Action research on organizational change with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier: a regional food bank’s efforts to move beyond charity

  • Alicia SwordsEmail author
Symposium/Special Issue


This paper reports on an action research project about organizational change by a regional food bank in New York State’s southern tier. While the project team initially included a sociologist, food bank leadership and staff, it expanded to involve participants in food access programs and area college students. This paper combines findings from qualitative research about the food bank with findings generated through a collaborative inquiry about a ten-year process of organizational change. We ask how a regional food bank can change its approach to address root causes of hunger. Acknowledging that narrow, pragmatic definitions of hunger promote charitable responses, our collaboration is grounded in structural understandings of poverty that refuse to blame the poor or treat poverty as an accident. Decades-long economic restructuring, deindustrialization and a rise in the service economy have resulted in growing inequality and long-term demand for “emergency” food in New York State. We outline critiques by scholars and practitioners of the emergency food regime. Description and analysis of the organizational change efforts of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier combine discourse analysis, collaborative inquiry, interviews, and participant observation. Discourse analysis of the agency’s strategic plans documents changes in aspirations, exposure to new epistemic communities and repertoires of actions. Interviews with participants evidence impacts of the organization’s advocacy and education programs on people with lived experience in poverty. Through a participatory process, we developed a collaborative chronology of phases of organizational change. Collaborative analysis of organizational changes demonstrates new definitions of the problem, a shift in service focus, changing outcomes and increased funding for advocacy. While recognizing substantial constraints, this project contributes to evidence that food banks may shift their discourse and practices beyond charity.


Food banks Food justice Hunger Organizational change Action research Food regime Emergency food Dispossession 



Action research


Food bank of the Southern Tier


Speaker’s Bureau, a project of the food bank of the Southern Tier



I gratefully acknowledge the other members of the core team for their commitment and feedback throughout the research process. I am grateful for the energetic involvement of participants in FBST’s Speaker’s Bureau, students from my Inquiry and Action class, and graduate assistant Rachelle Sartori, who contributed to the development of portions of this research. I also thank the core team, Tim Shenk, Diane Swords and Pamela Sertzen for feedback on drafts. Portions of this research were funded by the Ithaca College Center for Faculty Excellence and the Ithaca College Center for Civic Engagement.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyIthaca CollegeIthacaUSA

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