The Need for Equity Frameworks in Food Systems Education

Research Brief Publication Date: August 06, 2021
Last Updated: April 26, 2024

Dr. Will Valley, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia
Dr. Molly Anderson, Food Studies, Middlebury College
Dr. Nicole Tichenor Blackstone, Division of Agriculture, Food, and Environment at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University
Dr. Eleanor Sterling, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History
Erin Betley, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History
Dr. Sharon Akabas, Institute of Human Nutrition, Columbia University
Pamela Koch, Teachers College, Columbia University
Colin Dring, Faculty of Land and Food Systems, University of British Columbia
Dr. Joanne Burke, Department of Agriculture, Nutrition and Food Systems, University of New Hampshire
Karen Spiller, Sustainability Institute, University of New Hampshire

About This Brief

This research brief was prepared by the BC Food Web team, based on an article published in Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. 


Like many other industries, there are pressing inequalities within food systems, such as relationships with race; income and food insecurity; gender relations and power; sexual orientation; and decolonization and Indigenous food sovereignty; and these inequalities have become increasingly apparent as a result of COVID-19. In order to address the systemic and structural inequalities, and to transform our food systems, the concept of equity needs to be well understood by those who pursue degrees related to sustainable food systems education (SFSE). However, it is unclear how, and to what extent, SFSE programs are preparing graduates to recognize and address issues of equity.

As such, the guiding questions of this research study included:

  • To what extent existing SFSE programs publicly state their explicit integration of equity?
  • And if equity-related elements exist, what form of equity is addressed?

In addition, the researchers propose an equity competency model for integration into SFSE curricula to support the development of future professionals capable of dismantling inequity in the food system. A competency is a “functionally linked complex of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable successful task performance and problem solving.” Furthermore, a competency model can be used to build, assess, and communicate specific knowledge, skill, and attitudes at the program and course level. These models can cultivate learning experiences that will prepare graduates for professional responsibilities, roles, and capabilities to address complex problems and contribute to the dismantling of structural inequities in food systems.

Food system sustainability projects may reinforce social inequities by assuming everyone has equality of opportunity to access healthy food based on merits and rights alone. Addressing the many structural inequities moves us towards a society in which all individuals have the opportunity to fully participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, food systems. 

Research Process

Researchers examined the state of equity-related discourse evident in current SFSE programs in the United States and Canada through the analysis of public-facing information, such as websites with program and course descriptions. The sample of university programs that provide sustainable food systems education was selected from a list compiled by researchers and professional organizations. Programs were included if their online program description, learning outcomes, and/or required courses indicated that they were interdisciplinary. In addition, only four-year course programs were included.

Program descriptions, core coursework, and program learning outcomes (where available) for all programs were reviewed for statements that relate to equity or equality as a component of the degree program. Through this review, universities were assigned one of three ratings:

  • No mention of equality or equity in any material that were reviewed;
  • Descriptive equality* domain statements
  • Descriptive equity* domain statements and/or specific mention of a social group, such as race, gender, or socioeconomic status with explicit descriptors of the nature or extent of the inequity.

*Equality type statements focus on more abstract and generic concepts of sustainability and on solutions rooted in universal outcomes, whereas equity terms explicitly address systemic and institutional inequities affecting particular social groups.


Of the 108 food system degree programs analyzed, only 39% referenced equality and associated terms, of which 76% were undergraduate programs and 24% were graduate programs (See Table 1). Furthermore, of the 89 universities assed in this study, 81% had no explicit mention of equity in their public program descriptions. Of the 18 programs that mention equity, six had specific references to racial equity, three had mention of gender equity, and five referenced socioeconomic equity. Yet, it is possible that equity is included in more programs, but not specifically mentioned in the course syllabi.

Table 1. SFSE degree programs in the U.S and Canada with equality in program descriptions or core coursework.
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a: Total number of universities = 89.

b: Universities with programs that offered both a major and minor were counted as one degree program.


Sustainable food system education programs have a responsibility to both inspire and equip students with the skills necessary to be able to address food system inequities in their future careers. However, the limited number of educational programs explicitly delineating equity concepts as part of their learning objectives indicates a gap between the knowledge, skills, and attitudes being called for by food justice scholars and activists in the sustainable food systems sector. In an effort to further develop transformation in SFSE, the researchers propose an equity competency model with declarative and procedural elements across four domains, which provides a novel model to be shared, critiqued, adapted, and integrated into SFSE programs.

Equity competency model

  • The equity competency model the researchers propose builds upon equity-related competencies from four publications in the Education for Sustainable Development literature (See Table 2). The equity competency has four domains: Awareness of Self; Awareness of Others and One’s Interactions with Them; Awareness of Systems of Oppression; and Strategies and Tactics for Dismantling Inequities. Within each domain, a set of corresponding knowledge, skills, attitude, and practices are outlined. 

Table 2.  Domains of an Equity Competency for SFSE.

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Declarative elements of the equity competency model

  • Declarative knowledge - the terms and concepts within each domain - is the foundation of the equity competency model. With the varied use of terms related to equity in popular culture, students may have strong prior beliefs about a particular term that can act as a barrier to learning and subsequent collaboration and problem-solving. Thus, developing a shared vocabulary and understanding of the key terms used within the equity competency model is a foundational step for students to apply the outlined knowledge, skills, attitude, and practices. 

Procedural knowledge in the equity competency model

  • Procedural knowledge refers to one's “ability to execute action sequences to solve problems.” In order for SFSE programs to teach actionable steps to solve problems, there is a need to understand historical and current systemic inequities and their intersections as they relate to the unequal distribution of harms and benefits in food systems. As such, the proposed Strategies and Tactics for Dismantling Inequity domain would require that students be able to apply the knowledge and skills from the first three domains to context-specific food system issues.

Calls for addressing inequities will require a willingness by both educators and students to identify challenges, but also to develop the skills and disposition to engage with community members and political entities to develop and integrate sustainable, place-based, justice-oriented solutions. Furthermore, sustainable food system education programs can learn from, collaborate with, and integrate successful practices from those who have a track record of success and are grounded in the lived experience of systemic oppression. In this way, we can broaden our recognition and representation of who is considered an “authority”, and whose experiences, knowledge(s), and ways of being are legitimate and worthy of inclusion in the development of future professionals in food systems.

About This Research

This brief is based on the following journal article:

Valley, Will, et al. 2020. Towards an Equity Competency Model for Sustainable Food Systems Education Programs. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, 8. DOI:10.1525/elementa.428 

Key Findings

  • An equity lens is necessary to dismantle the structures of systemic racism and other forms of oppression in food systems
  • Few food systems education programs explicitly outline an equity focus in their public-facing program and course materials, which indicates a gap between the proficiencies called for by food justice activists and the actual knowledge and skills being developed through curricula
  • To prepare future food systems professionals, education programs should utilize an equity competency model based in both declarative and procedural knowledge