Social food movements

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Social food movements aspire to make food production and consumption more sustainable, strengthen the local food sector, connect people through food, create more awareness about the food we eat and also revive the joy of it. A variety of actors are involved in food movements, such as citizens, consumers, farmers and local producers, people in the gastronomic sector, but also government officials, municipalities, associations and researchers. Examples of initiatives that try to tackle unsustainability and injustice through a social food movement are the Slow Food movement, the food waste movement and Veggie Thursdays, which are outlined below.

This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.

General introduction to approach

With regard to cultural aspects, food movements can trigger the (renewed) acknowledgement of specific food practices and traditions. Food movements might also include aspects of health, such as the wish to improve one’s personal health through a certain diet’, or present a broader movement towards public health. This can be connected to the desire to build a supportive community, managing stress or doing physical exercise. Some social food movements might evolve with the ambition of changing certain habits concerning practices of eating on the individual, organisational or broader community level. As to aspects of leisure, some food movements focus on having fun with cooking, developing new recipes, enjoying the quality and flavour of food, hence developing a new appreciation and awareness of the food we eat.

The development of or participation in a social food movement can also involve environmental aspects. Changing one’s habits, taking up specific food choices or questioning certain food practices can be aimed at contributing to a more ecologically sustainable environment (and food system). For example by raising awareness of the variety of animal and plant breeds (biodiversity). Social food movements might have a political dimension by creating awareness about power asymmetries in the food system, transforming people’s agency in food choices and pointing out the exploitation of people, the environment and animals in the global food system.

Shapes, sizes and applications

An example of such a food movement is Slow Food. Slow food is a global grassroots organisation, founded by the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini and a group of activists in Bra (Italy) in 1986. The movement grew with the development of several national branches in Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Japan, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Kenya and South Korea. Originally, Slow Food started as a countercultural movement to fast food (such as McDonald’s). The movement builds on the idea of connecting the cultivation of taste with local traditional gastronomy and regional biodiversity, criticising the globalised and delocalised food production and fighting the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions. The Slow Food movement seeks to refresh people’s interest in the food they eat. It is based on the three principles of good (relating to pleasure, quality, flavour and healthiness of food), clean (referring to a production which does not harm the environment) and fair (about accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and salary for producers)[1]. Since its foundation, the movement’s discourse broadened to issues such as global warming, animal welfare, food waste or indigenous rights. The aims, values and activities of the movement have evolved enormously over time and reach from community activities of local organisations to national organisations and the establishment of an international network. Hence, informally the Slow Food movement might be described as “instrumental branch of a more diffused movement.” [2]

Another example is Veggie Thursday which is a social movement on vegetarianism. With the idea of introducing a vegetarian day per week in 2009, the city of Ghent and the EVA association (Ethic Vegetarian Alternative) wanted to encourage citizens to eat less meat and fish and fight climate change [3]. With that Ghent became the first city with an official veggie day. It has been adopted by many other actors in Belgium, including 30 schools in Ghent, established by many cities, such as Hasselt, Malines, Eupen and Sint-Niklaas and Brussels, and supported by several governments around the globe.

During the arena event The food waste movement and the Right to food movement were added as other examples of food movements. These approaches tackle unsustainability of the food system and food poverty at the same time. See examples of initiatives below.

Relation to UrbanA themes: Cities, sustainability, and justice

The social food movements mentioned above don’t focus solely on urban areas. For example Slow Food works closely with farmers and producers outside cities, thus connecting both spaces. Food movements address issues of unsustainability for example by promoting vegetarianism and the reduction of one's ecological footprint. A particular feature of Slow Food is the movement’s commitment to a just and sustainable local and global development. For example by promoting fair pricing, preventing food waste and protecting indigenous knowledge on food practices. With their activities Slow food aims to empower people to make fair and sustainable food choices.

Narrative of change

Social food movements, such as Slow Food, address the problematic evolution of the global food system, which includes dynamics of injustice and unsustainability affecting people, the planet and animals. As a counter movement which “represents an act of rebellion against a civilisation based on the sterile concepts of productivity, quantity and mass consumption, destroying habits, traditions and ways of life, and ultimately the environment” [4], the Slow Food movement calls for rethinking and restructuring one’s everyday habits and concrete food life-style. In the Slow Food movement, such rethinking is triggered and promoted through the creation of a community of like-minded individuals, by critiquing the status quo, and by presenting alternative ways of thinking and doing. The grassroots movement invites people to imagine a new economic and food system based on new social relations. Initiatives such as Veggie Thursday present a more top-down approach for creating awareness and activating people to change their habits.

Transformative potential

Social food movements have transformative potential in the sense that they challenge mainstream understandings of how food is produced, processed, distributed and consumed, and unequal social relations that underlie these processes. For example the (market) relation between producers and consumers, and human-animal relationships. This is done by creating awareness, trigger discussion, promoting alternative (individual) lifestyles and behavioural change, and experimenting with different ways to organize the food system. Some of the initiatives might focus on individual change while others might focus more on empowering communities to gain control over their food subsistence. Slow food is an example of a translocal network that criticises the broader economic system and at the same time draws attention to very specific local situations. The risk of these social food movements is that they might reproduce existing inequalities between social groups. Some groups might have limited access to or might not be able to afford (the time and money) to participate in these alternative practices.

During the Arena event it was mentioned that here is great hybridity and variety of social food movements with different motivations, objectives and outcomes in terms of transformative potential. Therefore we should be careful in characterising them all as having such potential.


The Slow Food Convivium Freiburg (SFFR) was founded in 1997. It presents one of the first local organisations of the movement (so-called convivia) and counted 300 members in 2016. It operates on a regional level in the south-west of Baden-Württemberg, and therefore includes rural and urban areas. The activities that SFFR organizes are small-scale, like so-called snail tables, private cooking activities and tastings, education for school kids and adults or donations to the national or international movements. Through its various activities SFFR wants to mirror the broader movement’s philosophy, inspire its members and attract new people. In one of their projects, called “Junior slow mobil”, SFFR educates children on natural and local food. With a mobile kitchen they travel between the elementary schools in Freiburg and surroundings to cook with children. Through this practical approach SFFR tries to trigger a responsible enjoyment or sustainable pleasure of food. Educational activities are highly significant for the convivium, with the clear intention of reaching poor children in marginalised schools through the Junior slow mobil project.

During the first Arena event several interesting initiatives were mentioned. An example of an initiative that addresses food waste is Espigoladores in Spain. This is a non-profit organisation "which acts upon three social challenges: developing a replicable and transferable model able to impact food waste reduction, enhancing access to an adequate diet and generating new opportunities for people at risk of social exclusion". Another example is Open Table this Australian initiative uses "surplus food that would otherwise be thrown away and turn it into nutritious meals to share with the community, in order to reduce food insecurity and food waste". In this way, addressing food waste becomes a tool for community building


  2. Dumitru, A., Lema-Blanco, I., Kunze, I. & García-Mira, R. (2016). Slow Food Movement. Case-study report. TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169
  4. Dumitru, A., Lema-Blanco, I., Kunze, I. & García-Mira, R. (2016). Transformative Social Innovation: Slow Food Movement. A summary of the case study report on the Slow Food Movement. TRANSIT: EU SSH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169

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