Digital Food: Recipes for Connection

COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of food supply chains and forced us to rely more on digital technologies to work, shop and connect with friends and family — ultimately revealing the importance of equal access to information technologies and digital literacy for obtaining food as well as for re-visioning and re-designing our foodways.

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash.

If you’ve been baking your way through lockdown you are not alone. Sourdough is the new therapy for Instagrammers, while Pintrest reports a 44% increase in traffic, with home-cooked Argentinian salty croissants, Japanese brioche and Navajo bread among the hottest rising trends. For the less patient, home-delivered quarantine comforts are available 24/7 through booming on-demand food delivery apps like Germany’s FoodPanda, with over 115,000 restaurants in 11 countries; India’s Swiggy, downloaded no less than 10 million times; Australian market leaders UberEats and Deliveroo; and US favourite GrubHub which earned $US1 billion in 2018. To assist us in our choices Zomato provides reviews; Buycott promotes ethics; and Fooducate teaches us how to eat healthier. For growers, yard-sharing networks enabling trade, exchange and borrowing of seeds, tools, knowledge, produce and even land include Permablitz, Transition Network,  Permacultureglobal.com, and Farmhack. Food-sharers can hook up on Ripe Near Me and OLIO, while Oz Harvest now connects rural charities with businesses that have surplus food to share through a digital app.

Used to their full potential, digital networks are valuable sources of counterpower. This means they can support the social connections between eaters and growers that are vital to the emergence and sustainability of Alternative Food Networks (AFNs). These are resurging in the pandemic as global supply chains are threatened and a degree of re-localisation of food systems makes common sense. AFNs propose to revitalise and strengthen local human, cultural and land ecologies by shortening supply chains. They aim to open new spaces for participation in environmentally sustainable and fair food practices. Many are supported by websites, blogs and social media which grow their consumer bases. Local examples include organic delivery service CERES Fair Food in Melbourne; Food Connect in Brisbane; and Open Food Network, a non-profit software platform that has joined a flourishing range of global grocery delivery services like Farmstand (UK); The Farmer: The Organic Store and Farmer Uncle (India), Radish Boya (Japan & Hong Kong), and Tallo Verde and Club Organico (Latin America).

“Used to their full potential, digital networks are valuable sources of counterpower. This means they can support the social connections between eaters and growers that are vital to the emergence and sustainability of Alternative Food Networks.”

The emergence and popularity of these digital spaces highlights how accessing and purchasing healthy, organic and/or sustainably produced food is more convenient and affordable for the affluent, digitally enabled consumer. This can reproduce the inequalities that exist in AFNs offline, for example at inner city farmers markets where the expense of organic food is prohibitive for many local residents. Digital technologies can be equally exclusionary either through cost, access to reliable network coverage, and the outpacing of inclusive universal design features by new innovations. In a recent City of Sydney survey on the impacts of the pandemic on one inner city neighbourhood, 57% of people reported experiencing limited digital access while 14% had no access at all (Counterpoint, 2020). Many of those most vulnerable to food insecurity including older Australians, asylum seekers, and those from non-English speaking backgrounds are among those without access to technology. This raises the importance of reducing the digital divide not only to help all eaters to access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food but to enable them equitable opportunity to participate in food systems design and planning.

The best applications of digital technologies enable roles for citizens in all stages of an issue cycle, including problem identification, solution development and implementation. The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) applies digital technologies to draw on the lived experience of citizens to develop ideas and models of doing food better that can be shared between cities. Reducing food waste, promoting healthy diets and respecting the environment, human rights and worker’s dignity were among the 100 concrete proposals for ‘local actions that can trigger global change’ sourced via an intensive social media campaign engaging 1,000 people. In relating food access and availability to wider sets of public goods like housing and transport MUFPP is using digital tools to create new spaces of solidarity on related issues.

“Many of those most vulnerable to food insecurity including older Australians, asylum seekers, and those from non-English speaking backgrounds are among those without access to technology. This raises the importance of reducing the digital divide.”

Encouraging invention, experimentation, and participation by diverse groups and individuals in food systems planning, food hackathons promote re-visioning of alternative futures on topics ranging from food waste management to the role of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) in small-scale agriculture. These events embrace the ethos of the participatory commons and the anarchist proposition that not one person owns ideas or knowledge or solutions. This principle ihs also fundamental to the Every One. Every Day. project in Barking and Dagenham, London. Recognising that citizen-led local projects achieve higher rates of inclusive participation, the Boroughs developed a participatory ecosystem comprised of citizen-led projects supported by digital applications. The participatory culture approach encourages ‘common denominator’ activities such as fixing, trading, recycling, batch cooking, and growing food. These low/no cost, low commitment, and inclusive activities are disruptive as they have the capacity to transform food and food experiences in ways that make them accessible to as many people as possible, especially people who might otherwise be excluded from the food economy. Digital platforms collect participation and direct outcome data required to drive and measure the success of the project.

It is important not to treat the Internet as a silver bullet for addressing the bads of our food systems. For example, we must consider how technologies such as food delivery apps impact on small business; the high commissions charged make it even harder for restaurants to make a profit. Interestingly, the pandemic is not panning out so well for apps such as Deliveroo which has suffered with closure of major food chains, casting doubt on claims that its model supports independent, local businesses. Nevertheless, digital applications have promise for those working to develop good food businesses – those that focus on purpose as well as profit – in a very different hospitality industry post-COVID.

Digital technologies can mobilise the creativity, skills, knowledge and entrepreneurship vital to our transition to sustainable foodways. They have the potential to foster emerging forms of food citizenship and co-produce patterns of participation and belonging.  The FoodLab Sydney team is intent on producing research into how digital food technologies might mediate inclusive and participatory food practices that meet cultural, socio-economic, and environmental goals. We need this understanding if we are to grow diverse and resilient local food economies in which everyone can participate.

Counterpoint. (2020). Covid19 Community Support and Well-being Survey Report. Sydney: City of Sydney.
Milan Food Policy Pact (2015) Available at http://www.milanurbanfoodpolicypact.org/ viewed 21 February, 2018.

This article is based on research previously published in:
Mann, A. (2020). Are you local? Digital inclusion in participatory foodscapes. In Deborah Lupton and Zeena Feldman (Eds.), Digital Food Cultures, (pp. 147-161). London, UK: Routledge.
Mann, A. (2020). Hacking the Foodscape: Digital Communication in the Co-design of Sustainable and Inclusive Food Environments. In J. Diaz-Pont, P. Maeseele, A. Egan Sjolander, M. Mishra, K. Foxwel-Norton (Eds.), The Local and the Digital in Environmental Communication, (pp. 183-202). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Alana Mann is Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), University of Sydney, Australia, and a key researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research focuses on the communicative dimensions of citizen engagement, participation, and collective action in food systems planning and governance. She is a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project FoodLab Sydney (2018-2020) with partners including the City of Sydney and FoodLab Detroit, and collaborated with Macquarie University and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) on the project Growing Food and Density TogetherEnabling Sustainable Place-making through Local Foodscapes in the Inner City, funded by Urban Growth NSW.

For an interview with the author, contact Alana Mann at alana.mann@sydney.edu.au.

For all other media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.