what’s participatory about participatory food costing?

November 12, 2009

i know few people read this blog, my stats tell me so. no, not boo-hoo. i think this space may be perfectly public enough for me to write, see if anyone stumbles upon it, get some feedback, and possibly publish. call it a public control mechanism, whatever. at least it’s not stuck in my head as ‘maybe i should…”

The involvement of local communities in developing projects, and somewhat in evaluations, is increasingly recognized as a necessity; to garner support and commitment to engage in creating change for public policy and programming that satisfies the needs and wants from the bottom up. Yet, it seems that like all great things that become mainstream, popular, and institutionalized, participatory has become plastic. We see the term spouted and sprinkled in programming with underlying individualistic lifestyle approaches to weight loss (I blame participACTION for flouncing its logo, starting in the 1980s, for the onset of victim blaming discourse aimed at promoting fixes (for everything) if people would just participate! and act! As if there is little more to mending problems, such as preventing them in the first place, and understanding why and how (body)breaks! happen.

fast forward to slow food. or rather, the gamut of food stuffs related to abundance and shortages. odd isn’t it, that the one hand, abundance begets obesity but somehow does not fit within the realm of politics since the resource is not limited. on the other hand, shortages imply stakeholders all trying to get a piece of that sweet, sweet pie. so which is it? certainly the availability of food is political (not enough) and resource-full. – i want to come back to this, since, on a more romantically theoretical level, i see all this jazz in cultural hermeneutics. i digress (only sort of, since in a mash-up way, it’s all related).

i still haven’t gotten to the point (do you see why i need to write it down?).

in relation to food stuffs availabilities, there’s a (history of and current) tendency to underestimate and undermine the role of social relations and the factors that jeopardise successful (hmm, actual?) participatory communications between all those for whom food stuffs are intended to be inclusive for, i.e. “local people”, “communities”, farm labour, whatever you want. From a marxist perspective – those who don’t have the means to production. In participatory food costing, it’s just this… The conditions under which “participants” may decide to ‘disclose’ their ‘knowledge’ and make their needs explicit, while supported by “covering childcare, travel, etc.”, are very difficult to create. Their disclosure is in the form of a form, literally. Filling out a food basket form with figures created by those who hold the purse strings to support (university researchers) and service and program providers (community organizations), who are in bed together, rolling around in government supported funding. Maybe that’s a stretch, OK, nah.

Let us consider who “participates”, how, and why:

a) who: government funders and policy-makers

– how: provide funding to projects  (based on information from the projects)

– why: esteem in the community (of voters and project workers) for funding “feel good, helping” work and excusing themselves from making decisions to ensure more equality by disrupting status quo, by offending the rich (e.g. higher taxes and stringent regulations for wealthy individuals and large multinationals)

b) who: universities and researchers

– how: provide expertise and do research, and access to resources (based on connection to the projects)

– why: funding- and tenure-dependent, esteem in self and in the community (of academics/universities and funders) for new, feel-good, tough helping” publishable work

c) who: service and program providers

– how: provide more stable access to “unstable community members”

– why: increase base of decision-making evidence (based on concepts purported mostly by gov’t & university researchers), connections to gain/support requests for more funding, feel-good stuff

d) who: services and program users/clients

– how: provide the man-power, with “support” of honorariums and childcare

– why: honorariums, “action”, feel-good stuff

Using the term “participatory” in food costing is bastardized for the purist. Interaction between community members (users of services) and project managers (for example, non-profit leads and researchers on striving for tenure) seldom leads to mutual comprehension.  Frequently, negotiation builds upon a number of misunderstandings that may be fostered intentionally or (without regard to assumptions) spontaneously due to differences in… namely, power and the need for power among all, but due to social structure and governance of space and place (I don’t know how more ‘cool’ local can be!?) the powerful stay that way, powerful and hungry, despite claiming to work for the more objectively hungry. the middle (wo)men (i.e. service providers) may participate but, yeh, purist thinking here.


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