In the light of growing concerns about the separation of producers and consumers in our food system and the power of big supermarkets, new research funded by Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) provides valuable insights into the motivations and practices of consumers and producers involved in 'alternative food' networks.
Through participation, consumers tended to increase their consumption of fruit and vegetables, and improve their cooking skills and knowledge about food. The research also found some evidence of a 'graduation effect', whereby involvement in an alternative food scheme encouraged consumers to change their consumption behaviours in relation to other goods, such as household products and clothes.
Although the majority of consumers use alternative food sources alongside supermarkets, they often did not trust them and felt that the quality of supermarket food was inferior. Many reported that they only shopped there out of necessity. Alternative food projects also challenge supermarket-led notions of food choice. Although they may provide less choice in terms of types of product, consumers in our research associated these projects with a greater variety of foods, many of which are unavailable on supermarket shelves.
People take part in alternative food networks for a range of economic, ethical and personal reasons and these vary over time and in relation to life events such as moving house or the birth of a baby. For many, a key motivation was a desire to care for people and places, both close and distant. This involved reducing food miles, sourcing Fairtrade whenever possible, or looking for products with reduced environmental impacts and high animal welfare standards.
Dr. Moya Kneafsey from Coventry University, who led the research, commented, "Consumers enjoyed being able to ask the producers about their products and felt reassured about the quality and safety of the food. Alternative food schemes enable consumers to make a direct connection with food producers, and can result in relationships of trust and loyalty."
The researchers also identified challenges for alternative food networks. There were concerns amongst producers as to how to maintain their connection with consumers in the face of possible future growth. Many alternative food projects do not necessarily want to get bigger, as they might lose the sense of 'connection' which has been established between producers and consumers.
On the other hand, small schemes are under threat from two directions. First, large retailers are trying to create a sense of 'connection' with producers through the use of marketing strategies - such as providing names and pictures of growers and farmers on packaging. Second, rapidly expanding semi-national box delivery schemes such as Abel & Cole and Riverford Organics are also tapping into the interest in sourcing organic foods.