Why is it that more and more Canadians are choosing to grab their groceries at organic food stores, farmers’ markets and through community-supported agriculture? That is exactly what Professor Josée Johnston in the Department of Sociology at U of T Mississauga hopes to discover, and thanks to her recent Early Researcher Award (ERA), she now has an extra $140,000 to delve into the reasons behind the rise of conscientious food shopping.
Johnston’s ERA project is entitled Eating ‘off the grid’: Understanding Consumer Motivation in the Alternative Food Sector. The primary focus of this research is to draw a concrete connection between the politics of food choices and personal motivations in the grocery aisles. Using qualitative interviews and surveys with consumers at various income levels, Johnston will examine how food choices reflect concerns of social status, politics, and personal health. She will also look at what motivates food shopping in different kinds of market venues, such as big box stores and farmers’ markets. Research results so far highlight how shopping practices are shaped by demographic factors, including income, gender, and race.
Johnston is cognizant of the issue of class difference in the area of ethical food consumption and believes that consumer messages to shop organically and eat locally are positive, but reinforces the idea that we can rely on wealthy consumers to make the food system more sustainable and socially just. “At the end of the day, we need more state intervention to make laws that protect our land, and that make sure people get fed,” says Johnston. “And that’s not going to happen just through market messages.” Johnston hopes her research will provide insight into how the food system is shaped by market forces and the limits of focussing on consumption-based strategies of social and environmental change.
With future topics such as how gender affects consumer choices in the household, Johnston’s research into food doesn’t hold an expiration date. “Food consumption is a topic that I find really inspiring to work on because it never feels like I’ve reached the end state. It always feels like it’s spiralling out in other areas that I’m interested in looking at,” says Johnston. “I don’t see a natural punctuation mark at the end of this research journey.”
By Mary Dytyniak