’t you ever worry that your work in community gardening is contributing to gentrification?”

I vehemently denied her charges, but in the back of my mind I had already been turning over the question, and feared that she might be right. Over the years, her question has stuck with me, and it seems especially pressing now, as development in Detroit is ramping up. Proposals for a light rail system, construction of a high-end grocery store, and the rehabbing of…

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Quick Note on Development, sovereignty, and the Millennium Villages Project

We just read an article (Patel, et al. 2009) critiquing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s development work in Africa, along with the follow up exchange of letters to the editor in my course “Security, Equality and Ecology of the Global Food System”. Working with first year college students, how do we begin to make sense of the internal battles within global food and agriculture-related development? Who assesses the “success” of a development project? My friend and colleague M. Jahi Chapell weighs in…

Beginning to End Hunger

Just spent the afternoon scratching an itch I had to look at the research on the Millennium Villages Project, which aims to end extreme poverty, with a focus on Africa. It is headed by noted economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University (with whom I had a mild disagreement years ago at a conference about whether Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen‘s research on hunger and food supply were generally applicable*). Long** and the short** of it is that results are iffy; it’s not clear that the Millennium Villages (MVs) are doing much better than other villages or national averages in those countries on most or all of the (18-22) measured variables (regarding education, health, infant mortality, etc.), and country-wide progress in improving quality of life in many of the studied areas may account for much, if not all, positive effects in the few variables where MVs do

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