What Can Be: Stakeholder Perspectives for a Sustainable Food System
Any multistakeholder initiative that aims to build the basis for change in a food system, regardless of geographic scale, requires an understanding of what is important to stakeholders, how they view the boundaries of the system, and what changes they feel are needed. An assessment of stakeholder perspectives of the Phoenix Valley food system was conducted as an initial step in a process of food system coalition-building. The objectives of the research were to explore how active participants in the food system visualized a “sustainable food system” and to juxtapose their perspectives on food system sustainability with those in the academic literature to create an initial picture of food sustainability. Respondents emphasized the importance of education, local food, reducing corporate power, and a strong desire to build a sense of community to better serve vulnerable communities. Nevertheless, the responses also revealed the difficulty of conceptualizing food system boundaries for intervention and the conflation of realist and idealist perspectives on what food systems are or could be. Stakeholders placed considerable weight on localism and the power of education and “demand constraint” on improving food system outcomes, while also attributing the root cause of Phoenix’s problems to broader-scale structural factors that were outside of their control or capacity to influence. This case study describes the potential utility of conducting such preliminary assessments in other cities, allowing stakeholders to reflect on their interests, agency, and capacities in the food system space prior to any efforts to build consensus and take collective action. We argue that this process is a crucial first step in any work on building alternative food systems, as it allows hidden areas of contestation (beliefs, values, goals) to arise. This enables participants to begin addressing differences and fostering trust, cooperation, and inclusiveness—thus ensuring the longevity of the coalition or group.
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