Katie Horlander (2021) Urban food sharing: Rules, tools and networks, by Anna R. Davies, Journal of Urban Affairs, 43:7, 1053-1055, DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2021.1905424
Likely for all of human civilization, the act of sharing food with others has been instrumental in the development of complex social relationships and customs, not to mention the basic survival of our species. In Urban Food Sharing, Anna Davies seeks to bring the research around this essential human activity into the 21st century by exploring the ways in which people in urban environments currently engage in food sharing behaviors, particularly through information and communications technology (ICT), and how it could be used to transform the dysfunction in modern food systems. This is accomplished via a mere 100 pages distributed across six chapters in a Policy Press Research Short.
In the introductory chapter, Davies briefly lays out the historical research on food sharing practices, the importance of food sharing, and why the focus on urban environments and ICT-mediated food sharing is a worthwhile endeavor. The purpose of the book is clearly delineated here—to explore what constitutes contemporary urban food sharing, why it occurs, how it is performed, and the political, economic, and social contexts that either support or constrain these activities and initiatives.
Chapter 2 provides background on the expansive, open-access, online database that sets the foundation for the book—SHARECITY100—as well as providing general trends derived from the database in the global ICT-mediated, urban food sharing landscape. A variety of types of food sharing practices are included, ranging from gleaning to gardening and beyond, as are structural arrangements of initiatives, which span the spectrum from informal gatherings to for-profit businesses, and the mode of ICT employed, including websites, social media, and mobile apps.
The following three chapters present snapshots of the three key factors that shape this type of sharing—rules, tools, and networks—through overarching patterns and more detailed ethnographic case studies. Rules in this case refer to the internal and external, and formal and informal, governance systems that affect the activities and outcomes of each initiative and vary from place to place. Tools are the socio-technical methods used by the sharing initiatives; networks are comprised of both the individuals participating in the sharing activities and the initiatives themselves, along with other actors in the community that might be engaged along the way.
Davies uses illustrative examples to demonstrate the need for more comprehensive regulatory frameworks that can accommodate unusual or innovative urban food sharing initiatives—both their organizational structure and the activities in which they are engaged. The structural arrangements and activities chosen are often related to the goals of the initiatives, which encompass addressing environmental degradation, food access equity, productive use of underutilized city land, diverting food waste, etc. In other words, the woes of the modern food system. These points are where this book is the most educational and enlightening for policymakers and planners at different scales. The concise descriptions of specific cases, and discussions of successes and failures more generally, are also helpful for current practitioners of urban food sharing or those looking to birth an initiative.
A prime example of a case outlined in the book that demonstrates the three primary factors involved in ICT-mediated food sharing, as well as the complicated nature of the more unconventional initiatives, is an online platform based in Germany called Foodsharing (www.foodsharing.de). It is organized as a nonprofit entity run completely by a vast network of systematically trained citizen volunteers who collect and redistribute food that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Some of the food comes from individuals and some comes directly from companies who also participate in the network. The food is primarily redistributed into what are called public fridges, or community refrigerators. These fridges are not technically owned by any individual or organization but are an attempt at greater food democracy via open-access food commons. While this novel approach can help achieve the organization’s goals of less food waste and more food security, and doing so with little funding or overhead, it also creates a quandary for government institutions that protect public health through laws and regulations designed for typically structured, for-profit, food businesses.
The definition of food sharing used for the purposes of the research utilized in the book is deliberately broad in order to capture diverse activities and settings, which comes with both pros and cons. For instance, the inclusion of certain for-profit initiatives could blur the line of what should be considered as food sharing, which could potentially muddy the waters for future researchers, policymakers, or planners wishing to make meaningful change in the food sharing landscape. However, this comprehensive definition could also encourage people to be more flexible and open-minded about potential solutions to very complex problems.
In the last chapter of the book, Davies outlines the research needs around this topic moving forward, laying out five areas that could use attention. These include better tracking of food sharing initiatives, better indicators or measures of the overarching goal of sustainability, understanding what governance structures contribute to the success or failure of sharing, how to incorporate food sharing into strategic planning, and the need to develop new theories to explain modern food sharing behavior. Obviously, this is helpful for any researcher interested in contemporary food sharing looking to contribute to the conversation.
Overall, the book manages to be informative in a medium-length format, balancing generality with detail. But, for those who are particularly interested in the research that is at the root of the book, it will likely be necessary to explore articles by Davies and other researchers involved in the project that are mentioned throughout the text. The book’s shortcomings are few, the primary one being the lack of tables or graphical representations of data, whose inclusion would have contributed to greater comprehension of the material being presented at various points.
Considering the potential for food sharing to contribute to improved human and environmental health, and more resilient social and economic systems, the information presented in Urban Food Sharing could be an invaluable starting point from which practitioners, planners, and policymakers can make ripples or waves in our food system. And, given that this book can be accessed for a low cost in hardback, an even lower price as an e-book, and in the vein of sharing, for free as a PDF in Open Access under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 license, there is no reason not to take a look.