By: Helen Coulson
Collaborative food partnerships have proliferated throughout the United Kingdom (UK) over the past decade in an attempt to strategically ‘scale-up’ civil society activities to create spaces of deliberation in the form of cross-sector participatory food system governance coalitions (Moragues-Faus and Morgan 2015). In the absence of an integrated and comprehensive UK-wide national food policy, cities, towns, counties and boroughs are developing various partnerships orientated around participatory and holistic place-based food policy, contextualised by multi-scalar, however, always locally embedded and experienced socio-ecological inequities and injustices.
In this sense, urban areas are positioning themselves as key food policy actors, and strategic sites to reimagine and enact innovative governance configurations as a way to inspire a more participatory, inclusive and emancipatory politics around food (Moragues-Faus et al. 2013).
The Sustainable Food Cities Network (SFCN), a translocal alliance of diverse placed-based food governance configurations in the UK, was established in 2011 by the Soil Association which subsequently enrolled two other organisations, Sustain and Food Matters, to develop and coordinate the network, and currently consists of 48 members. As one of the case studies examined by Cardiff University as part of TRANSMANGO (see WP6 UK Case-Study), the SFCN is identified as a crucial conduit to develop a translocal assemblage of heterogeneous place-based food policy innovations in a national context. Indeed, the SFCN endeavours to connect diverse places that are developing urban food strategies, food charters and actions plans and provide a collective voice to influence broader policy by offering a shared vision for food system change based around six key principles:
- Promoting healthy and sustainable food to the public;
- Tackling food poverty, diet-related ill health and access to affordable healthy food;
- Building community food knowledge, skills, resources and projects;
- Promoting a vibrant and diverse sustainable food economy;
- Transforming catering and food procurement; and
- Reducing waste and the ecological footprint of the food system.
By developing a social infrastructure to share best practice, experiences and resources such as digital communication platforms, networking events, national campaigns (such as the Sustainable Fish Cities (2014), Beyond the Food Bank (2015-16) and Sugar Smart (2017) initiatives), in addition to a Sustainable Food City Award structure (which aligns with the six key principles), the embryotic activities of the SFCN aligns with the conceptualisation of ‘food democracy’ (Hassanein 2003). This asserts the potential of citizen engagement and the political possibilities of incremental changes to achieve more sustainable food systems.
The analysis demonstrates that the SFCN and individual sustainable food cities predominately contribute towards delivering Food and Nutrition Security (FNS) outcomes related to the access dimension, as well as tentatively addressing the utilisation and sustainability dimensions. The transformative capacity of the SFCN is related to its ability to nurture synergies between multiple actors, sectors and scales, however, there is further scope to develop greater collaboration beyond national ‘boundaries’. Furthermore, there are various practical challenges facing the network in terms of capacity building given limited resources, diverse local policy contexts and the differential organising capacity of civil society.
While the positive aspects of an ‘alternative food geography’ emerging as a result of cities becoming new food policy actors has been frequently (re)articulated (Wiskerke 2009; Morgan 2015), the analysis emerging from TRANSMANGO emphasises the need for a critical geography of place-based food partnerships. This acknowledges that the socio-ecological circumstances, and therefore, challenges and opportunities facing places are different, and at present, are contextualised by austerity. As co-governance arrangements mature, the research points to the importance of questioning the power dynamics inherent to new networked urban food governance approaches, by examining whose voice is heard and who is (dis)empowered to create inclusive processes to help address complex multi-scalar FNS challenges.