Can Community Food Enterprises change the world?

In this blog Joe McCrohon and Lynne Davis investigate the world of community food enterprises and food hubs to find out the lay of the land from an academic perspective.

The Open Food Network supports a vibrant network of food enterprises that are deeply embedded in their communities. During COVID these community food enterprises (CFE) showed just how important they are for community resilience. This has prompted us to embark on a journey to know more deeply how these inspirational enterprises start, grow, thrive and influence their local food systems, in the UK and the Global North as a whole. So, like the good researchers we are, we started out by investigating what others have published about this topic.

On financial viability…

For a CFE to be a viable enterprise long term it has to be financially sustainable. The literature indicates that to support the wider community CFEs have to make money somehow and either have viable plans to scale up, or accept the limitations forced upon them by circumstances.

In areas such as London where there is interest in sustainable food, but also high land and property prices CFEs may have to devote significant time to profit generating activities (Chang M. & Morel 2018), limiting other activities.

Community food enterprises experience an apparent contradiction with the requirements of the neoliberal food system which is to ensure economic viability as a primary focus (McClintock 2014). The need to create a profit is counterbalanced by the desire to ensure economic and other justices both in the enterprise, and the wider community, which do not create a direct profit and are considered less important in the current neoliberal framework (Alkon & Mares 2014). Cooperative enterprises successfully navigate these contradictions by creating a profit and serving their community, such as providing useful training cheaply or for free for workers, and sometimes members of their community (Laurison & Young 2009). Similarly some food hubs, such as Tamar Grow Local, manage to combine relatively radical ideas about human organisation, such as nested adaptive cycles which run on the basis that an organisation, like an organism has a lifecycle with 4 phases. The 4 phases are, exploitation, conservation, release and reorganisation. A continual cycle of adaptation is acknowledged and synergised with the demands of running a successful business and ensuring local food security (Platten 2017).

Most studies on food hubs indicate that there is a strong degree of future financial viability in the UK even if most food hubs make less profit per-capita than their counterparts in the U.S. (Guzman & Reynolds 2019). As a general rule, the longer a hub has existed the more money it makes (Colasanti et al. 2017). This apparent trend could be explained by the fact that food hubs in the U.S. have been present since 1979 (Barham et al. 2012) and that the reasons for failure of food hubs is an under researched topic (Feldstein et al. 2017). A quick search in Google Scholar with the term “why food hubs fail” produced 4 results. Few citations of the paper by Feldstein et al. This indicates a significant bias in the literature towards case studies and research of successful food hubs, rather than those that have failed. Why there is a lack of research is not clear but it could be due to a number of reasons, The indications however, are that U.S. food hubs are more profitable because those that have been researched are the most successful ones, and thus the most profitable ones.

On creating partnerships…

To build a successful and sustainable CFE requires access to land, buildings and other high capital assets. Many CFEs form partnerships with local authorities or larger enterprises to have sustainable access to physical assets, such as land or polytunnels (Shared Assets 2018). In the U.S., and to a lesser extent Canada, there are many examples of food hubs being incorporated into the thinking and planning of governmental departments (Barbham et al. 2012) as well as financial institutions (Dumont et al. 2017).

Coherent financial planning is required to enable CFEs to scale (Sustain 2013) and viability may be enhanced through a degree of cooperation with other nearby CFEs (Sonnino & Griggs-Trevarthen 2013). A blog post by Shared Assets (2014) suggests CFEs investigate what niche they fit in to fill in the local economic landscape (interestingly drawing links to HIV prevention services of the 1980s, in particular whether the service they provide is replicable and the relationship between the organisation and its customers). Berman (2011) describes the Intervale centre in Vermont which has managed to fill a local niche by being economically successful and contribute to the overall food security of its locality by providing a multitude of goods and services, including compost for gardeners.

The literature suggests that partnerships with local governments are more likely to be effective in areas in which there is a general interest for sustainable, alternative food systems. Carey (2013) discusses the city of Bristol and notes a general interest in creating alternative food networks, both from the city council and a significant part of the population. In cities such as Malmo where there is disinterest from public officials (Moragues-Faus & Morgan 2015) and Kirklees where there is less overall interest in sustainable food (Lever 2016) CFEs tend to be more isolated.

On addressing food poverty…

Many CFEs have aspirations to moderate local deprivation. Despite size and economic pressures they tend to be able to moderate it (Bailey, Kleinhans & Lindbergh 2018) though rarely reverse it. Psarikidou et al. (2019) and Prost (2019) investigated the ability of food hubs to combat the impacts of food poverty, finding the presence of a food hub alone does little to ameliorate the impact of food poverty. Dealing with the root causes of food poverty is critical (Lambie-Mumford et al. 2014).

A food sovereignty approach to the design of a food hub, in which a participatory design to ensure maximum community involvement so that the community can control how food is produced, has shown success at increasing community involvement in the process of creating the hub (Ballatyne-Brodie, Wrigley & Ramsey 2015). Furthermore there are strong indications that food hubs can build a degree of food democracy, depending on their abilities to engage the general public about their food (Perret & Jackson 2014). The findings perhaps are an example difference between where the focus of food justice, built on the concepts of the right to food and empowering communities to deal with historic injustices (Kneafsy et al. 2016). Food democracy, which focuses on the need for locally produced, food and that the current food system gives no choice to the most marginalised (Hasson 2019). And, food sovereignty which focuses on local control of culturally appropriate growing and production (Gordon & Hunt 2019) lies (Clendenning, Dressler & Richards 2016).

Laurison & Young (2009) compared the community impact of Fresh & Easy, a Tesco subsidiary in the U.S., with that of People’s Grocery Market  in Oakland, and found a greater degree of monetary and food justice in the surrounding community was created by the justice-oriented supermarket than Fresh & Easy.

On creating social change…

Between the UK and US there is much evidence that CFEs wish to be progressive on intersectional issues. Colasanti et al (2017) found 44% of for profit hubs desire to address racial disparities in food with the number increasing to nearly 80% of cooperative food hubs.

Lei (2018) observed that volunteering in a community bakery probably suited people with significant amounts of free time and, to an extent, money. This excluded some people, such as poorer people, and many students from volunteering. Panahi (2013) discusses how some CFEs help keep volunteers by either giving certain items for free or offering discounts, which is cheaper than paying them. In London CFEs have been noted for a lack of inclusiveness regarding class and race, although this is by no means universal or specific to CFEs (Khan 2011). However, more recently there has been a focus on ensuring that research (Graham 2020) and overall practice is rooted in a process that prioritises participatory, inclusive and distributive practice and research to work towards food, and more general justice (Coulson & Millbourne 2020).

The current food system could be described as a part of the overall neoliberal economic system (McClintock 2014). Cooperatives that are more deeply rooted in movements to change the food system tend to be more successful than those that exist in isolation (Ajates- Gonzalez 2017). The same is probably true for CFEs that if they do not already they may need to consider themselves part of a broader movement that attempts to create a new food system.

To conclude food hubs and community food enterprises are potentially very significant organisations in the local alternative food economy. However, their presence should not be considered a means to an end but rather part of a diverse toolkit that can be used to change the food system, should enough people desire it.

Joe McCrohon and Lynne Davis
Photo credits Bowhouse

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