Food for thought

Professor explores equity of edibles

Justin Schupp, assistant professor of sociology
Justin Schupp, assistant professor of sociology

Assistant Professor of Sociology Justin Schupp’s research interests revolve around the intersections of inequality, social movements and the economy. His recent projects have focused on these topics within the food and agricultural system, including studying the equity of where farmers markets are located. We asked him to tell us about what he currently is exploring and why.

What role did food play in your upbringing (besides being something to eat)?

Food has played an ever-present role in my entire life, especially in relation to its production. I grew up on a small organic farm in Colorado, and my mom grew vegetables and herbs to sell at our local farmers market. Some of my clearest memories of growing up were being bribed by my mom for $5 an hour (and a promised ride to the mall afterward) to help out in and around the farm. Sometimes it would be to pick weeds, whereas other times it was to help sell things at the market. I did this for many years. At the time, I hated much of it, especially the weed picking, and did it because I wanted to hang out with my friends at the mall. However, looking back on it now, this played an instrumental role in who I’ve become. I have a deep appreciation for what I consider good food and, believe it or not, now you can find me many evenings and weekends getting my hands filthy in the dirt in my own garden patch.

How are food and sociology connected?

As the students in my intro course would tell you, I consider sociology as a discipline to be the study of the human experience. For me it is hard to think of many other things that are more important to our experience as humans than our relationship with food. Food embodies much of what it means to be human. At the individual level, food is a transmittable device that can send signals to everyone around as to who you are. For example, think of those who identify as locavores, or vegetarians, or hunters. In each case, the types of food each consume give insight into personal belief systems and values. At the societal level, food encapsulates much of what it means to belong to a particular grouping of people, whether through dietary practices, utilization of particular ingredients or methods of consuming food. Sociology has the great honor to look into and understand these things.

What led you to be so interested in food equity?

In addition to growing up on a farm, another prominent part of my youth was my participation in a variety of social justice organizations. The most prominent group that I belonged to was called Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU). The religious connotation in YRUU was a little misleading, for me at least. While there were certainly some components of religious exploration in YRUU, one of the major components of the group was a commitment toward social justice throughout the world. This is where I was exposed to many of the issues that I remain deeply passionate about today, including racial and gender equality, and food equity.

Tell us about the most exciting research projects you are working on.

I have spent the past couple of years researching multiple facets of the local food phenomena, including the prevalence of home provision in the United States, barriers in participation, the prevalence of food deserts and the location of farmers markets. Much of my current research has revolved around the latter. I have been particularly interested in what factors increase or decrease the likelihood of a neighborhood playing host to a farmers market. Much of the research that has examined farmers markets has focused on the types of individuals who shop at markets and/or the types of goods that are bought and sold at the market. While these things certainly are interesting and important, we don’t have as much empirical evidence that examines the characteristics of the areas that play host to markets. I think this is an important dynamic to understand when thinking about the effectiveness of local foods.

What have you discovered in your research regarding farmers markets?

In general, the results of the analyses showed a couple of things. First, the analyses found that several neighborhood traits significantly influence the likelihood of a farmers market being present, including a neighborhood’s socioeconomic status, the amount of racial and ethnic diversity, the quality of neighborhood infrastructure, participation rates in social support programs and the prevalence of poverty. Second, and what I was most interested in finding out, is that the results suggest that farmers markets are unequally distributed across the United States when considering factors like race/ethnicity, location on the rural-urban continuum and socioeconomic status. Putting all of this together, the projects offer evidence toward what many have suspected about farmers markets for some time—that as an outlet of the local food movement, farmers markets overwhelmingly tend to be in urban affluent areas that have large white populations.

Has anything surprised you during your current research projects?

While a large proportion of farmers markets tend to be in areas that are urban, mostly white and affluent, there are some exceptions to these trends. For example, when you look at the distribution of farmers markets across race/ethnicity, there is a notable proportion of markets in areas that have low (less than 5 percent) white population. This was a surprising finding, and I am beginning some new research to look into that. I’m particularly interested in finding out how long these markets have been in existence. My thought is that if they are relatively new, this may suggest that farmers markets are beginning to expand past their traditional boundaries.

Why is this research important?

To me, this is sort of a gut check for the local food movement as it moves forward and decides what it is going to become. Where many espouse the transformative potential of local foods, I think that this research highlights the many difficulties of transforming this potential into practice. My research suggests that currently there are significant social, economic and racial barriers between those who have access to local foods and those who do not. My hope is that this research helps those involved in the movement to have better outcomes in the future. For example, I’m beginning some work with Farm Fresh, an organization in Rhode Island that manages many farmers markets, to explore ways in which local food might collaborate with areas that have not previously had them. The first step of the process is to engage with these communities to see what they think about local foods.

What are you teaching during the spring semester?

I’ll be teaching two courses: “Research Methods of Sociology” and “Sociology of the Environment.” Methods is one of my favorite courses to teach because I get to help sociology majors frame research projects as they take their skill sets into the real world. I am also looking forward to teaching the environment course, where we’ll explore the social processes that define, create, maintain and, oftentimes, threaten our relationship with the rest of the natural environment.