Re-connecting consumers, food and producers: Exploring 'alternative' network
More and more people in the United Kingdom are obtaining their food through ‘alternative’ food networks (AFNs). For many, participation is a way of establishing a sense of connection with the people, places and processes involved with growing and supplying their food. It reflects the anxieties associated with food consumption in contemporary society but at the same time, consumers report the pleasure they experience when buying, preparing and eating food from AFNs.
This project ran from June 2003 to December 2006
Holloway L., Kneafsey M., Venn L., Cox R., Dowler E. and Tuomainen H. ‘Possible Food Economies: A Methodological Framework for Exploring Food Production-Consumption Relationships’, Sociologia Ruralis, (forthcoming 2007).
The following is the text of the project's original proposal
Food consumers are increasingly concerned about the origins of what they eat, particularly in the light of recent food scares and public debate about the operation of modern agriculture, food processing and supermarket retailing. For many consumers, a knowledge-gap has emerged so that they feel increasingly cut off from the people, places and processes which produce their food. Agriculture has become an increasingly specialised activity undertaken by relatively few people, and remote from the experience of most urban, and many rural, dwellers. Industrial-scale food processing transforms food commodities and re-presents them in forms which may render the primary inputs unrecognisable. Finally, food has been increasingly retailed to consumers through large supermarkets which, again, seem to increase the perceived distance between consumers and primary producers/food products.
Perhaps as a result, there has been increasing consumer interest in 'alternative' food networks (AFN) which apparently bring consumers and producers of food into different relationships. Some producers are recognising that potential markets exist for food which is traded within 'closer' producer-consumer relationships. In order to examine some of the opportunities and problems this raises, this project concentrates on case studies of AFN which aim to achieve a bringing-together of food consumers and producers by developing novel networks of food supply.
GROWING AND EATING FOOD: FORGING NEW CONNECTIONS
Food growers in the UK and elsewhere are realising that there are marketing opportunities in forging new connections with those who eat what they grow. For example, Farmers Weekly has included a special feature on 'Forging links in our food chain', examining the potential for closer links within the food supply system and discussing the need to develop relations of trust between producers and consumers. At the same time, there is also recognition that despite the apparent abundance of food in Western countries, there are important social and geographical inequalities in food accessibility. Notions of 'food deserts' and 'food poverty' have thus arisen from the idea that certain geographical areas and social groups may suffer from a relative paucity of access to high quality, healthy food. In response to these issues, the recent Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food recommended a series of measures to promote a 'reconnection' between the producers and consumers of food. Re-connecting food production and consumption is gaining recognition as a valuable strategy for a wide variety of different objectives, which might include improving people's access to cheap, affordable, healthy food, promoting local rural development, or mounting a challenge to the 'conventional' food supply system.
The project studies schemes which aim to develop 'closer', more 'authentic' relationships between producers, consumers and food. Case study schemes have been selected to represent a range of types of AFN. Schemes operating at the local scale, and those operating at the global scale are included, as will schemes deploying 'lo-tech' and 'hi-tech' solutions to the problem of reconnecting consumers and producers. Examples therefore include local food co-operatives, schemes in which consumers participate in food growing, Community Supported Agriculture, and Internet schemes allowing consumers some 'virtual' control over how their food is produced. The research focuses on consumers' participation in and engagement with these schemes and the food produced in them, aiming to develop a better understanding of what leads to success in AFN, and what problems might be associated with them.
The main questions addressed by the research are:
In order to look at these broad questions, the project examines six AFN in detail. Intensive, qualitative research is focusing on the ways in which the conventional divide between producers and consumers of food is overcome in different ways in specific schemes, and on the different modes of participation available to both consumers and producers in different schemes.
The research involves workshops (including 'virtual' workshops for those schemes which rely on internet technologies for their operation) with consumers participating in each scheme. Workshops are being convened at several points during the project, allowing them to act as scoping exercises early in the project, as discussion groups for a wide range of issues at an intermediate stage of the research, and as a means of debating and disseminating research findings in the final stages of the project. Scheme participants are also being interviewed, focusing on the histories of their involvement with AFN, the evolution of their food consumption practices, their use of technology in relation to food shopping, and their developing relationships with food from different sources. Finally, observational field work will be conducted, examining in depth consumers' consumption practices and routines in the context of different household types and lifestyles.
The research is informed by a Consultation Panel consisting of representatives of institutions operating at the strategic level. The Panel also acts as a mode of dissemination of research findings.
The project seeks to account for the emergence and development of AFN. The case studies will provide valuable information on consumers' participation in AFN. They will identify different modes of participation, the 'factors of success' as well as the problems associated with AFN, and develop suggestions for 'good practice' in AFN. The research will lead to a greater understanding of how consumers develop relationships with food and food production. The results of the research will be disseminated through books, articles and conferences, as well as to participants and practitioners through the workshops and Consultation Panel.