Online Space, Reconnection and Alternative Food Networks
BES Pump-Piming Fund (Coventry University)
This project was funded by the Faculty of Business and Law’s (Coventry University) pump-priming fund, for early career researchers. The project explored how online space is used by a range of Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) in Coventry and Warwickshire. Spaces of ‘alternative’ and ‘local’ food production and consumption have been the subject of considerable interest within agri-food research and policy making circles in recent decades. This is in part a consequence of consumer reactions to a range of concerns associated with ‘conventional’ and global food supply systems (Ilbery and Maye 2005). At the same time, there has been a surge in the way that businesses, organisations and civil society use online and digital spaces, such as social networking sites and smartphones, to access and broadcast information. This research aimed to understand how these recent social changes apply to AFNs; in particular how and why organisations and businesses involved in local food production and sales use online space to connect with society and how effective this is.
The first stage of the project comprised a content and discourse analysis of 8 case studies’ online space (including their website, Facebook page and Twitter account). Secondly, interviews were undertaken with business owners and scheme initiators; a survey was also completed by customers and members, followed by interviews with customers and members. The case studies included a range of business orientated food networks which were classified as Short Food Chains (SFCs), as well as more community based food networks, classified as Civic Food Networks (CFNs) for the purpose of the study.
The research team worked closely with the case studies to ensure that the survey data that was collected was summarised and shared to potentially help with understanding and the development of their online spaces. A summary of the survey results for three key participating case studies can be accessed here:
- Five Acre Community Farm - Final Summary
- Canalside Community Food - Final Summary
- Hilltop Farm - Final Summary
The study has revealed some interesting insights into the use of online space in the context of AFNs and how the material connections to land and food and personal interactions are considered important, with online space providing an additional resource to facilitate ‘reconnection’. Online and social media may therefore be a useful tool to generate new custom and wider awareness, but does not act as a substitute for the important social relations which appear to sustain engagement.
Preliminary results indicate that CFNs and SFCs represent themselves online in different ways; SFCs predominantly used their online space as a marketing tool to recruit new customers, whereas CFNs used this space to consolidate existing relationships. In addition, CFNs emphasised community and social relations of members in their online spaces in contrast to the focus on consumer engagement. Using online space to explore ways in which CFNs engage with members provides a further contribution to current debates around the role of citizens in sustainable food systems.