Winning real food on campus: The role of opportunity structures, strategic capacity, and identity in the outcomes of student campaigns

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Hull, Rebecca A. Watts
Winders, William P.
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U.S. college campuses have been important sites of protest and social movement activity since the Civil Rights and New Left movements of the 1960s. Despite this, the outcomes of student activism have received relatively little attention from social movement scholars. This dissertation addresses this gap by investigating the impact of Real Food Challenge (RFC), a U.S. social movement organization (SMO) supporting student campaigns to shift campus dining toward sources that meet its multifaceted criteria for sustainability, while also building a youth movement to transform the global food system. RFC campaign outcomes vary widely; some have won institutional commitments to reach 20 percent “real food” by 2020, while others have made little progress toward that objective. This study uses national, quantitative analysis to identify geographic factors that may influence campaign outcomes. An in-depth, qualitative case comparison of four RFC campaigns examines contextual, organizational, and strategic variables shaping progress and outcomes in this emerging field of student activism. The national analysis reveals a modest regional advantage for schools in Pacific Coast and Northeastern states. Related data from the qualitative study suggest a complex relationship between political context, university orientation toward conventional agribusiness, and administrative response to RFC campaigns. In addition to geo-political context, the qualitative study suggests that openness to student petitions and campus culture also influence administrative response to RFC activism. Collective identity, campaign movement priorities, and strategic choices of activists, in relation to contextual variables, also significantly influence student progress toward winning “real food.” The results point to the significance of tactical and frame alignment for effective student activism. They also suggest greater attention among federated SMOs supporting campaigns operating in widely differing contexts to flexibility and cultivating strategic capacity.
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