Daily Logs: July 9, 2012

July 9, 2012   No Comments

Essay: FoodLab Detroit as a Social Movement Guild?

A brief section from a long paper I wrote for a course I took in Field Research this semester in the Management and Organization department at the business school at UM. The class was wonderful, thanks to great group of classmates, and also in large part due to our really wonderful instructor Wayne Baker.

Each of us chose a field site for study and took detailed field notes over the course of the semester. Wayne read all our notes and gave us weekly feedback. It was so valuable to my development as an ethnographer to have someone else looking over my shoulder, especially someone who was completely “fresh” to my field.

I chose to focus on FoodLab Detroit (formerly the Metro Detroit Good Food Entrepreneurs) — the group of triple-bottom-line food entrepreneurs that I’ve been working with in Detroit. In a lot of ways, it become something of an auto-ethnography… so much so that I titled the second section “Origins of this Me-search Project.”

Table of contents is below for context, then just a very very short section. Interested to hear what folks think.


The Good Food Movements: Peeking Inside the Lumpy Tent……….. 3

Origins of this “Me”-search Project……….. 5

Journey into Detroit’s Good Food Movement……….. 5

Research and Activism……….. 7

Background on FoodLab Detroit ……….. 9

History and Founding……….. 9

Network boundaries and characteristics……….. 14

FoodLab and Race……….. 15

FoodLab as a social network……….. 18

Networking a Network……….. 18

Mapping the FoodLab network……….. 20

Understanding the periphery……….. 20

Bridging two cliques……….. 22

What’s in a Tie?……….. 26

Information & Advice…………….. 26

Shared Resources…………….. 28

Emotional Support…………….. 30

Social Pressure…………….. 30

All networks not made equal……….. 31

FoodLab as a Social Movement Guild……….. 34

More than the sum of parts……….. 34

Social Movement Organization versus Social Movement Guild……….. 36

Framing within a social movement guild……….. 39

Frame disputes and network structure…………….. 41

A Dispute about Ethics…………….. 43

FoodLab as a movement broker……….. 48

From the parts, to the whole, to the whole in context……….. 48

FoodLab bridges a divided good food field……….. 49

FoodLab and Tertius Iungens…………….. 53

Further Questions……….. 55

Implications……….. 57

For FoodLab……….. 57

For entrepreneurship in Good Food Movements……….. 58

Social Movement Organization versus Social Movement Guild

FoodLab Detroit has some of the markings of an emerging social movement organization (SMO). Snow, Soule and Kriesi (2003) define a social movements as:

Collectivities acting with some degree of organization and continuity outside of institutional or organizational channels for the purpose of challenging or defending extant authority, whether it is institutionally or culturally based, in the group, organization, society, culture, or world order of which they are a part. (P. 7)

Social movement organizations are generally conceived as formal organizations that work to implement the goals of a movement (Caniglia and Carmin 2005). Emerging social movement groups (ESMG) are SMOs who are “in the process of becoming and defining themselves. They are works in progress” (Blee and Currier 2005: 129) Yet FoodLab differs from typical conceptions of social movement organizations (even those in the process of forming) because it does not exist to implement the goals of a particular movement, but rather to propagate the use of a skill or process (good food entrepreneurship – or social entrepreneurship with some food component) in service of multiple goals defined and chosen by individual entrepreneurs. This structure seems to make sense given the fragmented landscape of movements related to good food (see Figure 8 below).

Figure 8: Social Movements Related to Good Food (in Flora 2009)

The  relationship between social movements, social entrepreneurship, and social change is contested. Mair & Marti (2006) suggest that social movement literature may be a useful lens through which to examine the process of social entrepreneurship because “both social movements and social entrepreneurship are concerned with social transformation.” Yet as Starr (2010) and others have pointed out, social entrepreneurship  and social movements are ultimately different models of social change (Martin and Osberg 2007; Thekaekara and Thekaekara 2006).

Critiques of entrepreneurial approaches to transformation within good food movements abound. Food systems academics have noted that purely market-based or entrepreneurial approaches to food systems change may fail to address or may even exacerbate issues such as food security for the most vulnerable and racial and cultural injustice (Allen et. al. 2003). Critics of entrepreneurship as a food movement strategy also suggest that a reliance on market and consumer-driven approaches to change may encourage “individualized, depoliticized behavior” at the expense of attempts at structural change (Donald 2008). Starr (2010) responds to this argument with a catalogue of the strength of the social entrepreneurship approach:

Responding to a political landscape that seems to offer only dead ends, energetic social entrepreneurs are making things happen with resolute utopianism. They are creating space, enabling new experiences, innovating, and providing meaningful jobs for other people who want to work their values. Social entrepreneurship as an approach to social change is personalistic, isolated, and unaccountable, but also experimental, decentralized, agile, and multi-issue. And entrepreneurs know that cultural relevance is necessary to their success, a lesson many social movements refuse to learn. (P. 486)

Notably, FoodLab members have described the network as a way to hold one another accountable to individual missions and shared values through public standards and audits, social pressure, and a shared value of “transparency.”

Rather than a social movement organization, FoodLab could be considered an emerging social movement guild (SMG). The term “guild” implies an association of craftsman organized around a common skill or craft. Guilds incorporate systems of apprenticeships to build skills and competence among members, they often enforce mutually agreed-upon standards of accountability, they may share resources and share a collective identity, yet guild members themselves are independent and may apply have different motivations and ways of applying their shared trade. An SMG, as opposed to a traditional guild, prepares members to use their craft in the service of social change rather than maintaining the status quo: specifically “challenging or defending extant authority, whether it is institutionally or culturally based, in the group, organization, society, culture, or world order of which they are a part” (Snow, Soule, Kriesi 2003: 7).

December 14, 2011   2 Comments


So I’ve been struggling for the past few months with what it is that I’m actually going to study in my dissertation.

We have some pretty awesome plans in the works with the Metro Detroit Good Food Entrepreneurs. I’m excited about the business plan bootcamp we’re putting on in January, February and March… and website development and the idea of developing training/resource modules around starting a good food business in Detroit, and a mentorship program, and networking together commercial kitchens, and all kinds of other good stuff. And supposedly I have IRB approval to start my research with the group and approved consent forms and all that, but my questions are still murky (or perhaps myriad is a better “m” word to describe where I’m at… myriad, multitudinous…)

So I’d tried talking it out and I’d tried writing it out in a linear fashion and neither of those things were working very well, so I decided to make a little mindmap. This is still a bit confusing. As you can see, lines cross each other every which-way, but I think it’s helping me come to some sort of peace about how different elements are connected, and what needs to be put to one side or demoted to a secondary or tertiary focus.

click it to make it bigger!

September 26, 2011   4 Comments

Food Desert & Grocery Buzz

Some talk about grocery stores buzzing around the social media space in Detroit this week got me to thinking about urban food security is such a hot topic, but it seems like we tend to ignore some of the severe issues with food access in rural areas.
Thanks Center for Rural Affairs for reminding me of the bigger picture in your oh-so-awesome newsletter. This article was especially interesting. Appreciated the commentary on grocery stores as “more” than just food access points and especially love the example of the high schoolers starting a grocery.
May be meeting with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation’s Green Grocer project folks soon to talk about how they can tie into the conference I’m working on organizing around local and regional food distribution. Very much looking forward to hearing their take on the recent buzz in the blogggggggosphere.

January 26, 2011   No Comments

An interesting exchange about Walmart

Sometimes folks ask me why I find social networking tools useful.

There was the time when I was up on the farm and posted a note asking if anyone wanted to drive my car from California up to Washington. My old friend Sean from Catholic kids choir days had just finished up his time in the navy and was looking for something to do. He saw my note and voila! a few weeks later, I had my car, and he’d had a nice road trip.

Then there are things like this:

October 23, 2010   No Comments


This guy is a rockstar. Everything he says resonates.

What inspires you to do your work? “Problem solving… Creating interesting, innovative, and efficient solutions”

“I think we miss opportunities to connect food advocacy and other fields of interest because the nature of the work (and the method of funding) breeds specialization rather than integration.”

“I don’t know one initiative in any field of interest that has been able to create sustainable, game-changing outcomes within 12 months… But in the food movement, we overpromise and underfund, then get mad when we don’t change the world after a year.”

“Investing in communities to create things. Be a part of the creation movement.”

And yet another reason to move to Detroit:

“In two weeks Detroit will launch its Green Grocer Project, which is a grocery expansion and attraction program to help with operations, financing and giving them a direct liaison housed in the City for anything they need. To create a space in the city for a grocer at any level to get involved and give them a contact for anything they need: bookkeeping, accounting, store design, product handling, you name it.… the Mayor will make an announcement on May 17th and it’ll be like watching my baby be born.”

May 11, 2010   No Comments

All You Can Eat at Florida Market

This is the first of a few posts I’m planning on Florida market (aka Union, aka Capitol City). The whole area is slated for redevelopment — a plan that’s been evolving for the past 3+ years and is surrounded by controversy. It’s a totally fascinating story and something I wish a real journalist would take up. Sara R?!

I am obsessed with Florida market. Anyone I meet these days ends up with an earful about my favorite place in the whole district. I love markets. I really really do. Especially the ones that are a little gritty, that remind one that food isn’t meant to be intimidating or inaccessible, or elitist, but something elemental, raw, real, that we all share.

The Union Market buildings were built in the first phase of market construction from 1929 to 1931 and designed by architect E.L. Bullock Jr. in a reduced “Classical Revival” style.

Florida market is gritty. So much so in fact, that people who have visited sometimes crinkle their noses when I mention it. “You buy things there?” they ask. “But those dumpsters with rotting produce! The trucks! The exhaust! The derelicts! The peeling paint and vacant buildings and signs in foreign languages. The noise, the heat and the smell, and the butchers in that warehouse with all that MEAT.”

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I eat it up. This is the place that feeds DC. The wholesalers in the market distribute to restaurants and retail grocers throughout the district. No one who eats out or shops outside of farmers’ markets can pretend like they don’t eat from here. And when you come here in person, you can find all sorts of treasures you can’t find at Safeway, at Eastern, or even at the wonderful Freshfarm markets.

Also known as Capitol City market or Union Market, this is the place where the “other half” of DC shops. Mostly African and Latino families, with some Southeast Asian representation and occasional neighborhood hipster looking for a deal on tahini.

On Saturdays, most of the shops are open for retail sales, including Sam Wang produce, where besides the staples, you can find banana flowers, shiso leaf, nopales, chayote, lotus root, thai parsley, mini thai eggplant, masa, frozen banana leaves, tamarind pods, plantain, and every starchy root your heart desireth.

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Most families fill up two or three cardboard boxes with produce. Receipts I’ve average $60-100. Many folks ask the cashier to let them know when they hit a limit — “All I’ve got is $67 today, so let me know when we get there.” — some get to the end of the weighing and decide to put back the pumelo or melon because it puts them just over.

Sam Wang’s just one of the many shops. Down the way is a tofu production facility where you can get a tub of three super-fresh tofu blocks for $3. My roommate who once ran the kitchen at a vegetarian restaurant in town used to bike here every morning to buy in bulk.

You can also get a huge bag of fresh sprouts for $3 that’s bigger than a baby, but I don’t recommend it unless you plan to make pho for an army.

So far, I’ve brought about a dozen friends to the market with me on mini trips and all of them have found something to love:

Besides the produce, there’s a wonderful Halal market with basil seed juice (?!), samosas, frozen ready-made paratha, ginger tea, and lots of spices. Apparently you can also get goats, but I haven’t had time to set up a spit, so I haven’t indulged yet.

Then there’s the flea market where you can find everything from rusty industrial muffin tins to dancing panda radios, and also some useful things like an adapter for your beat-up no-frills cell-phone or sea foam stilettos to add a splash to your otherwise staid pantsuit.

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There’s a great market directory here of the businesses that sell direct to consumers. See you there Saturdays.

May 2, 2010   1 Comment

The Town that Food Saved

Three weeks or so ago, I sent in my Letter of Intent to register at UC Davis in the fall.

In two months and a bit, I’ll be back in California starting a research position; by the end of September, I expect to be deep into classes, papers, and starting on some of the projects I’ve been dreaming up.

It was hard to decide to go back to school and it was hard to decide to go to Davis, but now that I’ve finally settled on a plan, it feels darn good.

Now that I’ve painted the broad strokes of the next couple of years, it’s becoming more and more exciting to layer in the details. So many of the experiences I’ve had over the last three months are connecting back to the work that I’ll be doing in Davis; people that I continue to meet, places I visit, reports I read — they’re all giving me inspiration for what I can do with two years of financial support, university resources, and lots of excitement and energy.

I’ll be in a program called Community and Regional Development, focusing on community economic development through food systems; looking at the ways that community-based agri-food businesses can create jobs, empower people, improve the physical environment, improve people’s health, and promote cultural change that, among other things, may lead to more cooperation, more compassion, more participation, and ultimately, a more satisfied, happy society.

When you start to get immersed in the food systems milieu, the same concepts come up again and again. The same examples  too. Hardwick, Vermont is one of those examples: a town that supposedly epitomizes what’s possible when business savvy meets food, meets community; throw in a whole lot of elbow grease and voila! an economic and cultural miracle. Down-and-out old quarry town town transformed into a agri-food mecca.

So when a friend recommended Hewitt’s book, The Town that Food Saved, of course I had to read it to see what all the fuss was about. More and more people have a hunch that there’s something magical about community and local and regional “systems,” or at least as opposed to the centralized, industrialized system that we’ve created over the past 100 or so years and this book starts to articulate and demystify some of this magic, not through theory or metrics, but through a story.

The beginning and end of the book are slightly worn, the same concepts you’ll find recycled in your typical industrial-ag critiques and I took issue with some specific points of the discussion that didn’t seem entirely accurate, but the book was completely redeemed by the conversational exposition of the people at the heart of this town.

In the end, the story fired me up, made me feel excited to act, to get out there and buy a a mobile food truck and hire a few students and get produce from local farms and serve people food. By the end, all I wanted to do was be one of the “Toms” (the one who is slightly less obsessed with himself, perhaps) who are the drivers of this story. I was jumping out of my skin, crawling with anticipation, with ideas.

Now, a few weeks later, the flutters have died down a bit in my gut and I’ve started to think more deeply about what I need to DO and I’m feeling a deep sense of satisfaction and purpose.

Hooray for inspiration.

April 19, 2010   No Comments

Sugar Beets in Saginaw

I love airports and airplanes. I love the feeling of being between places, in transition. And I love the anonymity — it’s the best of places for watching people, and also for meeting folks you might not otherwise meet on the street.

Yesterday, when I squeezed into Seat 14F (a window seat), it just so happened that the man already occupying the middle seat was a farmer. I noticed this, not because of any hint from his dress or demeanor, but because when he kindly got up to let me in,  I noticed his bag — a freebie from some sort of national ag association.

So I asked him about it and he told me that he was a farmer who grew sugar. “Beets?” I asked, and his face lit up. “You must know farming then?” he said. “Well, kinda,” I shrugged, and told him where I worked, and about my brief farming experience.

We talked the rest of the flight — about his clever daughters and about how my parents met and about the time he took his son to the Rose Bowl. I found out that in addition to farming part-time with his son, my new friend was a crop insurance agent and a representative of the Michigan Bean Commission. He traveled around the world to trade shows and meetings marketing Michigan dry beans: azukis, great northern, black beans, to name a few. He had been recently to Cancun and Barcelona and was soon off to Paris.

Apparently, Saginaw is the capitol of dry beans and sugar beets in Michigan. Sugar beets, in case you didn’t know, make sugar — the regular white grainy kind you pour into your coffee or sprinkle on your cereal (do people still do that?). Saginaw Valley, where lots of these beets are grown, lies between the thumb and forefinger of the Michigan glove, about two hours by car from the metro Detroit airport. My friend explained that people grew sugar beets there because the processing plants were nearby in the thumb. This awesome article from MSU tells more about the history of sugar beet production and processing in the state.

Beyond beets, I also learned a little bit about crop insurance. My friend had been in DC to chat with folks at the USDA and on the Hill about the crop insurance business and the proposed cuts to crop insurance in Obama’s 2011 budget. It was fascinating to hear his perspective — “Why should the government penalize me for making a profit?” — and compare it to the perspective I share with the Obama administration and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition where I work:

From Obama’s 2011 budget proposal: “Crop-insurance companies currently benefit from huge windfall profits due to the structure and terms of the Government’s contract with the companies.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “a USDA study showed that a reasonable rate of return on equity for private crop-insurance companies is 12.8%, but the average now is 16.8%. USDA data show government payments to crop insurers have more than doubled in recent years, jumping from $1.8 billion in 2006 to $3.8 billion in 2009 while the total number of policies held by farmers has declined.”

Add to this the fact that my friend explained that until recently, when a former employee set up shop and became competition, he was the only insurer in his local area. I felt less sympathetic then to his side of the story, but it made me remember once again that in the end, farmers are businessmen and to him, these cuts might mean that he won’t be able to pay for his adventurous daughter to study abroad in Paris or to help his son buy land to start his own farm. And there’s the rub of government — how do you distribute resources equitably? How do you re-distribute when something’s not working — it seems much easier to give than to take something away.

March 26, 2010   4 Comments

Community Food Enterprise: Graber Olives

Way back in November, family friends Lynne and John Orr took me and my parents to some wineries in the Inland Empire, a region that exemplifies that sad, but common story of agricultural land and open space succumbing to sidewalks and superhighways.

After the wineries, we drove over to the Graber Olive House, a small third-generation family-owned olive production and processing facility. Graber is Ontario’s oldest business, in operation since 1894. Our tour guide was a cheerful, white-haired woman, who had been best friends with one of the Graber daughters since they were both blushing teens. She remembered when the family would leave buckets of olives out by the back door for locals to pick up when they were away.

The main orchard is located in the Sierra Foothills, but the olives are cured and canned in the factory in Ontario. Clifford Graber designed most of the equipment himself, including the olive-sorting machine that’s still in use today. There’s so much beauty in a thing well made, and the sturdiness and appropriateness of these machines made me want to know more about the man who created them.

The olives themselves are special, Manzanillo and Mission varieties, brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. Unlike commercial olives which are picked green, and then cured to deep black, Graber olives are picked ripe, when they’ve turned from green to warm brick brown. Experienced pickers who have worked for the family season after season (and some for multiple generations) pick the olives by hand, no more than 15 at a time so as not to bruise the delicate skin.

The olives go back to the factory where they are cured, then sorted by size and canned by workers who, again, have been with the company for multiple years.

The finished product is a firm but yielding, rich and buttery flavorful thing that doesn’t really resemble most olives I’ve tasted. The olives are slightly mottled, not perfectly unblemished like your typical black olives, but more like a forest floor.

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I’ve been meaning to post some of the photos from the factory because it was just so cool, but it came back to mind after I attended an event all about Community Food Enterprises co-sponsored by the Wallace Foundation and Business Alliances for Local Living Economies (BALLE). The workshop centered around the results of a three-year project studying two dozen community food enterprises in the US and abroad. The  work was based on the premise that locally owned businesses are the bulwark of strong, resilient, regional economies and socially vibrant communities.

When business is rooted in community, it seems to be more accountable to its neighbors, socially, economically and environmentally.

Food business, in particular, are interesting because of the clear links between food and land and food and place. The study set up a definition for what it meant to be a “community food enterprise,” and came to some conclusions about common challenges and common strategies for success as a starting point for replicating good models.

As a successful locally-owned food business, it wasn’t surprising to me that Graber fit a number of the indicators for success identified in the study. As a small start-up, Graber’s success relied on hard work, innovation, local delivery (see above for that anecdote about delivery in pails), some vertical integration (with production, processing and marketing), better taste, and a better story. No doubt because it is small and locally owned, Graber appears to be loyal to its workers and pays them fair wages.

I’m sure it faced many of the challenges of a small local business as well, but somehow it managed to survive and thrive despite the rapid changes in the surrounding community.

In the midst of the asphalt and strip malls and housing developments of the IE, it’s no surprise that Graber stands out. Is it strange to yearn for a world where there are more Grabers and fewer car dealerships and box stores full of housewares?

February 15, 2010   2 Comments