The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Using Ethnographic Methods to Build Understanding Regarding the Campus Kitchens Project

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 8:30 AM
Executive Center 2B (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Sarah A. Himmelheber, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
Patricia M. Reeves, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
            Even as the demand for emergency food assistance rises and one-in-six Americans qualifies as food insecure (Nord, Coleman-Jenson, Andrews, & Carlson, 2010), millions of pounds of food are thrown away every year in the United States (Bloom, 2010; Jones, Dahlen, Cisco, Bockhorst, & Mckee, 2002; Jones, Dahlen, Cisco, Bockhorst, & Mckee, 2003; Jones & Martinez-Nocito, 2004). In response to this troubling disconnect of wasted food piling up in landfills and hungry people overwhelming food assistance providers, the food rescue and redistribution movement has emerged. Between cafeterias, on-campus restaurants, catering, Greek houses, and the proliferation of perishable convenience foods, institutions of higher education (IHEs) are hotbeds of food waste. Recognition of this reality led to the creation of the Campus Kitchens Project (CKP), a student-powered, food rescue and redistribution program that has rapidly expanded since 2001, currently operating at 31 educational institutions nationally.

            CKP has been applauded in multiple journalistic accounts; however (Black, 2008; Johnson, 2008; Perry, 2010), research knowledge is lacking. The purpose of this study was to better understand the culture of one CKP branch and investigate its relationship to the broader community. Due to extensive acknowledgement of inherent challenges in IHE-community partnerships (Creighton, 2006; Ehsan, 2006; Maurrasse, 2001), a conceptual framework based on the principles of community food security (CFS) (Fisher, 1999; Hamm & Bellows, 2003) was utilized, drawing attention to CKP’s community relationship dynamics. One of this study’s research questions, namely, How are relationships constructed and maintained between representatives of the  CKP branch and representatives of community partner agencies?, will be the focus of this paper.

            Qualitative case study was the overarching design. Sampling was purposive; survey information was gathered to ascertain which branch provided the best opportunity to learn. Bounded by a single CKP branch, data collection relied primarily on ethnographic methods due to the interest in culture. Data collection included six weeks of participant observations, 19 individual and two focus-group interviews, pre-existing and researcher-generated documents, and photographs. The constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was used and the data analysis process was organized via Atlas.ti.

            Data analysis revealed that relationships between this particular CKP branch and its community partners fell into two categories: Initial Energy and Inertia-Bound. Although partnerships formed with an initial energy, multiple perspectives indicated that these relationships typically became routinized and inertia-bound. The category of Initial Energy contained the properties of “Appeals to Leadership” and “Requests for Support.” Similarly, the properties of “Food Quality” and “Delivery Issues” help to flesh out the Inertia-Bound category.

            Findings from this study led to the conclusion that operations of this CKP branch reflect a narrowly conceptualized mission which is mirrored in community partner interactions. Relationships centered around a busy meal distribution schedule and left little time for developing enduring relationships and rebuilding an unjust food system. Practical implications from this study include contributions to CFS theory and to concrete ideas for  progressive growth in CKP. Because CKP branches are housed within IHE’s, there are additional implications for social work education.