Alternative Food Network


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.

Sustainability characteristics / functions & transformations / potential:

  • Traditional methods can (but not always do) minimise the overuse of natural resources (e.g. artisanal methods, limited use of fertilisers and pesticides)
  • Reviving local cultures and values
  • Health benefits and wellbeing
  • Social inclusion (power redistribution), reduction of existing social (class, gender, age, ethnicity) inequalities
  • Resilience of local communities (economic, social, political) > AFNs enable local communities to respond to rapid, unexpected disruptions, and to minimalize the negative effects of different crises; AFNs as a base for the establishment of partnerships to achieve common goals
  • Developing and testing novel solutions in production and distribution systems/innovation sites
  • Reduction of the usage of water, energy, and other resources

Food cooperatives (consumer’s, producer’s, processor’s, mixed): associations of actors involved in various types of food systems, who organize to develop common production and/or distribution networks. There can be varying degrees of formalization, scale and structure, but usually they operate in small-scale, sustainable, short supply chains. E.g.:

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA): initiatives such as the Five Acre Community Farm (read more here: enable consumers not only to benefit from fresh produce (see: short food supply chains) but also to share the responsibility, work, decision-making and farming risks with farmers. They may also participate in socializing, cultural activities, meal sharing, and other community activities.

Farmers’ markets: they offer an alternative to mass distribution systems, empowering small-scale producers and strengthening short supply chains. See: Packaging-free market in Prague, Czechia:

Food sharing initiatives:  Example 1) Too Good to Go app, which links consumers with gastronomical venues to help them sell the un-sold fresh produce at the end of the day. The aim is to reduce food waste from shops, restaurants, bakeries etc. Example 2) Bottom-up non-markets offer donation and collection points, usually consisting of fridges or a boxes. At these points, people and businesses alike can support the initiative by donating unused food, and anyone can benefit by taking it. As an example, read about the Polish network here:

Box schemes (farmer-to-consumer): direct farm–to-table distribution systems, e.g. “The Peasants Box” (Cutia Taranului) in Cluj Napoca, Romania:

Forssell, Sini and Leena Lankoski, “The Sustainability Promise of Alternative Food Networks: an Examination through ‘Alternative’ Characteristics,” Agriculture and Human Values 32, no. 1 (2015): 63–75.

Goodman, D., & Goodman, M. (2009). Alternative food networks. International encyclopedia of human geography. Oxford: Elsevier.

Mincyte, Diana. 2012. “How Milk Does the World Good: Vernacular Sustainability and Alternative Food Systems in Post-socialist Europe.” Agriculture and Human Values 29, no. 1: 41–52.

Kopczynska, Ewa, Economies of Acquaintances: Social Relations during Shopping at Food Markets and in Consumers’ Food Cooperatives, East European Politics & Societies 31(3), 2017, ss. 637-658.

Renting, Henk, Terry K. Marsden, Joe Banks. 2003. Understanding alternative food networks: exploring the role of short food supply chains in rural development. Environment and planning A 35(3): 393–412.

Roep, Dirk, and Johannes S. Wiskerke. 2012. “Reshaping the Foodscape: The Role of Alternative Food Networks.” In Food Practices in Transition: Changing Food Consumption, Retail and Production in the Age of Reflexive Modernity, 207–28. New York-London: Routledge.

Smith, Joe, Petr Jehlička. 2013. Quiet sustainability: Fertile lessons from Europe's productive gardeners. Journal of Rural Studies 32: 148–157.


Other references

Paczka od rolnika (box scheme)

Wawelska Kooperatywa Spożywcza:

Krakowska Farma Miejska (Krakow Urban Farm, operating as CSA):

Foodsharing/community fridge (managed by local authorities): Lodówka pełna dobra