09 September 2009

Theory and Development

The topic of my master’s thesis was on the spatial accessibility of healthy and affordable food in Bernalillo County. I collected a broad range of data to perform three types of analysis: physical proximity; personal mobility; and human perception. The first type of analysis required using a network analysis to find the median nearest network distance by census block group to three types of geo-coded food retail locations. The second type of analysis required the creation of a personal mobility index by census block group using five census indicators. The final type of analysis required the identification of block group clusters with different combinations of the prior two accessibility metrics, and then sending out surveys to these areas to see how perceptions of food accessibility matched up with the quantitative indicators. What I found was that there are clearly some areas which would fit the description of a “food desert”, or areas where poor accessibility adversely affects diet above and beyond cultural norms and income.

It was quite an effort and I am proud of it, but I wonder what the next step would be. My research will likely sit in the UNM library and provide nothing towards the advancement of humanity. Thinking about the following Baha'i quote, it makes me wonder how this, and other academic knowledge can be made useful.

Verily I say unto thee: Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say, O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning."

According to the predominant models of development, the next logical step would be a discussion of what, if any, actions should be taken by the government or outside observers to FIX the problem. Clearly businesses could use this information to better locate areas lacking a sufficient variety of healthy and affordable food. Often the market fails in this regard, especially in urban areas with poor minority populations. This is where non-profits could jump in and use this information to promote affordable subsidized produce or promote urban gardens.

Another model of development, espoused by educators such as the late Paulo Freire, planners such as Bent Flyberg, development organizations such as FUNDAEC, and the Baha'i Faith, focuses on developing human capacity through consultation, action, and reflection within a community. In my example, this process would probably start with directed consultations on the perceptions of food and nutrition in general. My study area has had a long tradition of local agriculture which has since faded out as a source of livelihood. Many of the people I surveyed expressed a desire to consume more fresh produce, but face serious time constraints to merely purchase the food, let alone grow it. The most accessible food is often found at gas stations or mini-marts which contain mainly packaged food. Assuming that people decide that they want to eat healthier and promote local agriculture, the next step would be for community members consult, possibly in collaboration with scientists and planners, about the human and natural resources in the community, and how these resources could be mobilized to promote food awareness, start their own business and cooperatives, attract outside business into their area, etc. Finally, every few months or so, community members would reflect on what has been learned and develop a more coherent plan of action.

It is my view that social and economic development on a large scale is not possible without a parallel process of spiritual development. The Baha'i framework for action enshrined in the institute process provides an early template on how spirituality can inform this new mode of learning.


  1. jason, we should talk-- what i'm working on right now at work is a project that addresses the concerns of folks in food deserts around NM (a huge chunk of the state), both when it comes to accessibility to food, quality of food and all the other social determinants that go along with it-- access to health care, services, etc. a big part of the project is incorporating service learning for students in the health sciences as well as in health education, nutrition, etc... especially if we can find those students on campus who are from the areas we are focusing our project, and to help them become mentors for kids in those areas as well... we aren't planning on going into bernalillo county this year, but hopefully next project year, but it would still be interesting to incorporate any of your research, mapping, etc. if you're not burned out on food deserts after doing your thesis, it would be good to talk :)

  2. Caroline,

    Your project sounds really interesting. I would be delighted if the research could assist in any way. Lets talk about it on a different medium. I could also send you a copy of the thesis.

  3. Right now, I'm taking a FUNDEAC course on food production. The primary motivation is to provide a link between the vast stores of knowledge sitting in libraries of the global north with subsistence farmers living in the global south. I've been told that the last few sections focus on urban gardening. But we haven't gotten there yet.

    There are two individuals on the Universal House of Justice who have made this sort of stuff their life work, and this is to say nothing of the other seven individuals. Don't be surprised if we see a great deal of attention focused in this area over the course of the next decade.

    In the meantime, advanced clusters need to be experimenting with social and economic development using the pattern of learning from the current framework of action.