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“This is Just Between Us”: Navigating Tensions in Food Studies Field Work

Alanna Higgins critically examines the ethics of fieldwork at FARMacy programs, asking: how do we position ourselves as researchers? How do we ethically collect data, and in what ways can researchers navigate social spaces with sensitive data?

Published onJun 16, 2019
“This is Just Between Us”: Navigating Tensions in Food Studies Field Work

Mid set-up for the kick-off of one of the FARMacy sites. The gazebo and table settings give a farmers market feel, and serve as a place for participants, growers, and clinicians to chat before, during, and after produce pick up. Photo Credit: Alanna Higgins, 2018.

The hour drive from Morgantown to New Martinsville, West Virginia follows the small and winding road of Route 7. Tractor-trailers take up more than their fair share of the highway but the scenery is breathtaking, and I tend to enter a tranquil state while navigating the trip. I think about what that day will bring; setting up the produce, talking with the farmers, doctors, and “patients,” and taking copious notes in between helping out in any way that’s needed. I depart in the early morning and drive the winding road in order to arrive before the Wetzel County FARMacy officially opens. I usually arrive at least an hour before things are set to start and help with setting up tents and tables and arranging the produce artfully, but practically, for that week’s “prescription.”

FARMacy programs fall into the “food as medicine” narrative which has become popular within public health and community development. These programs maintain that health problems can be managed or eradicated through helping people access fresh fruits and vegetables, along with encouraging dietary behavior change. They usually begin as partnerships between community organizations, farmers, and health care providers. Typical programs across the U.S.—including those in West Virginia—have eligibility metrics in both health and income that participants must meet. For instance, “patients” have to be below a certain income level or what’s termed a chronic diet-related disease, like diabetes, hypertension, or obesity.

Within the gazebo, baskets of produce are placed on tables for participants to choose from. Photo Credit: Rob Simmons, 2018.

Signs accompany the produce, detailing nutritional information, storage suggestions, and cooking recommendations. Photo Credit: Rob Simmons, 2018.

My involvement in the program started through my summer graduate research assignment where I was responsible for programmatic assistance and back-end research such as helping to figure out funding issues and investigating how other programs around the country operate, to help the West Virginia group achieve their goals. Participant observation happened throughout the summer months, where I would go to programs in both New Martinsville and Wheeling as many days as possible to help the organizers and producers with checking off names, describing the produce and what they can do with it, and helping people to cars. For me, there was also the extra task of observing interactions and writing everything down in my field notes. These notes became the foundation of what will be my dissertation research. Over the summer of participant observation, emails, and phone calls I became close with the program organizers. I would often be sent home with any leftover produce and words of support and encouragement: “We know they don’t pay grad students anything,” “We want to make sure you’re eating,” “Thank you so much for your help today.”

This experience made me consider how we position ourselves as researchers, how to ethically collect data, and in what ways researchers navigate social spaces. The largest tension I felt was between my job and desire to help the program succeed, and what felt like the collection of data for my personal gain. I kept asking myself what I was getting out of this and what the program organizers and participants were getting out of our interactions. This apprehension was partially alleviated through continually explaining that I was there to help their program succeed, but I had also decided to do my dissertation research on the topic and would be taking notes.

Another tension revolved around the presence of medical data and disclosure. I knew from various methods classes and required research ethics training through the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative that I could not be privy to this. While I did not mind talking to people who felt the need to express their aches and pains, it felt awkward to see people’s fingers being pricked or hear them discuss visits with their doctor. Any medical data was handled by medical personnel from the involved clinic or hospital, but routinely discussions about chronic and acute health issues, their family’s health, and interactions with other health practitioners abounded between the “patients” and the other organizers, which in this case included the growers. The line between what was “appropriate” for me to overhear and what wasn’t became cloudy and complicated—evoking the murkiness of research and how oftentimes it is not a clear-cut process. It became increasingly clear to me that this was something I would have to steer through for the rest of my research.

Though I felt these methodological and ethical tensions, the organizers (both medical personnel and the growers) did not seem to feel this way. They would often ask “Is this helpful for your research?” or “Are these notes for another paper you’re writing?” and would check in about my degree milestones. In our conversations, I could see that they felt reassured when I explained that all information would be aggregated and not attributed to any single person, and this transparency helped instill their trust in me. So much so, that I became privy to a number of private conversations that ranged from discussing the program to people’s personal lives—conversations that would often start out “This is between us…”

The FARMacy manager hands a bag of produce to a participant, chatting about how to store produce and sharing favorite recipes. This photograph has been cropped from the original to preserve the confidentiality of participants. Photo Credit: Rob Simmons, 2018 (edited by Alanna Higgins, 2019).

This created another tension, in which I needed to routinely make decisions about what did or did not enter my notebooks. A particular instance stands out in which organizers from one site were disturbed by a newspaper article; they had the conversation in front of me, even letting me read the article and telling me why they were upset. I double checked that it was okay to talk about the instance and they said yes, but asked me to keep any names out of my notes. Even now I do not feel comfortable explaining which site this happened at or what the news article was about because I do not want to breach their trust—but what happens if it becomes a lynchpin of the research? Will I allow myself to discuss the circumstances while still keeping names out? This is an ongoing tension I feel within my work as my fieldwork will continue this upcoming summer, and I still continually consider how I am portraying these experiences and people in my papers and presentations.

The navigation of these feelings is hard and will need to continue with my next round of participant observation. Unfortunately, the Wetzel program was dissolved, but the grower-organizers are hoping to start up another site which I am hoping to be able to help at and observe. Additionally, I continue to get calls and emails from people in the Wheeling program asking questions about potential places for funding or ways other programs operate. I answer to the best of my abilities and hope that it helps them. Despite the discomfort these tensions raise, I see being uncomfortable and constantly trying to negotiate these feelings as more important—to be uneasy and find a “growing edge,” rather than simply not considering if and how my research is helping these programs and affecting the participants. My approach to fieldwork has expanded outside of views about what’s the best method for data collection and why: I’ve come to understand from firsthand experience what it means to try and be responsible to those communities and people I’m doing research with.


Alanna K. Higgins is a University Provost Fellow and Ph.D. student in the Department of Geology & Geography at West Virginia University. Her research interests center around food sovereignty and food justice, the political ecologies of health, and feminist geographies and epistemologies. She is currently developing her dissertation researching the medicalization of local foods through examining questions of food and social justice, biopolitics, and ontological “givens” within public health and alternative food.

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