I. Framing

The Appalachian Foodshed Project is a partnership between three universities and many community partners, including non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, Cooperative Extension, for-profit consultants, and others. This partnership has made visible certain dynamics that can take place between large institutions and smaller “grassroots” organizations as they collectively pursue social change. In particular it has raised the question of “what is done” through our collaborations together. While these partnerships produce certain quantitative outputs that can be measured (i.e. grant/foundation monies support X on-the-ground action that leads to this change in Y community), how are we being attentive and attending to the less-tangible ways that our partnerships are doing things to our thought, political imaginations, and our decisions to act for food systems change?

Seeing an Ecology of Grassroots Action and Institutional Change

Ecology has been a great tool for making sense of the relationships and functions of our natural systems. It has allowed us to see how small changes can have an impact on large systems (i.e. how re-introducing wolves into Yellowstone changed the behavior of river, leading to less erosion. Monbiot, 2013). Ecology teaches us to be attentive to the boundaries that we place around things--we learn that their composition, like a river in Yellowstone, is made by how they are connected to the worlds of other things.

In this way, how can we be more mindful of the relationships that we cultivate between grassroots action and institutional change? How can we be better attentive to these relationships and better value the impacts that are made through these relationships? If we are better attuned to these kinds of interconnectivity, how might this impact our regional thinking about creating food systems change? 

Experimentation and Cynefin

We suggest that part of the answer to this question is in experimentation. Being mindful of these relationships helps create the conditions for unmooring our patterned thinking and freeing new possibilities.

The Cynefin framework is a useful tool for considering the impact and importance of experimentation in food systems change.


The framework describes four contexts in which a leader might find her/him/themselves

  • Obvious - Meaning a clear relationship between cause and effect
  • Complicated - Determining a relationship between cause and effect requires expert analysis
  • Complex - There is no ordered relationship between cause and effect, it can only be perceived after the fact, but is not replicable due to a multiplicity of fluid variables
  • Chaotic  - There is no recognizable relationship between cause and effect

When the relationship between cause and effect are knowable, as in the obvious and complicated realms, best and good practices can resolve an issue. In the complex realm, best and good practices fail to achieve adequate resolution. The issues of community food security falls into the context of the complex.

With no knowable relationship between cause and effect, we are in need of what Snowden and Boone (2007) describe as emergent practice: a process of probe-sense-respond. We have translated this to a process of:

Experiment >> Assess >> Re-Tool

Experiment >> Assess >> Re-Tool

Experiment >> Assess >> Re-Tool


We do not know what the next action might be. We expect them to be emergent, so we set-up systems that allow us to nimbly experiment, assess, and then re-tool our action, based on our learning.


Grassroots AND Grasstops.

This takes us back to the importance of relationships forged between diverse partners and the action and iterative changes that can emerge. Forming relationships across diversity, pulls from an ecology of knowledge and thought. We are surprised and delighted when the experiment of re-introducing wolves changes the behavior of a river, so we try another experiment based on this learning. We nurture the relationships and conditions that led to this success, and we notice iterative change. 


II. Examples from our work

The assessment needs. As part of their grant remit, the AFP was funded to conduct food assessments in the region. Community food assessments have been conducted in a variety of ways over the past 15+ years, but they often involve a fairly set methodology and framework for inventory and engagement. Through our work as a collaborative team, we realized that the needs in West Virginia, and Appalachian Virginia and North Carolina, varied significantly with the culture and context of food systems work in each state. As, a result, instead of administering institutionalized assessments, each state developed research processes that reflected the nature of grassroots organization and action in each state. At play were systems of relays between grassroots action and institutional change. The form and function of the assessments were not defined by the institutions, but the product and activity of assessing is and will play a role in grassroots action. 

Grassroots AND Grasstops. In the work of a project like the AFP, the grassroots component is paramount. It is here that the lives of our communities are being played out. At the same time, it has been clear that the space for regional relationship-forming among food system change practitioners has been important and formative for those within the project. In a recent meetings, on the sustainability of the regional partnership, there was clear consensus in the large team of grassroots and academic partners that this space for relationships was a central component and benefit of regional collaboration. HOW DO WE EVALUATE? CREATING THE CONDITIONS FOR THE EVALUATION OF THIS RELATIONSHIP.

Consent, Democracy, and Trust. For the AFP, the facilitation of an open space for diverse relationships has been facilitated by the establishment and maintenance of trust. This trust was build in part, through the facilitation of equitable engagement across the partnership. For the past two and a half years, the project has held monthly phone meetings, and bi-annual face-to-face meetings, that include grassroots representatives from each state as well as the academic partners. The AFP has used Circle Forward, a consent process, to facilitate equity in decision-making and policy development. Rather than relying on majority voices, the consent process allows one person to halt a decision, while also asking individuals to adopt a range of tolerance that accepts decisions that deviate from their unqualified ideal.


III. Spaces and Recommendations

Based on our experiences working in the region, we recommend the cultivation of the followings spaces, concepts, and ideas.


  • More Sophisticated Communication - Easing the Burden/Participation Cost of Relationships
  • More emphasis on forming relationships in the peripheral spaces that broaden our sense of the ecology of food systems work and incite creative experimentation.
  • Better Evaluation of Relationships and Impact.
    • Evaluation that helps us better value their role in this kind of social change
  • Better Evaluation of Experimentation
    • That doesn’t expect clear relationships between cause and effect
  • What are the stories that we need to hear. Not about best and good practices, but about work that should shift our patterns of thought and action...throughout our ecology of food system change?    To read the stories of the work of practitioners  in the region, visit our "stories of community food work

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