Food Systems PhD student Caitlin Morgan is the recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Master's Thesis Award in a social science or humanities discipline from the UVM Graduate College. Caitlin's thesis, titled "Expanding Food Agency: Exploring the Theory and It's Scale in Philadelphia, PA," explores how race and socioeconomic class interact with individual experience of “food agency,” or personal capacity to plan and prepare meals within one’s food environment. It is one stage in a multi-phase project developing a comprehensive theory of food agency, applicable in any context; a scale for measuring that agency; and a cooking pedagogy for increasing it.
Thesis Abstract: Our contemporary American food system has created complex environments for decisions and actions around food, and those decisions have implications for culture, health, natural resources, social relations, and the economy. And yet we do not understand the particulars of how people actually cook for themselves and their families. This study explores how race and socioeconomic class interact with individual experience of “food agency,” or personal capacity to plan and prepare meals within one’s food environment. It is one stage in a multiphase project developing a comprehensive theory of food agency, applicable in any context; a scale for measuring that agency; and a cooking pedagogy for increasing it.
This research was based on an explanatory sequential mixed methods design: a qualitative follow-up to quantitative research (see Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). It is an in-depth qualitative investigation with low-income participants of color, a population that had previously not been included in the development of food agency theory. The study’s population was a mix of Drexel University students and community residents of Mantua, in Philadelphia, PA, and was recruited from Drexel’s Healthy Cooking Techniques summer course. Data collection included semi-structured interviews and survey administration, and also utilized food agency scale survey responses. Analysis and results are divided into two papers, one narrative, and one a comparison between quantitative components of the food agency scale and corresponding qualitative data.
Narrative analysis reinforces the notion that food agency is incredibly complex and self-referential. People with high self-efficacy around food may feel like they have a high level of agency, even if they can identify ways that societal structures impede them. Mixed-methods analysis reveals aspects of food agency that are not reflected by the scale: specifically, strategies for procuring food; environmental and financial impediments to that procurement; and aspiration for greater self-sufficiency and healthfulness in preparing food. Participants are intentional and skillful in resisting economic and environmental obstacles to feeding themselves. They want to be supported in building skills for that daily endeavor. The food agency scale does not gauge many of the strategies with which they resist obstacles, and therefore might be better cast as a cooking action scale, rather than a measure of comprehensive food agency.