“Progress Not Perfection: The business of food citizenship”

What does a #foodcitizen world look like, and how do we get there?

It’s a world where people and organisations feel part of food systems, with the ability and power to make meaningful change. Where everyone has access to enough food, and choices in and control over what they eat. And where we are doing all we can to transform how we eat, buy and produce food to be fairer to animals, people and the planet.

We often get asked for practical advice for organisations exploring food citizenship. I have been a bit reluctant to give examples of what to do, worrying about these examples seeming like the only thing, or being off putting for organisations who are just starting out. So I think it’s important to start from a place of pragmatic empathy. The shifts we need can feel too big, and deciding where to start can be overwhelming. But try taking a step, and another, and learn and adapt as you go.

Front cover of a report featuring an older woman and text

A lovely place to start is this guide to Building Community Food Resilience, recognising the role of community food organisations in strong, local, ethical and resilient food systems. Published by the Food Ethics Council in March 2022, it is packed with practical tips and activities alongside talking about why shifts are needed if we are to reach the dream of resilient local food communities.

This guide drew heavily on the role of food citizenship as a framework and mindset that is crucial to developing and designing systems with dignity. We see food citizenship as the foundation for designing long term and ethical solutions to hunger, hardship and injustice. Food citizenship shows that people are not just consumers at the end of the food chain, but participants in the food system as a whole. It recognises that when people identify as citizens and are treated as such, their compassionate values build a shared sense of belonging and community which means they are more trusting, more inclined to join with others, and more likely to find the courage to act.

Over the past year, much of the work we’ve done around food citizenship has been focused on charities, community organisations and other parts of civil society. This has been both a necessity and a choice, given the cost of living crisis, growing food security and access challenges and the geopolitical crises that continue to affect food production globally. This autumn, we are turning some of our attention to businesses and brands, those whose main purpose is about producing or providing good food.

In its purest form, a food citizen organisation will be established with purpose, and that purpose will not be purely the pursuit of profit (at all costs). These alternative purposes can be seen in the rise of members’ cooperatives, community interest companies (CIC) and community or employee businesses. We can easily see how a social enterprise or a community business can build purpose into their way of working. Unicorn Grocery Coop in Chorlton is a brilliant example of a business that is led by values and ethical practices, not by profit. They’re a cooperative, which means they are set up and governed in line with Cooperative principles. Any profit is returned to the organisation and not distributed to members.

But this pureness of purpose needn’t be a total block to businesses who exist to make profit. The distribution of profit to stakeholders or members does not on its own mean that a business can’t embody food citizenship. There are ways that a profit seeking business can also embed values and purpose into how they work. To put it another way, being a food citizen organisation is possible for everyone!


Where to start and how to keep going

There is no list that captures all the ways to embody food citizenship as an organisation. But there are some common ingredients that we think are important:

Treating your staff decently

Paying staff a living wage, offering decent terms and conditions, essentially, treating them as human beings, not just as a resource to be managed, is a fundamental part of being an ethical organisation led by food citizenship principles. Crucially though, companies operating like this aren’t just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They know that people who are treated well, listened to, and empowered to make changes to how things are done, are more likely to stay and help the business thrive.


Using values to choose who to work with

Every organisation has to make decisions about who to work with. A food citizen organisation must consider deeply the values and ways of working of its suppliers and partners. Operating in line with your own values means in essence that you demand similar from those you do business with. For example, working with a supplier who is cheaper than everyone else, but who pays staff too little to live decently, would be in direct opposition to a food citizen business’s own values and mission.


Changing the language you use

There are lots of shifts in language that organisations can make in their branding, website and communications. The most important is replacing the word consumer with the word citizen, both in your materials, but also in how you think about your community.

Referring to people as consumers reduces them to what they can consume. This tells us that being a consumer is our only source of power to influence society as a whole and, specifically, our food system. A consumer can only – if they have big enough wallets – choose between products and services. A citizen can participate in and shape the systems that provide us with our food. When we are referred to as citizens, and treated as such, we feel our power and our agency. As citizens, we care about animals being treated humanely, about the wellbeing of the environment, about the livelihoods of those who grow and make our food.

The organisations that recognise the importance of this shift, who talk about people and citizens, not consumers, will be rewarded with a community who feels a connection to their business, because of the values they are demonstrating through the language they use.


Involving people

Changing the language on its own isn’t enough. For people to truly be citizens, they need to be meaningfully involved. How this looks will depend on your business, the size and scale of your community and frankly, how much control you are willing to share. Creating spaces where people can participate in decisions could start small, with a survey or suggestion box asking what brands you should stock, or start big, by opening up your meetings to the public or offering votes on strategic decisions. There are lots of digital tools that can do some of the hard work for you, but these things can also be done in person or on a community noticeboard.


Progress, not perfection

This journey isn’t about getting it perfect all the time. It’s about making lots of changes and shifts, at a pace you can manage and sustain. For those organisations established with a clear mission who are challenging inequity in the food system, we salute you. And to those established businesses who have come to feel that something isn’t quite right and wondering where to start in making changes, hopefully this has given some gentle inspiration* on the journey exploring food citizenship. Take the next step, and the one after that. And we salute and support you too.



Harnessing the power of food citizenship Food Ethics Council

Food Citizenship: Communications Toolkit Food Ethics Council

This is the #CitizenShift New Citizenship Project


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