Essay: Social Entrepreneurship in the Sustainable Food Movement

A draft of a paper thinking through how we might apply some of the growing body of lit on social entrepreneurship to the Good Food Movement. I wrote this back in April and my thinking’s evolved quite a bit since then. I’m not sure “social entrepreneurship” is a useful category given what I’m actually trying to get at: the role of entrepreneurship (of all types) in the good food movement (and potentially in other movements).

Rather, I’m starting to rephrase  to ask: What role does entrepreneurship (whether defined as a series of processes — e.g. innovation, a stage in business development — e.g. startup, particular characteristics, etc.) have to play in food systems change? How is it conceived in the good food movement by entrepreneurs themselves? How and when is entrepreneurship discourse invoked? What are its “real” and perceived opportunities & limitations?  What does this say about the movement itself?

Check out the MindMap for some of my questions from back in September.


Social Entrepreneurship in the Sustainable Food Movement

“The food movement […] may be able to create just the sort of political and social transformation that environmentalists have failed to achieve in recent years. That would mean not only changing the way Americans eat and the way they farm — away from industrialized, cheap calories and toward more organic, small-scale production, with plenty of fruits and vegetables — but also altering the way we work and relate to one another. To its most ardent adherents, the food movement isn’t just about reform — it’s about revolution.” (Walsh, 2011).

1. The Rise of Entrepreneurship as a tactic in the Sustainable Food Movement

The sustainable food movement has been characterized in the popular media as a “big, lumpy tent” that coalesces around “the recognition that today’s food and farming economy is ‘unsustainable’ – that it can’t go on in its current form much longer without courting a breakdown of some kind, whether environmental, economic, or both” (Pollan, 2010). Policies and organizations that make up the movement have increasingly promoted socially and environmentally-motivated entrepreneurship as a strategy for change.

The 2008 Farm Bill created the Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development Center to support food enterprises that aim to increase access to healthy, affordable, locally sourced foods to underserved communities (CSREES 2009). The USDA’s Community Food Projects Program which aims to “meet the food needs of low-income individuals [and] increase the self-reliance of communities in providing for the food needs of communities,” gives preference to proposals that “support the development of entrepreneurial projects” (NIFA 2010). A study that interviewed 37 urban and rural alternative food initiatives in California found that entrepreneurial programs dominated their activities (Allen, FitzSimmons, Goodman & Warner 2003). In the past five to ten years, a growing number of consultants have emerged who specifically support sustainable food and agriculture business development[1]. At the same time, academics like Hamm and Baron (1999) have described small-scale microenterprises as “prerequisites for sustainable food systems” (p. 57). Donald & Blay-Palmer (2006) come to a similar conclusion in their analysis of a 5-year study on food enterprises in Toronto. Based on extensive content analysis and key informant interviews, they find evidence that alternative food capitalism in Toronto offers an opportunity for change towards a more “socially inclusive and sustainable urban development model” (Donald & Blay-Palmer 2006, p.1902).

Despite growing momentum on the ground, and a general golden glow around entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs, researchers have yet to critically examine entrepreneurship in the sustainable food systems movement. Herein lies an untapped opportunity to develop more effective theories on how and to what extent and in what forms entrepreneurship is a useful strategy to move us toward a more healthy, more sustainable food system. As Donald & Blay-Palmer point out,

The strength of the firm-centred approach is in its ability to understand better the complex multidimensional and multi-scalar interdependencies between, on the one hand, the internal innovative dynamics of firms and, on the other hand, the broader institutional – as well as social, environmental and cultural – setting within which we all operate. (Donald 2008)

Specifically, emerging theory about social entrepreneurship may provide a framework for developing useful hypotheses about the process by which individuals and organizations can produce social, environmental, cultural and economic transformation within the context of the goals of the sustainable food movement. As Peredo & McLean point out, if social entrepreneurship is a “promising instrument,” academic inquiry into its processes can produce knowledge for policy-makers and practitioners to inform effective legislative support, social policy, and best practices in development and management (2006, p. 57).

For the rest of the paper, click here to download the PDF.

[1] Some examples of consulting firms include:,,, http://www.,,;;;


1 greg willerer { 11.05.11 at 9:03 pm }

Jess, I’m glad you’re writing on this. What comes to mind with roles/opportunities for entrepreneurs is taste and flavor. I think that the desire we have for new and interesting flavors is what is driving the good food movement. Many seem to be growing tired of the typical American diet. Many of the new food businesses starting up are mostly new and unique to the current food landscape. The opportunity comes to businesses when they start new and innovative businesses that bring people diverse foods and flavors. -GW

2 Matt Sitek { 11.06.11 at 7:57 am }

Hey Jess,

If we distill entrepreneurship to a basic, yet unofficial, definition; to me entrepreneurship is the ability to identify gaps or needs in a system and provide a product or service to address those needs. As you know better than I and as you have stated in the above there are serious needs and gaps in our food system. To name a few of the largest and most urgent; the food deserts found in Detroit and other urban cities and the serious environmental impact of industrial farming. In general, by filling gaps and needs, entrepreneurs are incentivized. Most commonly this incentive is financial. This permits financial sustainability in the delivery of the product or service. In addition there is a move for social impact and in my view the best business model is one that equally weighs social return with financial return. To accomplish this it is responsibility of communities and local institutions to create tools and a support network for new and budding entrepreneurs. It is my view that the basics entrepreneurship can be taught. Referencing your piece again, American’s most critical and pressing needs or gaps are in food. It could be argued that this ecosystem of support for entrepreneurs could start in food and probably have the most powerful impact on our communities. Finally, giving budding entrepreneurs a platform to succeed will be empowering and will have an impact broader than any one person or group can envision. ~Matt

3 Jess { 11.06.11 at 4:37 pm }

Thanks for the comment Matt — we ought to hang out soon :)

Yes, there are many many definitions of entrepreneurship and one of the things I’m interested in in my research is understanding how the “good food movement” or the diffuse, but growing, network of social actors & organizations involved in food systems change worldwide conceptualizes and operationalizes entrepreneurship. It seems to be a growing theme, but it also seems to mean very different things depending on who you talk to. I think understanding this will be useful in understanding different parts of the movement & how they’re connected. I also have a hunch that entrepreneurship and what some might characterize as “social entrepreneurship” might be a concept around which submovements that might otherwise conflict (e.g. food justice and local food advocates) might be able to have meaningful dialogue…

In terms of practice, I’m not sure if America’s most critical need/gap is food (I obviously think it’s important since it’s what I live & breathe… but so many things are important), but I do think that you’re right that food is a logical place to *start* innovative programs & dig into otherwise difficult/tricky issues that can then expand to other industries/sectors. I think this is the case in part because food is unifying, it’s necessary, it’s personal, it’s cultural, it’s sensual. I think we’ve already seen this in networks like the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies where a number of chapters started with programs to support locally-owned & sustainable food businesses and then expanded out beyond food to encompass many other “building blocks” of what BALLE calls “local living economies.”

The organization I helped to found, the Metro Detroit Good Food Entrepreneurs, is trying to do something similar in Detroit.

4 Jess { 11.06.11 at 4:41 pm }

Yes! New flavors and old flavors, re-discovered.

As an activist though, I want to push entrepreneurs in the movement to think about how we can use taste, sensuality, quality, JOY of food as a way INTO less comfortable/fun conversations. There’s a disturbing reality in our current system where consumer focus on quality and choice has also gone hand-in-hand with increasing exploitation of farm labor both in our country and in the Global South. Quality and diversity can go hand in hand with justice, but it doesn’t by necessity…

5 Chamath { 11.13.11 at 12:52 pm }

Jess: Thanks much for posting this essay. Excellent even if a work in progress. You have anticipated my usual criticism of the use of the word entrepreneur, social or otherwise. Must print and read in full. Will comment further. Can’t wait to chat with you again. :)

6 Entrepreneurial Happenings in Detroit « Office of University Initiatives Blog { 11.29.11 at 11:02 pm }

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