From food consumers to food citizens

By transforming our relationship to food, smart businesses and savvy citizens can build a food and farming system that works for all

Oliver Holtaway
Aug 22, 2018 · 5 min read
Credit: Riverford Organic Farms

A new trend is emerging in people’s attitudes to food and farming: a movement that the Food Ethics Council calls “food citizenship”.

According to this way of thinking, our connection with the food and farming system goes beyond the simple act of consuming food. This movement is based on the growing realisation that, whether consciously or not, people are naturally collaborative and want to help one another, and that they care deeply about where their food comes from and how it is produced.

This is giving rise to pioneering businesses that are starting to engage with the ‘food citizen’, and shifting the food system towards one that it is fair and resilient for all.

To find out more about this trend, Purpose spoke to Anna Cura of the Food Ethics Council.

Q. What does it mean to create an ethical food system?

The root of ethics, of deciding what we should do, is our values — in other words, the things that matter to us. Business leaders who are committed to creating positive change are coming face-to-face with the struggles of operating in a food environment that is simply not geared to reward them for doing the right thing. And those that survive often end up getting swallowed up by big brands, although some still manage to prevail.

The good news is, we are seeing a change sweeping the business world through things like B Corporations, who are redefining what business success looks like and taking account of what really matters. New business models are popping up everywhere, giving us a peak into what the future of our food and farming system could look like.

That’s why we’re excited by initiatives such as A People’s Food Policy, a ground-breaking manifesto of people’s vision of food and farming in England, that draws on 18 months of extensive, nation-wide consultations with grassroots organisations, NGOs, trade unions, community projects, small businesses and individuals. If anything, it shows that when people are given a meaningful platform to participate, they show up.

It’s time to change the structures underpinning the food system so that they enable, rather than prevent, businesses being a force for good.

Q. How can “food citizen” businesses bring about meaningful change in the food system?

There are many layers to a system, and therefore, many points of intervention. That said, one of the most powerful leverage points for change in any system, the UK food and farming system included, is on the level of mindset, that is, our deepest sets of beliefs.

Donella Meadows explained it best when she said “the shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions — unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone already knows them — constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works.”

All business leaders are confronted and confined by these unspoken rules of how the system should work, to the point where we believe that this is the only way they can work. That’s why it’s so important to constantly ask ourselves: What assumptions am I making in my current situation? Are these set in stone or contestable? More often than not, the answer is the latter.

Q. What happens when we dismantle those assumptions?

Our work on food citizenship is an example of how breaking down those underlying assumptions can unlock new ideas to tackle food issues. We often talk of the importance of the food environment when tackling food issues, and rightly so. One of the first steps to change this environment is to be conscious of the language we as a sector use.

The current food system is formed on the belief that people are best understood as consumers. By using consumer language, we undermine and suppress so much of our human nature that is needed for change to happen. This doesn’t affect only end customers, but anyone (and any organisation) throughout the supply chain.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, “show people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

Words lead to stories. Stories used over and over again lead to mindsets.

Research shows that we are by nature collaborative, empathic creatures that want to work together and help one another [see for example the New Citizenship Project’s Food Citizenship report]. When people are best understood as citizens, we change the story.

So a key question we can ask ourselves is, what story do I want to tell?

Credit: Riverford Organic Farms

Q. Which businesses are doing a good job of telling different stories?

Rebel Kitchen is a great example of a food brand that inspires us to think about how we address our audience, be it our customers, our suppliers, our stakeholders. Rebel Kitchen reminds us to ‘Be a rebel’ and aims to redefine our relationship not just with food, but also with ourselves and each other.

Another favourite is Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch chocolate brand founded by investigative journalist Teun van de Keuken, which aims to show all chocolate makers that it is possible to run a viable business while also eliminating slavery. The brand also works as a platform to engage its customers, from co-creating new flavours to joining forces in fighting against modern slavery using various lobbying resources.

It’s also notable that Riverford, the organic veg box supplier, has recently moved 74% of its business to an Employee Trust. This shows that it sees its employees as more than just consumers in the system, but as empowered individuals who want to, and can, change the system instead. This decision allows the business to protect its core values and ensure its independence and long-term sustainability. Most importantly, it places Riverford’s employees as the custodians of these values.

Q. What can individual business leaders do to maximise their positive impact on the food system?

Every person finds themselves in a position in the food and farming system that is unique to them, whether they are a mid-level sustainability officer in a large food brand, or a jack-of-all-trade entrepreneur in a start-up. This diversity in spheres of influence is our collective strength when faced with system change. Business leaders who understand their unique power learn to capitalise on it.

Each food and farming business can uphold the same belief system, such as viewing people as empowered citizens, and translate this shared belief into unique interventions that, together, build a new system.

So in addition to thinking about the big systemic questions, we can ask ourselves: What is my sphere of influence, and how can I bring these values to life within it?

To learn more about food citizenship, check out the Food Ethics Council’s work here, including a report from the New Citizenship Project. To find out more about how your food brand can embrace new ways of thinking and telling your story, get in touch with The House at 01225 780000 or steve@thehouse.co.uk.

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