Demystifying the Local: Considerations for Higher Education Engagement with Community Food Systems

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Many universities and colleges have started to channel resources toward understanding and supporting small-scale food systems development in low-income communities. These efforts are often embedded into institutional sustainability initiatives that incorporate new curricula, research agendas, and community engagement. Students, staff, and faculty increasingly engage in community-based research, service-learning opportunities, internships, practicum and/or pro bono technical assistance in support of local food projects. These forms of engagement frequently operate in urban sectors where access to fresh food is challenged, for example, by historical patterns of racial segregation and social exclusion. Drawing on insights from ongoing anthropological research in Chicago on the role of higher education institutions in supporting community food systems development, this commentary presents a short set of considerations for higher education institutions that engage in local food projects within low-income communities. The author suggests that prior to such engagement, academics more fully comprehend how communities perceive local and alternative food initiatives, and that higher education institutions formulate outreach initiatives that embed food systems development within a community development and social justice framework.