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Redesigning On-line Food Consumption To Enhance Racial And Social Inclusion Through Generative Production Networks


Abstract and Figures

The food system in the US has supported growing dominance of industrial agriculture, corporate distribution chains, and other means by which power is exerted at the expense of environmental sustainability, citizen health and wealth inequality. Economic impacts have been most damaging to low resourced and racialized communities. Online purchasing creates new opportunities-particularly in the context of the covid epidemic-but barriers may arise that are also along race and class divisions. This paper examines an initial data set for two Black led collaborative Food System projects (two urban farms and a mobile farmers market initiative), all of which are primarily staffed by African American leadership and serve a diverse set of community members with Black consumers being of the majority. While issues such as government benefit payments constitute formal economic barriers, other challenges are better illuminated through the lens of the extraction of value: the loss of community connections and increased dependency on modes of production that do not return value to the community. We define "generative production networks" as those which maximize unalienated value return rather than value extraction. We utilize this framework to examine alternative online systems to overcome these barriers.
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New Design Ideas | Special Issue on Generative Justice in Design
Vol.5, No.1, 2021, pp.
Keesa V. Johnson1, Ron Eglash2*
1Penny Stamps School of Art and Design, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
2School of Information, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
Abstract. The food system in the US has supported growing dominance of industrial agriculture,
corporate distribution chains, and other means by which power is exerted at the expense of environmental
sustainability, citizen health and wealth inequality. Economic impacts have been most damaging to low
resourced and racialized communities. Online purchasing creates new opportunities--particularly in the
context of the covid epidemic--but barriers may arise that are also along race and class divisions. This
paper examines an initial data set for two Black led collaborative Food System projects (two urban farms
and a mobile farmers market initiative), all of which are primarily staffed by African American leadership
and serve a diverse set of community members with Black consumers being of the majority. While issues
such as government benefit payments constitute formal economic barriers, other challenges are better
illuminated through the lens of the extraction of value: the loss of community connections and increased
dependency on modes of production that do not return value to the community. We define “generative
production networks” as those which maximize unalienated value return rather than value extraction. We
utilize this framework to examine alternative online systems to overcome these barriers.
Keywords: urban agriculture, food justice, generative justice, online marketing, racial inclusion.
*Corresponding Author: Ron Eglash, University of Michigan, 4389 North Quad, 105 S. State St, Ann
Arbor, MI 48109-1285, e-mail:
Received: 2021; Accepted: 2021; Published: 2021.
1. Introduction
The food system in the US has supported growing dominance of industrial
agriculture, corporate distribution chains, and other means by which power is exerted at
the expense of racialized environmental sustainability, citizen health and wealth
inequality (Garth & Reese, 2020). Online purchasing creates new opportunities--
particularly in the context of the covid epidemic--but barriers may arise that are also
along race and class divisions (Dillahunt et al., 2019). This paper examines an initial
data set for two Black led collaborative Food System projects: a pair of urban farms in
Detroit, and a mobile farmers market initiative in nearby Lansing MI. Both the farms
and the mobile market are primarily staffed by African American leadership and serve a
diverse set of community members, with Black consumers being of the majority. We
conducted research on both producers and consumers, and developed an online
marketing system that incorporates this information. But the system was also designed
for a broader set of concerns. Low-income communities suffer the legacies of colonial
domination, from land appropriation to slavery, as well as later systems of exploitation.
Many of the deeper challenges can be illuminated through the lens of the extraction of
value: the loss of community connections and increased dependency on modes of
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
production that do not return value to the community. Is it possible to restore those
functions lost to an extractive economy? To develop a system that does return value,
and to do so without the alienation and extraction that modern food systems exemplify?
We define “generative production networks” as those which maximize
unalienated value creation, and maximize its circulation back to producers. In doing so
the networks must minimize value extraction, despite being located in a society
dedicated to exactly that. We focus on three forms of value: ecological, labor, and
social. For example, extraction of ecological value occurs when farming shifts from
traditional agroecology to industrial farms that deplete soil of its nutrients and life-
sustaining microbial ecosystem (Altieri et al., 2017). Extraction of labor value occurs
when a worker is moved from enriching mastery of their craft--doing work you love--to
an assembly line where they don't even know what product is being made (Sennett
2008). And an example of the extraction of social value is the way that our cultures,
communications and lifeways are colonized by social media corporations (Zuboff,
2015). Below we review some of the literature that illuminates this distinction between
extractive and unalienated value, and its relevance to food justice. Following that we
describe our field sites and methods for data collection. Our data indicates that if we are
to develop a system that includes unalienated consumption, it needs to allow for more
thoughtful and socialized interactions during the online purchasing experience. Thus the
system we propose will create a virtual communal space for developing both individual
and collective activities, experiences and decisions regarding food understanding and
purchases. By linking these more thoughtful approaches to consumption, and creating
links to less alienated forms of production in Detroit‟s urban farms, we hope to facilitate
a general set of strategies for moving society from an extractive economy to one that
enjoys the decolonizing benefits of generative production networks.
2. Literature review
a. Generative Justice
The literature on generative justice (GJ) frames the problems of inequality,
racism, environmental damage and health damage in similar ways. All of these,
according to Eglash (2016) are the result of economies of extraction. As value is
extracted from the land, environmental damage occurs. As value is extracted from labor,
wealth inequality and alienation from ourselves occurs. As value is extracted from
society, our social networks are colonized in ways we hardly notice: online social media
are essentially “attention farms” for corporations. The GJ literature contrasts this system
of extraction with Indigenious cultures: “Many African societies had indigenous
traditions in which economic, ecological and creative capital was generated and
circulated in a bottom-up fashion, offering a more egalitarian and sustainable approach
than either the capitalist or socialist traditions of today” (Eglash, 2015).
Much of the literature on GJ examines how to restore Indigenous traditions, or
hybridize contemporary contexts and technologies with inspiration from these
unalienated practices. Kuhn (2016) for example provides an analysis of GJ in fiber arts.
She surveys the original Indigenous system of Navajo weaving, where sheep created
biodiversity in plants, plants were used in dyes, and dyed blankets created value that
supported sheep. And she examines contemporary attempts to recover that kind of
circular economy: for example the use of invasive plant fibers in crafting baskets in
Africa, which reduces the plants and provides income.
In his PhD thesis STS scholar Dan Lyles examines the intersections between GJ
and food production systems. He characterized the problems as “sticking points” in
attempting to create localized circular economies for food. Either the participants rooted
themselves entirely in an Indigenous-oriented farming system (his example was the
famous Soul Fire farm in Albany NY), or they only achieved a quasi-generative status,
as unalienated value would tend to “leak” or become extracted. For example, engaging
youth in urban farming can be beneficial, but if not done in an authentic way--merely to
trick them into some science lessons--the value is being extracted.
To summarize the above in simpler terms: “unalienated value” means “keepin‟ it
real” or being authentic. If you are a musician or cook or farmer, and you are doing
work you love, that is unalienated labor value: enjoyable, fulfilling, enriching for your
sense of self. If you are soil, and farmers are putting in compost full of nutrients and
microorganisms, that is unalienated ecological value, the stuff that is enriching for the
soil. And if you are a social group, and you gather around the table to cook and share
and eat, that is unalienated social value, enriching for the communal soul. Of course
there is no guarantee that any particular event will actually embody those qualities: any
of those scenarios can be faked, commodified, manipulated; or simply romanticized to
cover up forms of social inequality. But at least we can start with an understanding of
what “unalienated” should be when it is working well. And that aspirational lens helps
us spot what Lyles calls “sticking points” where value is appropriated, extracted or
leaked away from those who created it.
b. Food Justice
“The struggle for food justice has to be tied to the struggle for economic justice”
Malik Yakini, (Perkins, 2017).
As noted above, generative justice depends on the circulation of unalienated
value, and is inspired by Indigenous traditions. In the domain of food justice, similar
themes emerge, especially in the intersection of racial justice activism and food systems
critique. For example in Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice
(Garth & Reese, 2021), the anthology authors note that traditional Black food culture--
originally in the African Indigenous context--often created mutual forms of support for
bodies, practices and communities. Today Black communities still struggle to reclaim
that heritage (p. 111). Heritage foods can also provide hints about erased pasts and
pathways that linked both voluntary and involuntary travel, and “survivance” in the
sense that Native American scholars have used the term (Vizenor, 1999). For example,
cooked greens are nutritionally dense; the opposite of “empty calories'' from junk food.
Tracing this vital form of sustenance can help identify links between diaspora groups:
Muriwo (Zimbabwe), Morogo (Botswana), Sukuma (Kenya); Calloo (Carribean); and
Collard greens (African American) are all cooked greens with varying amounts of
species resemblance, reflecting the intersections of ecology, culture and histories of
survivance. Other foods shared across the diaspora include red rice, pepper pot,
barbeque, and peanut soup.
Part of this struggle to recover unalienated forms of food production and
consumption has to do with the narratives that attach to the foods. Garth and Reese
(2020, p. 193) point out that while the foods of other cultures are often positively linked
to their roots, some Black food is not: watermelon and chicken have been stigmatized as
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
food of enslavement, stereotypes and traps of the past, despite the fact that one is a
healthy fruit and the other (when skinless) a low fat protein source. Resisting the pull of
an extractive economy that wants to trade our money for our health, while
simultaneously reclaiming that past is a struggle that is as much about bodily integrity
as it is heritage integrity.
Alkon and Agyeman (2011) examine food justice as a social movement,
contrasting the largely white environmental movement of the 1970s with the
environmental justice movement of the late 1970s. A defining moment in this
formation occurred in the social call from the 1982 Warren County protests against the
siting of a toxic landfill for PCB‟s in a largely African American county in North
Carolina; such events spurred others to see the links explicitly to issues of racism and
poverty (Bullard, 1983). The food justice movement grew out of the environmental
justice movement in the mid 1990s. Taylor (2000) notes that these are not necessarily
sequential: even when we look at 1960s movements around ending the Vietnam War,
eliminating racially-based housing and education discrimination and more, there were
ties between health and the environment. Agyeman (2021) summarizes the history of
urban planning and housing policy that helped create „food apartheid‟ in US cities.
In her work Farming while Black (from the same Soul Fire Farms described in
Lyles 2016), Leah Penniman puts many of these ties together in a single statement:
Racism is built into the DNA of the US food system. Beginning with the
genocidal land theft from Indigenous people, continuing with the
kidnapping of our ancestors from the shores of West Africa for forced
agricultural labor, morphing into convict leasing, expanding to the migrant
guestworker program, and maturing into its current state where farm
management is among the whitest professions, farm labor is predominantly
Brown and exploited, and people of color disproportionately live in food
apartheid neighborhoods and suffer from diet-related illness, this system is
built on stolen land and stolen labor, and needs a redesign (2018,5).
In other words, systems of extraction are not limited to pulling labor value from
workers or soil value from nature. They are also powered by mechanisms for systemic
racism. If you want to extract value, colonialism and slavery are powerful starting
points, and the continuation of surplus labor pools and conveniently configured
consumers can be maintained through systemic racism, from targeted marketing to
redlining. Here we can see the relationship between the GJ framework and the ties that
food justice critiques apply to US and colonial history.
Not all food movements are based in social justice foundations. Williams (2013)
writes a history of “the good food movement” starting with Julia Child‟s French
cookbook in 1961. The good food movement was really just a popularization of haute
cuisine for the masses. It was not until much later that it adopted the needs of food
security efforts and emerged from collaborations between academics and activities
interested in understanding the global and local dimensions of food systems and issues
of access (Gottlieb & Joshi 2010, xvii). Yet history has revealed that co-optation is a
two-way street. The term “organic” once signified a radical stance; now it is commonly
used as advertising all sorts of dubious products (Giannakas, 2002). There are
fragmented approaches to equity resulting in varied definitions and applications of Food
Justice. What Food Justice does share with us is the growing needs of a global and
local approach to the eradication of all systems of oppression.
c. Online consumption
The literature on online consumption varies across a broad range of ideologies.
For example, early works such as Kiang et al describe in glowing terms the wonderful
possibilities for “product customization, availability, logistics, and transaction
complexity”. However as the damaging effects of extractive economies were amplified
by electronic accessibility, scholars increasingly documented the negative impact of
online consumption.
The shift to online purchasing is just one element in the larger context of
systems of food economies. As physical structures and transportation systems shift,
race-based and income-based privilege is both amplified and made more invisible. One
impact has been the loss of grocery stores in city areas where racialized populations are
most concentrated. Grocery stores in the sense of large supermarkets, with extensive
availability of reasonably priced fresh fruits and vegetables, are the major source of
healthy food for most of the US (Horowitz et al., 2004). Since inner-city families have
to purchase more food at small convenience stores, where fresh food is rarely available,
of lower quality, and typically over-priced, the higher risks of obesity, diabetes, and
other health problems related to diet for racialized populations are directly linked to this
lack of appropriate fresh food markets (Clifton, 2004). A 2005 Detroit study found that
in poor neighborhoods with a high percentage of Black residents, trips to the
supermarket averaged 1.1 miles further than poor neighborhoods with a small Black
Taylor (2019) notes that the attempt to summarize these phenomena in
ecological terms („food deserts” or “food swamps”) may be done with good intentions,
but it can backfire if they are unconsciously naturalizing what is clearly a social process
of racialized oppression. It is no different, in her view, than derogatory terms such as
“the savage inner city”. Similar analysis is provided in de Masters and Daniels (2019),
who note that “food desert maps” often make the community assets that do exist
invisible. Thus food deprivation, even in cases where it is addressed as a need, may be
weaponized as a means to discredit Black communities as locations worthy of
development and self-directed agency.
Giere and Kumanikay (2008) tie racialized food consumption to targeted
marketing practices--including but not exclusive to online--centered on selling high-
calorie, high-processed, low-nutrition foods and beverages to BIPOC (Black,
Indigenous, and other People of Color) populations. These clearly contribute to ethnic
disparities in obesity and other diet-related chronic conditions. They note a feedback
loop in which excess consumption of food discourages physical activity, which then
may contribute to behaviors and environments that predispose people to gain weight.
Studies of value, attitude and norms towards online shopping often emphasize
consumers seeking bargains. McFarlane (2013) summarize their data as showing that
“customers choose products that offer the best-perceived value, and price is a critical
element that influences customers‟ value perceptions”. According to Lien, Wen and Wu
(2011) “value represents a trade-off between give and get components in a sale
transaction”. They identified the reputation of the product--in particular brand--as a
major element in the decision-making process that balances perceived value against
monetary price. In their study of online grocery services for underrepresented groups,
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
Dillahunt et al. (2019, p.1) note that “because online grocery delivery services provide
access to a wider variety of food and do so digitally, technical interventions may be
necessary to bridge the gap between perceptions of food access and healthy-food
In their system-wide analysis of online food purchasing, Khandpur et al. (2020,
p. 11) note that whatever the contributions that online markets can make to equity, one
would need to take into account the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
(SNAP), and the Electronic benefit transfer (EBT) by which those benefits they are
delivered: “the acceptance of SNAP benefits for online food purchases would first
require a favorable state-level policy context (e.g., states need approval for use of EBT
test cards), before retailer policies can be implemented.” While such barriers are
certainly central issues to address, we cannot afford the illusion that there is a simple fix
that a few tweaks to the system will address. Anti-Black sentiments of overt bigotry, the
structural racism that threatens diets with a lack of affordable fresh food, the seduction
of fast food, and other profit-driven deprivations make interventions like online food
access important opportunities for creating alternative systems.
3. Merging Generative Justice, Food Justice, and Online consumption
The Combehee River Collective‟s Black feminist statement, which remains one
of the most fundamental assertions for emancipatory practice (Eisenstein, 1978) defined
their stance as one “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual,
heterosexual, and class oppression and… the development of integrated analysis and
practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking”
(Combahee River Collective, 1977). As a design imperative, that means refashioning
modern technosocial ecosystems through an anti-racist, democratizing, and empowering
framework. As we can see from the literature review, economies based on the
circulation of unalienated value--ecologically and physiolgically sustainable, rewarding
and dignified labor, and egalitarian social relations--are possible. They were well
established in Indigenous societies of the past, and the potential for recovering them
exists in our present. But the means for that recovery, if it is to exist in the modern
context, will have to contend with modern technology. Can we link unalienated forms
of production, such as the Blacked owned urban farms of Detroit, with unalienated
forms of consumption, as we see in the Black food justice movement? Can an online
system be designed that facilitates this value flow? That is our central research question.
We investigated two sites, one on the consumption side, and one on the production site.
Using that data,we then began experiments with online systems, with the goal of
restoring some of the values and functionalities that had been lost to our extractive
4. Chronological description of research at the two Detroit farms
In this section we review the first of two research sites, a pair of collaborative,
community-driven urban farms in Detroit. As is often the case with community-based
design research (Bang et al., 2016), the site communities themselves influence the
selection of multiple data collection methods, in order to ensure that the priorities of the
participants are fore-fronted.
a. D-Town and Oakland Avenue Urban Farms
The Black agrarian scene located within the city of Detroit has been expanding
since its origins in the 1980s, and D-Town Farm and Oakland Avenue Urban Farm are
two of the most prominent sites in that history (Tyler, 2019). Farming in Detroit
resonates with the flow of the many musical sounds that have been created there such as
motown, soul, funk, and techno music. Here we find growing, harvesting, educating,
and sharing practices that are both recovered from Black heritage, and reinvented for the
future in ways that reflect the goals of self-determination, cultural survivance and other
aspects of generative justice.
Oakland Avenue Urban Farm‟s origin dates to 2009. It began with Jerry Hebron,
the executive director who is often seen working in the 4-acre field with her husband
(who is the farm manager). Jerry speaks often of why she came back to live in the north
end. Her mother, Pastor Reverend Elder Betha L. Carter challenged her congregation to
address the neighborhood‟s need for food security. So Jerry left her real estate job to run
her family‟s business and created Oakland Avenue Urban farm from a 4-acre lot and a
building. Current plans include The Landing, an event space with a 12-room hostel
which will give visitors to detroit an urban agricultural experience.
This “agri-cultural” urban landscape is located in Detroit's North end. It is a
program of the North End Christian Community Development Corporation, which is a
non-profit, community-based organization dedicated to cultivating healthy foods,
sustainable economies and active cultural environments. The North end of Detroit is
well known for the richness of its soil. As of 2016 the nonprofit Keep Growing Detroit
had carried out 1,343 soil samples in the area, and found about 81% had acceptably low
levels of lead (Ignaczak, 2016). They grow organic foods and offer their own line of
products such as AfroJam Jams & Jellies, Sweet Sticky Thing Honey, and Bissap
Hibiscus Cooler, as well as the usual farm produce such as fresh eggs. Oakland Avenue
Urban farm has a 10 person staff and operates with over 300 hundred volunteers
D-Town Farm‟s origin begins in 2000 when Malik Yakini, principal of Nsoroma
Institute Public School Academy charter school, worked with staff, parents and
supporters to implement organic gardening as part of their Afrocentric curriculum. D-
Town grew from that effort, alongside other activist groups seeking healthy and
sustainable food for city of Detroit residents. The 7-acre organic farm is located within
Rouge park, run by the city of Detroit. There are over 30 different fruits, vegetables and
herbs that are sold at farmers‟ markets and to wholesale customers. The farm features
four hoop houses for extended-season growing, a solar tower, and facilities for bee-
keeping, rainwater retention, large-scale composting, farm tours and an annual harvest
festival. The farm also maintains a children's area with a small playscape and a clay
pizza oven. Community building is an important part of the farm's mission.
In addition to bringing crops to local farmers‟ markets, they educate youth about
healthy eating and exercise through their Food Warriors Development Program. They
will be breaking ground in summer 2021 for a Food Coop run by the city of Detroit.
Their parent organization, The Detroit Black Food Security Network, helped to
establish Detroit Food Policy Council, a group committed to establishing and
maintaining a localized food system and ensuring food security in the city.
As we detail below, the data collection and design process eventually evolved
into the online website, Shop Detroit Farms. This collaborative network of Detroit
growers and producers is aimed to provide food that is environmentally and socially
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
just. But it is also one that is conscious of the ways that generic, universal forms of
social justice must be accompanied by processes and practices specifically designed for
the needs of the local Detroit population (over 90% Black). The organizations
represented by Shop Detroit Farms take great pride in their ability to offer nutritious
options for their local community. The broader aspirations we often heard from the
leadership in these organizations can be summarized as uplift and celebrate Black
leadership, Black self-determination, and Black joy.
COVID 19 has impacted agriculture practices and the way both farms connect
with their consumer demands for safe food delivery. The creation of an online
marketplace thus took on special significance in this context; but we never lost sight of
the goal to support Detroit farmers who are rooted in racial justice, community self-
determination and sustainable, regenerative practices. Oakland Avenue Farm and D-
Town Farm have developed over the years through mutually supportive mechanisms,
and thus combining their public-facing online access does not create problems over
competition. What follows in the next two sections are first-person narratives by the
first author (Johnson), to help capture the experiential aspects of that part of the
b. From two farms to many: Shop Detroit Farms (first person narrative
by Johnson)
In May 2020, I began working with them through an internship offered by the
University of Michigan Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. The goal of the internship
was to work five days between three farms: D-Town Urban farm, Oakland Avenue
Urban farms, and the University of Michigan farm where I was already employed as the
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager. Due to the nature of COVID and its effects
upon food production for growers during the summer, the nature of the internship
changed dramatically. I was now the intern that would explore and implement an online
ordering system as a partnership between D-Town and Oakland Avenue Farm. Both
farms operate within a cooperative structure and are close siblings in their fight for food
access within the Detroit community.
In June of 2020, I began conducting a feasibility study of existing Direct
Marketing systems using the National Young Farmers Association guide as a starting
point. The goal of the feasibility study was to find the best system for each of the two
farms. In July, the feasibility concluded.
The findings from the feasibility study revealed potential challenges: many of
the sites required credit cards; did not accept EBT or SNAP (common federal food
supplement funding for low-income communities); were not designed for people with
disabilities; assumed laptop or tablet rather than smartphone; and did not put any
emphasis on purchasing from local sources or for healthy diets. This was echoed by
other researchers; for example Dillahunt et al. (2019) note that users for current online
shopping technology are typically highly educated, affluent, and technically adept, and
raise the concern that its design may be influenced by that user base. I shared with my
community partners that many of the current online ordering systems may not fit the
needs of the community we are serving.
In addition to the equity and access questions for consumers, the online ordering
systems also appeared to lack any means for facilitating the communal connections that
Black farmers utilize within their farm practices: seed and equipment sharing,
harvesting collaborations, and educational exchanges. The more I learned about the day-
to-day practices of these farms, the greater the gap appeared between existing online
systems and these flows of unalienated value. It seemed like an online system that could
serve the entire community that formed around the urban farms would be vastly
different from those I was finding online.
5. Chronological description of research at the food cooperative (continuing
first person narrative by Johnson)
Following the summer internship with the urban farms, in fall of 2020 I was
approached to help create another online food system. This would be an online grocery
delivery pilot for senior communities. It would be run by a non profit called North West
Initiative (NWI), looking to strengthen the Lansing city area bounded by the Grand
River on the north, east, and south. With only an hour or so drive or so between Lansing
and Detroit, it is no surprise that food justice networks in the two municipalities are in
communication with each other.
The pilot project was created to address the problem of low-income food access
in Lansing‟s urban core, and it obtained new significance during the COVID 19
pandemic, especially for senior citizens who utilize the EBT (Bridge) card to purchase
their groceries. The only stores in the Lansing area who began accepting online grocery
ordering for those with an EBT card were two grocery outlets (Walmart and Kroger),
and the lack of delivery, plus long distance (5-7 miles from the center of downtown
Lansing) made food access very difficult for our most vulnerable populations during the
pandemic. The Capital Area Transportation Authority also shut down during this time,
which left people without an inexpensive public transportation option. Since the
summer of 2019, NWI has been surveying low-income residents to get their input on
food access barriers, and the responses since the pandemic have been alarming: seniors
too afraid to go to the store or even to free food distribution program sites.
Mid-fall I started gathering data on existing grocery shopping and delivery
services (GSDS), such as Shipt, Instacart, and Go-Go Grandparents to find out their
rates and how their programs operated, as well as sharing information about this unique
population of EBT users. But Shipt and Instacart were not interested and Go-Go
Grandparents charged a very high fee for their service. Their responses were not
surprising: they had been inundated just trying to fulfill the orders of the thousands of
people who had credit cards and who were placing online orders during the height of the
pandemic. The NWI goal would be to pilot a grocery shopping and delivery service for
low-income seniors. This would help to determine if it can transform into a viable and
affordable alternative, ensuring that our most vulnerable populations can also equally
participate with the online grocery shopping and delivery service platforms during the
pandemic and beyond. And as broader long-term goals, they saw the possibility of paths
for food equity and food justice for all the low-income people who live in the six “food
apartheid” neighborhoods they identified in Lansing, MI.
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
6. Summary of data sets and methods
Our methods for gathering data included online surveys, in-person interviews,
rapid prototyping, a wall board, and a focus group. These were conducted separately for
the two case studies, as detailed below.
a. Data gathering for agricultural production in Detroit
Both farms (D-town and Oakland Ave Urban Farm) partnered with us to facilitate the
following data collection:
Document collaborations: these were bi-weekly meetings in which we facilitated
ideation, structure and crafting of two documents
Sustainable agreements
Partnership documentation
Process mapping: inventory of systems to map production and labor process,
customer service, infrastructure management, and other fundamentals
Participant observation: walk-through with producers/customers in the process
of ordering in the system and picking up at both farms.
Rapid prototyping: using rapid iterative testing and evaluations (RITE) a initial
GUI for the online shopping system was created, and users provided feedback
that allowed for a gradual evolution towards greater utility, capability and
Survey: a survey was sent to 265 prospective users from the online system
created by D-town farm; 60 responded (appendix A).
Focus group: yet to be conducted, this will allow remote moderated research
(remotely observing users completing tasks on their own devices in context.
b. Data gathering for Northwest Initiative
Fall 2020 marked the start of the design of the NWI grocery delivery pilot.
These methods included:
Positionality wheel: this was a workshop based on (Noel & Paiva, 2021) in
which participants share the aspects of their identities (ethnicity, gender,
language, labor etc.) they feel might be relevant for others to know.
Table of collaboration: using Creative Reaction Lab (Creative Reaction Lab,
2018), we developed a table of stakeholders and potential outside contributors
Initial Surveys: In appendix B we show the survey we developed to determine
user needs and experiences around food consumption on and off line. The
respondents were selected by using locations along a Lansing MI mobile food
truck route. Since the food truck is known for accepting SNAP and EBT
payments, this allowed us to focus on low-income and Black community
members. 18 respondents from 3 apartment buildings spread across the Lansing
mobile food truck route filled out paper-based forms. In addition, a similar set of
questions were mounted on poster boards in one building lobby; an additional 26
respondents filled out these forms. Of the 44 total respondents, the
demographics were as follows: 60% were white and 40% minorities, there were
more women coming to the market (80%) then men. The average income is
below $25,000 and are dedicated EBT users.
Food Chats: following the initial surveys, we asked followup questions by
phone. These yielded “food stories” in which respondents offered more richly
detailed information about the challenges, fears, and hopes of their dietary
Experience Prototype: Based on the initial surveys and food chats, we found that
many participants were nostalgic about in-person shopping; this was especially
important for elderly participants. The experience prototype was essentially a
role-playing interaction which tested 3 touch points in a larger process (intake,
ordering, delivery). Each respondent looked at an existing online store (Kroger
or Meijers), and sent a screenshot of their selection ($30 participation stipend,
plus free groceries). The study, carried out over 3 weeks, yielded 8 participants
(15 orders total), and revealed both user needs and failures of current online
experiences (expensive or unwanted substitutions, etc.).
7. Data analysis
One of the most important goals was to reveal the ways in which unalienated
value generation exists, and is still circulated, despite the context of extraction,
exploitation and colonial legacies. The data revealed the following forms of unalienated
value and its circulation:
Unalienated value
form category
Heritage recipes
An example recipe that is used in the community is Roasted Squash Salad with
Fonio and Warm Vinaigrette.
Squash is a traditional plant across many Indigenous cultures. The African
calabash is a squash, used in food as well as instruments and ladles. “Follow the
drinking gourd” is a Black song advising plantation escapees to follow the big
dipper which points to the North (Detroit was codenamed “Midnight,” because it
was one of the last “stops” on the Railroad before attaining freedom in Canada.).
This recipe is also highlighted due to its infusion with an African “super grain”
called Fonio. While apples are not Indigenous, vinegar is a staple in Southern
Black soul food. And it's delicious.
Cooking goes beyond recipes: for example the broth from one dish can be used in
another. Sharing kitchens, techniques, utensils and so on are all examples of how
this unalienated value form circulates.
Sharing between farms is commonplace. For example, seeds are shared; finances;
and so on. Customers are also shared: if one farm lacks a product, and the other
has it, they will take pains to redirect the customer.
Urban farming and
growing traditions
There are a variety of farming practices being utilized within the urban agriculture
scene and an example is the no-till technique, which was created by George
Washington Carver. Both farms are using the silage tarps as a form of method to
stop the germination of seeds. It is used to block off light and keep the
environment warm and moist.
Sense of community
The following are examples of how community shaped and formed within the
farming sites, where the emphasis is on persevering our ancestral memory:
1. Harvest festivals
2. Opening ceremonies
3. Language and artifacts that reflect African culture
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
These are two day events based on live music, learnshops, vendors, children's
activities, farmers market and farm tours.
Opening ceremonies acknowledging the Anishinaabe land that is farmed are
increasingly common, and speak to the need for inclusive forms of emancipation
(see section 8c).
Making do
DIY construction is a common phenomenon among urban farmers. Examples
include harvesting honey from bee hives they organize and maintain; constructing
solar panels; making hoop houses, and so on.
Language and
Subtle language distinctions marked social bonds and shared understandings. For
example, during COVID social distancing advisories are disseminated on the
internet, public signage, and restrictions applied throughout the country. But at
the field sites they used the phrase, “physical distancing through the act of social
solidarity” to allow us to sustain that value as we seek new ways to commune
while sheltering in place.
Also evident from the data was forms of value extraction. For consumers these
Alienated value form
Seduction of
unhealthy foods
Seduction of
Healthy food
Low-income jobs
Corporate grocery
Fast food
Finally the data also showed “leaks” of value for urban farmers by online fees:
Site of value
Consumer and
producers both pay fee
for each use in the
online market (like
There are usage and transactional fees that the producer and consumer take on
when using online grocery/produce ordering systems.
Producer loses fee to
online payment
system enrollment
There is a sign-up fee for some systems.
Bank takes a fee from
the producer for
allowing credit card
Producers lose money from the fees occurring using a payment gateway and
merchant accounts that transfer money to the bank from online transactions.
Of course real life is not divided up into discrete categories: consumers are also
producers (often the term “prosumer” is used). Some forms of value generation blur or
hybridize various categories, as do some forms of extraction.
In the case of the Northwest Initiative project, two commonalities stood out. One
was a complete lack of online food delivery usage (100% of 44 respondents), despite
the fact that this was the peak of the Covid epidemic. Given the frequent comment that
they enjoyed the social aspects of physical shopping, one could view this as resistance
to an extractive practice that would diminish sociality and conviviality. The other
commonality was relatively unhealthy diets, heavy in fats and processed foods. In that
case it seems like capitulation to extraction, endangering health in ways that produce
profits for large corporations. The kind of online marketing system we envision here
would allow these two tendencies to modify each other: making locally produced,
healthy farm products more available would improve diets, and if the online system was
designed to encourage sociality (in-person meet ups, online chatting, sharing, buyers
clubs etc.) it would offer technological scaffolding to improve, rather than detract from,
conviviality and communitarian ways of living.
8. Moving from analysis to design
Given the analysis above, our goal became to develop an online system that,
while perhaps starting from compromise with the present, could gradually evolve
toward minimizing the forms of alienated value, and maximizing unalienated value. To
accomplish this we had to first recognize preliminary caveats:
1. Starting forms may not be entirely only online. Dual forms--having both a
physical location and online--maybe be preferable, and even “online” may best
manifest itself as something like a phone-activated interface rather than a
2. For some respondents, technology and alienation are closely related. We need to
prioritize respect for their unalienated values form first, and its empowerment
through technology second.
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
3. There is a tension between designing for generative justice, and making things
democratic. The system can facilitate access to unalienated value, but it cannot
dictate that someone buys healthy food or engages in a particular set of
Figure 1. Alienated and unalienated value flow in food justice systems
Figure 1 shows a system diagram for generative justice as it would be visualized
by groups such as the National Black Food Alliance. Translating that model for our
system diagram for value flow, we can see that there is a context in which extractive
production systems exist, but localizations of unalienated value flow can survive.
Normally these are in an uneasy relationship. I might have a beloved, healthy, heritage-
based recipe cooking in my kitchen, and share such things with a community of like-
minded people. But that circular value flow exists despite the seductions of fast food,
long distance drives, social media distractions, low paying jobs, food apartheid, and
dozens of other “leaks” by which value is drained to extractive systems. The goal in
figure 1 is to show how we can arrange hybrid forms of production that create a positive
feedback loop for unalienated value.
At the intersections of the extractive system and the unalienated value circle lies
the GUI. The simplicity of this box is deceptive. It is standing in for a vast sub-network
(figure 2) by which our urban farms find customers, customers find marketing and
delivery, community members share recipes, conviviality, growing tips, buying
collectives, food clubs, and other forms of sociality from collective purchasing to (what
we hope will be) a generative form of social media.
Figure 2. User flow chart as they navigate the online market
In figure 2 we expand that GUI box to map out what might be the flow of user
experience. Users start from an opening screen that provides them with the option of
going straight to purchasing, or stopping by one of the chat rooms. This is in keeping
with caveat 3, offering options rather than dictating that they must engage in generative
forms. Even after entering the chat rooms, it is possible, of course, that users will
demand unhealthy choices. We note that in the box on the lower right (unhealthy foods
from corporate sources would be alienated value). That is simply the price one pays for
maintaining a democratic system.
Figure 3. The network of activities and actions in the “collective decisions” node
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
We have labeled those chat rooms “collective decisions” but that too is
deceptively simple. It is shorthand for a vast array of activities that could include
informal chatting, media sharing, recipe sharing, cooking meet-ups, collective buying
practices, gaming or other potential features (figure 3). Some of these collective
decisions may affect the design of the system itself. The more user preferences inform
the design, the more it will democratize its role in the community. But there will also
need to be balance between meeting the needs of consumers, and meeting the needs of
producers of these goods. These top level decisions will need to be decided by
collective action between different stakeholders: farmers, civic groups like Northwest
Initiative, and some representation from the community of users.
9. Outcomes
a. Online market for Detroit urban farms
Initial testing of the online marketing prototypes for the urban farms began in
late summer of 2020. We conducted a rapid prototyping and user testing session with
potential community users. We began with a small group of known users, and used
snowball sampling to find more. One of the design methods we stressed was “learning
from extremes” (Leadbeater & Wong 2010). Learning from extremes deliberately
includes demographics from the far ends of the bell curve (youngest and oldest, etc.) to
ensure that population averages are not skewing the results such that we fail the most
vulnerable populations. This allows a more balanced view of what is needed (and
possible), and minimizes the influence of researcher assumptions and constraints
(knowing they will always be present in some sense). In addition to diverse community
users, we solicited feedback from a food designer, a teacher, a farm manager, as well as
a stocktrader to incorporate different forms of expertise and insight needed before we
(urban farms and researchers) launched.
A “wireframe” prototype is shown in figure 4. We begin with options for
shopping, learning, and becoming a vendor to indicate three levels of interaction:
Figure 4. Prototype interface for the urban farms GUI
1. Shopping. No matter how “generative” the goals, the system has to be
financially sustainable in the context of our present capitalist economy.
2. Learning. Sharing all the unalienated forms of value serves, at least in theory,
two goals. First, there is positive feedback with the generative community
(cooking, growing, celebrating, sharing tools and seeds, organizing, planning,
etc.). Second, we strive to achieve secondary or meta-feedback between this
loop and that of level 1‟s ordinary shopping. That is to say, the more we can
develop a platform for freely sharing unalienated value, the more opportunities
to expand generative activities that can be sustained in the for-profit side of the
3. Becoming a vender. Here is where the previously described metaloop is
formally enabled (figure 5). If the system is able to grow and evolve, gradually
absorbing more customers, localized sustainable vendors, and
learning/sharing/organizing opportunities, a generative economic ecosystem
could be enabled. This cannot simply be any vendor: the local McDonalds or
Walmart would need to be excluded on the basis of their non-local corporate
nature and unsustainable practices. More subtle distinctions would need to be
applied to ensure that vendors meet standards for “generativity” as defined by
the group.
Figure 5. Meta-feedback: the unalienated value cycle opens opportunities for new vendors; who
(if composed of generative practices) create new opportunities for unalienated value flow
b. Online market for Northwest Initiative
A prototype has yet to be launched for the online market supported by Northwest
Initiative. Indeed its very existence is still somewhat controversial within the project
management. The mobile food truck is still very much in service, and questions arise as
to whether an online market would detract from food truck usage. On the other hand,
the food truck does not run all year, and currently of the 44 respondents, zero reported
NEW DESIGN IDEAS, V.5, N.1, 2021
using an online food delivery system. One solution currently under consideration would
be free courses training users, perhaps with a free food delivery for first time tryouts.
c. Designing for inclusive emancipation
The visual symbolism of the Detroit Farms GUI is a kind of embodiment of the
intentions toward a design that is both emancipatory, in the sense of responding to
histories of colonialism and oppression, and simultaneously inclusive, opening its doors
to all willing to participate in a path towards just and sustainable futures. For example,
we have forefronted images of Black farm owners and consumers, as well as their
favorite products, but avoided the use of Pan-African colors and symbols that one sees
on individual farm websites in Detroit. This strategy is quite old. Frederick Douglass,
for example, rejected the “back to Africa” movement of his time, and promoted the idea
that nations accomplish the most when they promote hybridity and cross-cultural
collaboration (Eglash, 2019).
10. Conclusion: evolutionary paths to just and sustainable futures
There is an obvious evolutionary path for these kinds of endeavors. One can
imagine their expansion to entire community economic networks, perhaps empowered
by blockchain or other means of securing both privacy of transactions and public
sharing of opportunity (Eglash et al., 2019). But such efforts must be guided by equity
and access from the beginning. Otherwise a more inclusive design will fail to evolve; it
will be designing for the core and not taking in account the many contexts of those who
operate within the margins of society. Inclusion must consider those who are disabled,
who have cultural values and economic class perspectives different from those who are
designing, who are in touch with the social and ecological values that give the world it‟s
vibrancy. Asking, collaborating, and co-investigating in ways that are fundamentally
based upon equity and access from the beginning is the only way that emergence of a
generative economy can be formed through design.
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