Being a discussion facilitator at the ‘Decent Helpings’ food justice event

Jonas House – 1st year PhD student in Human Geography

On November 7th I took part in the ‘Decent Helpings: Setting a local and regional agenda for food justice’ event at St. Mary’s Church in Sheffield. The event was held as part of the ESRC’s 2014 Festival of Social Science, and brought together over 65 practitioners, businesses, policy-makers, community organisations and advocates from across Yorkshire, Northern Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire to discuss food justice and related issues. Further information about the event is available on Megan Blake’s Geofoodie blog. In this post, I discuss my role on the day as a discussion facilitator.

A key part of the event was the afternoon’s round-table discussions. After a selection of presentations everyone in attendance was split into groups across ten tables, each of which included a discussion facilitator. Each table was given 45 minutes to complete a group task: this was to collaboratively author five research questions around the issue of food justice which the participants felt were in need of further research. The questions were then grouped thematically by Megan Blake (Department of Geography) and Barry Gibson (Department of Dentistry), and the research themes then ranked by the participants in order of priority.

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As the facilitator it was my job to stimulate discussion, to keep the discussion oriented to developing our research questions, and to make sure that we had five ‘researchable’ questions at the end of our discussion.

As it transpired, keeping the discussion going did not present a problem. The attendees round our table were from a wide range of backgrounds, including local government, charities, community food organisations, and academia. It was fascinating to hear everyone’s take on the issues they felt were most important to understanding food-related problems and inequalities, and our different ideas about the important issues inspired a lively discussion. It was particularly interesting for me personally to hear from such a range of people who I would not ordinarily encounter during my studies.

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Keeping the discussion oriented towards salient food justice issues involved little encouragement on my part as well. All the participants had strong opinions about particular issues, and the discussion would often coalesce around how we had different ways of viewing the same fundamental points (for example, the impact of national or supra-national legislation on local food provisioning).

What I found more challenging was the distillation of the many potential lines of research to come out of the discussion into five simple and researchable questions. We took the approach of writing down any potential research questions as they emerged from the discussion, which was a useful way of recording nascent ideas and making sure we didn’t omit anyone’s input. What this did mean, however, was that we quickly had quite a large body of potential questions to refine into just five.

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We worked as a table to group the questions together by theme, and then had to decide which ones were very similar to others and could be set aside. From the remaining groups of questions we had to discuss which five were most important to us, and then try to formulate one key question for each grouping which could accommodate the slightly different questions within each. This part was quite challenging given the time constraints. I had to draw on my academic experience to formulate questions which were sufficiently focused to enable investigation of everyone’s more specific concerns, while ensuring they were broad enough to accommodate other related issues that the research may illuminate. Some of my fellow participants wondered if the simplified questions were too vague: I had to offer reassurance that a good research question could not be too specific, because the research process has to take a broad range of potential factors into account.

Ultimately though we got our five questions written in time! The event was really helpful for me because it brought a wide range of food justice issues to my attention. It was great meeting people from a diverse range of backgrounds outside academia as well. I look forward to more events involving the local community in future.

The photos are from Megan Blake’s Geofoodie blog, I’ve got permission to use them here.

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