Essay: COMFOOD and Good Food Movement Identity

Some quick thoughts jotted down this afternoon

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Social movements can be difficult to observe and describe because they tend to be “fuzzy and fluid phenomena often without clear boundaries” (Van De Donk et. al. 2004). Different approaches to describing social movements may focus on the way movements mobilize resources, formal social movement organizations (SMOs), the interaction of movements with external agents, or the way that movement actors construct their identities.

Regardless of the specific approach, movements can be said to be organized to some degree and can perhaps be understood best as networks or networks of networks (Diani, 2003). One of the ways of understanding these networks is through the movement’s online identity, which is becoming an increasingly important part of new social movements (Van De Donk et. al. 2004). Online identity can be understood by analyzing a variety of online media created by popular media, SMOs themselves, or individual movement actors, including websites, blog posts and articles, email archives, and online listservs.

The Good Food Movement is no exception to the slippery nature of new social movements. Despite attempts by practitioners and academics to characterize, “pin-down,” and evaluate the success of the movement with comprehensive goals and indicators (see, for example the Vivid Picture Project, Soule 2008),  the movement remains a moving target; some argue that coming to a consensus on movement goals is neither a necessary nor particularly useful exercise (Hamm 2009). As Starr (2010) writes:

Movement critics (academic and activist) tend to write like restaurant reviewers, assessing the worth of a movement’s “product” (always expected already to be running at peak performance). I have recently come to see social movements are long, stuttering conversations in which conversants do not begin with the same mother tongue but over time develop both linguistic and cultural literacy. I see social movement culture functioning as a process of recognition, query, and expansion, repetitious, slow, but growing bigger in each conversation.

Online listservs offer one glimpse into this “stuttering conversation.” Despite their obvious limitations (e.g. various “digital divides” means that low-income and rural contingents might be less represented in online conversations), listservs offer one view into the way the good food movement constructs its identity through movement “frames.”

The COMFOOD listserv was founded in 1997 by Hugh Joseph, a significant leader in the good food movement. Joseph cofounded the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), the New England Sustainable Ag Working Group (NESAWG), Boston Food and Fitness Initiative, and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts. Joseph was also instrumental in starting the Community Food Projects and Farmers Market Promotion Program, two USDA grant programs.

According to Joseph, “When Comfood started in 1997, it was envisioned as a straightforward national networking vehicle on community food security topics. Now it’s become a repository for most food-related issues” (Qtd in Starkman 2008).

As of November 6, 2011, the listserv had 5333 members, which may make it the largest online network of food activists and food movement organizations. In contrast, two of the most popular movement-related listservs after COMFOOD are ASFS (created in 2001 by the Association for the Study of Food and Society) with 1829 members and SANE-T (created in 1991 as a discussion group about sustainable agriculture) with 822 members.

Generally, the list is made up of practitioners, activists, academics, students, policy-makers and other individuals. A description of the listserv on the Community Food Security Coalition website explains that “Postings by any subscriber may include, but are not limited to:

  • Broad or specific discussions on the issues and strategies relating to community food security; similarly, articles of general interest;
  • Requests for information, contacts, or assistance on topics related to CFS research or programs;
  • Requests for information about organizations working in specific areas (for example, which groups in a region are doing entrepreneurial gardening programs);
  • Requests for technical assistance or related help in designing or implementing projects;
  • Descriptions of new activities your organization is initiating;
  • Announcements of CFS-related activities – workshops, training sessions, conferences;
  • Job notices or internship opportunities”

The listserv is open for anyone to join and to post; it is unmoderated (anyone can post to the list and posts are not screened), and governed by a peer-policing system along a set guidelines.

I was particularly interested in using COMFOOD to begin to understand the role of entrepreneurship within the movement. I’m aware that there are limitations to using the COMFOOD list as a proxy for the “good food movement” as a whole, but I see this as a place to start.

The chart below shows the number of total posts and the number of posts that include the word “entrepreneur” on the COMFOOD listserve from January 2008 to June 2011. I tabulated posts at six month intervals from the COMFOOD archives. Over this time period, there were an average of 374 posts each month and 12.5 posts (or 3.3%) of posts included the word “entrepreneurship.” Overall posting volume has increased over the 42 month period, and the use of the word “entrepreneur” has followed this general upward trend.

The next step in analysis will be to read and code instances of the use of the term “entrepreneur” and “entrepreneurship” in a randomly selected sample of 50 emails over a 12-month period from Nov 1, 2011 to Oct 31, 2011.

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