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On His Proverbial Plate

A visit with Sandy Rikoon, Professor, Rural Sociology

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: environmental sociology political ecology food security ethnicity research

Sandy Rikoon has a lot on his proverbial plate. His work is hard to pigeonhole, except to say that, in general, it's grounded in concern over both people and the environment. On the one hand, he runs the environmental sociology program in the Department of Rural Sociology in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, where his research and teaching revolve around the sociology of agriculture, natural resources, and political ecology, and he is currently Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Human Environmental Sciences. Since the discipline of rural sociology lives “at the intersection of basic and applied research,” it is the pursuit of “seamless connections” between his research, teaching, and outreach activities that drives Rikoon’s work.

The expertise of social scientists can be invaluable to the public, especially when agencies ask for help while setting up projects, to insure that the process fits with local norms. “This is applied research at its finest,” Rikoon explains. When projects are “imposed from the outside,” he cautions, "it tends to lead to resistance from the public." Often, however, help is requested only after problems are encountered.

Some years ago, for instance, Rikoon got a call from the U.S. Department of State, which was under public criticism about a planned biosphere reserve in the Ozarks (which they assumed would be innocuous). He and colleague Theresa Goedeke conducted fieldwork with the local people, eventually publishing Anti-Environmentalism and Citizen Opposition to the Ozark Man and the Biosphere Reserve (2000). Rikoon calls this “a study of a failure” because it explores why the government’s plan to establish the biosphere reserve backfired.

Although state and federal agencies sought to protect Ozark resources, the government’s tendency toward secrecy led to misinterpretation and skepticism. “There had been so many previous incidents in the Ozarks,” Rikoon notes, “where people felt like they had been wronged by outsiders, the government, environmental groups, or timber industries.” With this long history of exploitation, the Biosphere Reserve seemed only the latest in a long string of incidents, creating “animosity and crazy rumors about the government.”

To gather information for the study, Rikoon and Goedeke attended public meetings in the Ozarks, some of which were very tense, with local people angry at the government and the Park Service. He recounts one meeting, when a man stood up and commented: “You know, when things go bad, as citizens, we’re supposed to go to court and sue. And so we try the jury box. And maybe that will work, maybe it won’t. But if it doesn’t work, then we can try to elect new leaders, and approach it through the ballot box. When the jury box fails and the ballot box fails, there’s the cartridge box. And that’s where we’re at.”

Navigating the tension between these positions, Rikoon and Goedeke interviewed both proponents and opponents of the biosphere reserve plan, and they examined written texts such as newspaper articles and letters to the editor. From this painstaking fence-walking emerged a book, based in ethnographic research, that drew praise from both environmental groups and so called “anti-environmental” groups. Whereas the government saw their book as a lesson in how not to do things, land-rights groups saw it as proof of the government’s fallibility.

Finally, Rikoon has piled the subject of food onto his plate. From 2001 through 2009, he directed the Community Food Systems and Sustainable Agriculture Extension Program, which supports farms and communities concerned about sustainable food systems, conservation practices, and economic viability. Most recently, he has added the issue of hunger—a problem plaguing even the wealthiest of nations.

“The bottom line is we know an awful lot more about soil than we know about hunger in the state,” says Rikoon, who assembled an interdisciplinary team comprised of Nikki Raedeke (a nutritionist) to offer nutrition education at the food pantry and the Central Missouri Food Bank in order to assess the needs of at-risk constituencies. Good ideas grow, and soon so did the team, which quickly expanded to include Matthew Foulkes (a geographer) and Joan Hermsen (a sociologist). “It was great,” Rikoon beams. “Four disciplines, three colleges.”

At the time, no census of hunger in Missouri existed. So they rallied undergraduate students to help conduct a systematic assessment of hunger in Missouri, surveying 13,000 food pantry clients throughout the state, county by county. Eventually, they developed a computerized model to predict food insecurity in individual counties. By showing areas where we are meeting the community’s needs, and those where we are we not, the survey helps hunger relief efforts.

“But food security is only one measure of hunger,” explains Rikoon. Their study eventually expanded into what they gave a name an unglamorous as its subject — the Missouri Hunger Atlas is an online tool that assesses the extent of food insecurity throughout the state as well as the extent to which hunger relief programs (including public initiatives like food stamps and the free and reduced lunch programs and privately operated food banks and food pantries) are doing to meet the needs of families struggling to acquire sufficient food.

The interdisciplinary team working on this project has now expanded to include Jordan Dawdy (Extension), Matt Foulkes, Colleen Heflin (Truman School of Public Affairs), Joan Hermsen, Jill Lucht (Rural Sociology), and Nikki Raedeke.

“The numbers of people who are food-insecure and hungry have been steadily increasing over the last eight years and more sharply once the state began to feel the economic downturn,” notes Rikoon. According to the 2010 Hunger Atlas, a quarter of Missouri families worry about being able to provide enough food on the table. Most importantly, the Atlas assesses areas where people are falling through the cracks, in the hope that agencies can use this information to improve their ability to meet the food needs of their communities.

“Talk about impact!” exclaims Rikoon, reflecting on the public response to the Missouri Hunger Atlas. From the state government to local volunteer groups, the Atlas is being used as a unique tool to improve services. Not surprisingly, other states are now turning to the Atlas, which will likely become a national model and will hopefully bring us a few steps closer toward the goal of squelching the ugliness that is hunger.