Searching for Fit? Institution Building and Local Action for Food System Change in Dunedin, New Zealand

May 2019

 By Philippa Mackay and Sean Connelly

Food system change is complex and multifaceted. From the global to the local, concerns about health, the environment, social justice and economic development reflect diverse priorities for food system change.  While this diversity provides multiple opportunities to draw on a range of expertise and resources, it also highlights the critical role of governance in navigating competing priorities and resolving tensions. Food governance is about processes and structures of power and control around decision-making. Decisions made will influence the allocation of resources, prioritization of values, and the approaches that are taken to achieve particular outcomes. The chapter “Searching for Fit? Institution Building and Local Action for Food System Change” in, Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance, discusses the evolving process of local food governance. In doing so, we highlight an example of how diverse stakeholders are involved in shaping priorities and processes of food system change.

The case study in this chapter is set in the small city of Dunedin, located on the South Island of New Zealand (NZ). In Dunedin, two co-evolving food system networks (one derived from civil society, the other from local government) have emerged. Concerns about the food system has resulted in multiple food initiatives to address environmental issues, food poverty, and community building. These responses have brought diverse efforts together in a systemic way.  

Timeline of activities leading to the development of Our Food Network Dunedin and Good Food Dunedin.

Our Food Network Dunedin (OFN) is a self-described grassroots organisation dedicated to stimulating the production, distribution, and consumption of local food, and in that way, contribute to building a resilience and prosperous community. The local government network, Good Food Dunedin (GFD) was initiated following the successful lobbying by OFN and others, to create a part-time position within the Dunedin City Council (DCC) dedicated to addressing issues of food resilience . The council-led food network became a formal platform to bring together diverse stakeholder who share a vision of transforming Dunedin into a thriving and sustainable food city.

The emergence of these two food networks reflect different perspectives and illustrate the challenge of attempting to collectively frame issues and advocate for solutions. For example, GFD focused on framing the problem and solutions of food through an economic and resilience lens, as this was the only way Council involvement could be justified. OFN was concerned about this overly economic focus since their primary motivation and core values are rooted in local food as a driver for bringing people and groups together to enhance local food production and consumption. Compromises were necessary by both network groups to determine the way that food system issues were framed, and various initiative supported in response. Additionally, other food system actors held the perception that these networks offered limited room to discuss food values outside of local or resilient food systems, such as food-related social justice issues. Despite these differences, local food governance has been legitimized both within local government and in the broader community as a result of the process to formally introduce alternative food initiatives into the Council’s agenda.

Food system governance in Dunedin has evolved from what was once a relatively small collection of diverse food initiatives to a more formalized network of food system actors that have firmly placed food on the public agenda through the formation of GFD. Civil society and local government relationships have been reshaped, and the creation of the formal platform for decision-making has led to positive relationships that have increased access to resources and empowered local communities to make decisions on food system change. The potential of linking these efforts to broader social movements in the city, or to reflect other framings of food system problems, such as social justice or providing for cultural food system practises, has not yet materialized. It is clear however, that the process and newly formed structures of power that have been institutionalised in local governance mechanisms, are now set up to address complex and multi-faceted food system issues more formally into the future.

Chapter Contributors

Philippa Mackay is an Environmental Consultant who works on strategic and community development projects.  Her passion lies with the implementation of sustainable practice more generally, but she has a keen interest in sustainable food system change.  She completed her Master of Planning in the Department of Geography at the University of Otago.


Sean Connelly is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Otago. He teaches courses on environmental management and his research interests are in the broad area of sustainable communities, with particular focus on alternative food systems and rural and regional development.


Chapter Citation

Mackay, P., & Connelly, S. (2019). Searching for fit? Institution building and local action for food system change in Dunedin, New Zealand. In P. Andrée, J. K. Clark, C. Z. Levkoe, & K. Lowitt (Eds.), Civil Society and Social Movements in Food Systems Governance(63-80). London: Routledge. DOI:

The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from the open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.

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