Forssell and Lankoski (2015), in their review of AFN (Alternative Food Networks) definitions, identify three levels of AFN’s characteristics: background, core, and outcome. Background characteristics are participants’ values and goals, local cultural context, and systematic critics of excessive standardisation of products, hegemonizing global food chains and corporate capitalism, concentration of power in food system and fast-food trends. Hence, AFN members and institutions develop alternative (local, sustainable, traditional) ideas, scenarios, discourses, and practices for future food systems. Core characteristics of AFNs involve shortening food supply chains resulting in direct or close relations between key food systems actors, redistribution and de-centralisation of power within food systems (see also: food citizen, prosumers) and extended requirements towards both food products and processes. The later usually refer to traditional production methods, high quality of products, naturalness, sometimes using organic or other certification schemes. As a result, AFNs are developing local systems and institutions that can look beyond the economic value of food systems, where trust, care, inclusion and additional social values play significant roles and influence food exchange relations in general. AFNs usually aim to support local economies and cultures, question excessive homogeneity and industrialisation of food systems, and to develop their own diversified micro-systems. Therefore, they are sometimes considered to be seeds of transition (Roep and Wiskerke, 2012), providing social innovation and testing novel solutions towards more sustainable and fair food systems.
Empirical studies and analyses of existing AFNs have revealed some controversies and triggered theoretical discussions on the above definition of AFNs. The focus on the economic, political and cultural context of western capitalism has been questioned. Theorising AFNs in terms of alternativeness towards dominating global capitalist economies ignore local differences and turn a blind eye on the heterogeneity of local histories and food systems dynamics. The definition of AFN can hardly be applied to local economies beyond the “development model” trajectory from premodern rural societies to modernity and industrialisation, all the way to global late modern capitalism. Those theoretical controversies raise various issues and questions, such as: what is understood as conventional or alternative in each specific context? Who decides which values can be classified as core AFNs motivations and which ones are marginal? Is the so-called “consumer consciousness” necessary to practice AFNs? Are AFNs truly “alternative” or are they just a new iteration of contemporary capitalism (see: greenwashing)? In response to some of these interrogations, new re-definitions of AFNs have been developed. One of them is rooted in the studies of Eastern European economies, taking their post-socialist past and political-cultural specificity into consideration. The concepts of quiet sustainability (Smith and Jehlička, 2013), vernacular sustainability (Mincyte, 2012), among others, have been coined in order to investigate local networks and widen the understanding of AFN. These notions shift the focus of AFNs from consumers consciousness, normative and counterculture aspects of alternativeness towards practices, social bonds and local values.