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. 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.
 Some examples of consulting firms include: http://www.cornerstone-ventures.com/, http://ediblesadvocatealliance.org, http://financeforfood.com/, http://www. karpresources.com, http://livecultureco.com/, http://www.newventadvisors.com; http://www.newseedadvisors.com/; http://nuttyfig.com/food-companies/; http://sustainablework.com/.