Open laptop in compost pile.

Tweeters & Eaters, Hackers & Snackers: Digitally-Enabled Inspiration for the Food Movement

Introducing a new blog series by Dr. Theresa Schumilas

The digital revolution is unleashing a lot of creativity and with that, new opportunities. How is this mix of talent, enthusiasm and ingenuity being used to transform unsustainable food systems?

For the past 2 years, I’ve been exploring the ways in which sustainable food movements in Canada are engaging with new digital spaces. I’ve been studying  how emerging ‘platform economies’ and social media are opening up new possibilities for linking together and scaling up grassroots food innovation, and giving rise to  new forms of on-line activism to transform unsustainable food systems.

I feel like my work has been ‘quiet’. I have:

  • lurked in dozens of on-line spaces,
  • smirked at the disruptive clever bits,
  • been irked by the use of warm fuzzy words like clouds, like, friend, tweet, and sharing, and
  • jerked into action where the movements for digital sovereignty and food sovereignty meet.

But in all the fun, I have perhaps shirked my responsibility to share what I’ve found.

So for all you tweeters & eaters, and hackers & snackers, this is the beginning of a series of blogs, for your fermentation, about new possibilities for digitally-enabled food system change.

My mission is to share hopeful stories of people who are ‘disrupting the disruptors’ and working to transform an unsustainable food system using new digital platforms and tools.

Talking Tech with Foodies

I started my journey, where any good action researcher would, in the trenches of trade shows at foodie conferences where I talked at length with people about the opportunities afforded by emerging digital technology. The synthesis report: Talking Tech with Foodies shows how the digital revolution provokes both hopes and fears among sustainable food system stakeholders. On one hand, grassroots food system innovators understand that emerging digital technologies can help them gain economic efficiencies, mobilize knowledge, develop skills, form networks and enhance producer-consumer relationships. But on the other hand, many stakeholders fear being ‘left behind’ in this fast-paced innovation-driven networked economy. They are concerned that unless we can put people first, these technologies will deepen existing inequities and marginalization and perpetuate unsustainable food systems. Indeed, justice critiques of emerging digital platforms mirror critiques of our dominant food system. But then,  I started looking to the margins.

Open Food Network: Food, Unincorporated

As a researcher, I cut my teeth doing empirical research with epidemiologists in public health. Empiricists always want to throw out the outliers—data and information misfits that don’t clearly hang together with the rest. But I’ve learned that the outlier almost always tells the more interesting, and often more hopeful story. Often the unusual finding can give you a perspective and a set of questions to ask of the dominant or mainstream examples. So, my next project was to link together with a digital platform outlier called Open Food Network (OFN). OFN begins with the simply stated premise that sometimes, the best way to fix a system is to build a new one. This is a global network of people and organizations developing an open source platform to support grassroots food initiatives working to transform the food system. This case study provides some background to this multi-layered, complex global project that, I believe, has potential to move the food movement in multiple ways. I became so convinced of its potential that (again following the action part of the action research method) I pulled together a group of people to launch an instance of OFN in Canada. This case study gives you an introduction to the project and I’ll share more about its progress and possibilities in future posts.

ofn open on laptop
Open Food Network is a digital platform that sits at the intersection of the digital and food revolutions.

My work to date with the OFN community has helped me put some focus to the stories I want to share with you: Stories about people at projects at the intersection of the digital and food revolutions—where the techies meet the foodies around the tables of sovereignty, justice and system hacking. I hope to engage feeders, eaters, researchers, and activists who are looking for stories of hope and possibility to inspire us. So follow me on Twitter @openfoodcanada and friend me on FaceBook @openfoodnetworkcanada to keep up-to-date on events, announcements, and news from OFN Canada. Or if you prefer, email me at tschumilas@rogers.com to set up a ‘slow’ conversation.