Food Sharing Activism in London: a preliminary reflection on collaborative participant observation



From January until beginning of April 2017, I have been Honorary Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Social Research, Birkbeck. On March 15th, 2017 I had the pleasure to be invited to give a seminar at the Food Study Group, presenting about my current research. Since my fieldwork in London was still ongoing, I decided to discuss some methodological challenges I encountered during those three months of research.

I first started with an overview of SHARECITY, the research project I am working for, then I introduced the case studies of my fieldwork in London and I finally examined the consequences of my methodological approach.

SHARECITY is a 5-year research project led by Professor Anna Davies at Trinity College Dublin,  funded by  the European Research Council which is exploring  the practice and sustainability potential of ICT-enabled city-based  food sharing economies. The project aims to establish the significance and potential of food sharing economies to transform cities onto more sustainable pathways: by developing deeper theoretical understanding of contemporary food sharing; generating comparative international empirical data about food sharing activities within cities; assessing the impact of food sharing activities; and exploring how food sharing in cities might evolve in the future.

The research team embraced a broad definition of food sharing, including:

  • Have a portion of FOOD with another or others; [shared  consumption]
  • Give a portion of FOOD to others; [gifting]
  • Use, occupy, or enjoy FOOD jointly; [shared use of space &  experiences]
  • Possess an interest in FOOD in common; [shared interest]
  • Tell someone about FOOD [shared knowledge/skills]

Such a definition allowed to focus on what is shared, from materials (e.g. unprocessed crops), to products (e.g. food products or growing tools and cooking utensils) and services, as well as capabilities (knowledge and skills) and spaces (such as fields, allotments, gardens, and kitchens.

For the first six months of the project, we have been mapping food sharing initiatives in the 100 selected cities. The database houses information for over 4000 ICT enabled food sharing initiatives that meet the SHARECITY criteria for urban food sharing. We have been looking a wide range of initiatives such as community gardens, CSAs, soup  kitchens, food banks, potluck, meal  sharing apps, collective buying  schemes, food rescue, cooperatives, community kitchens, gleaning, foraging, dumpster diving, land and yard  sharing, tool libraries, seed exchanges,  food swaps, food education programs,  skill shares, fermentation club, urban  beekeeping guilds, meetup groups, food  mapping sites.

The result was an interactive online map SHARECITY100 to locate these sharing activities at the city level, where London ranks 1st in the SHARECITY100 database with more than 200 initiatives on the ground and it is one of the nine cities where we will be conducting an ethnographic research, together with Melbourne, Barcelona, Singapore, Berlin, Athens, Zurich, San Francisco, Dublin.

After fieldwork, I have realised that there are many more than 200 in London. Only Capital Growth counts more than 2000 food growing spaces in the city.

I started my ethnography in London in January this year, when I have selected 4 case studies considering the following aspects:

  • Diversity: a range of different sharing types (in relation to what/how/organisation/ICT) within the city
  • Commonality: in relation to focus/goal across cities (both yours and others) to generate greater possibilities for comparative analysis
  • Sustainability: are the organisations concerned with sustainability – this is something that is a core feature of the wider project

OLIO EX is a start-up company founded by Tessa Cook and Saasha Celestial-One, both based in North London. Among my case studies, it has the strongest ICT component. OLIO is, in fact, an easy-to-use free app that connects neighbours with each other and with local businesses to share surplus food. The smartphone app is globally available, but strong presence in North London, East London, Bristol and Brighton. Studying the way it works required user engagements on the ground, by collecting and donating food, joining the different hubs across London and attending events, where they were showcasing the app. It also entailed online ethnography: participating to the Facebook closed group for volunteers, attending video meetings/calls for volunteers and interacting with the social media platform of the start-up.

The second case study has been the Skip Garden and Kitchen, a food growing space within King’s Cross development site, run by Global Generation, a registered charity. Global Generation is much more than a garden and a café. It has a strong focus on community, conviviality and new ways of living together in the respect of nature. They, indeed, organise a wide range of activities to promote a reflection on our relationship with the planet.

Working alongside people who have already engaged with the use of participatory planning and action research made my access uncomplicated. Members of staff are used to reflect on their own daily practices and they allowed me to join the discussion. I was able to help at the Junior Chef Club, a series of cooking classes for young people; I took part to staff meetings and I volunteered at events.

The other two case studies were located in the borough of Lambeth. Be Enriched is a charity that runs three community kitchens in three different locations, serving a weekly free vegetarian meal to the local communities. The Castle Canteen operates in Elephant and Castle, serving lunch on Mondays. The Battersea Canteen’s volunteers team cooks dinner every Tuesday at the London Cooking Project. Finally the Graveney Canteen, based in Tooting, prepares lunch for about 35 people on Fridays. The majority of the ingredients are surplus donated by local food businesses and supermarkets. I joined the kitchen team in all three canteens.

The fourth initiative was the Community Shop in West Norwood that not only redistributes surplus, but functions as community hub, offering courses, training and meeting opportunities to local people.

During the presentation, I highlighted the difference between carrying out an ethnographic study in a vast city like London in 3 months and my previous experience, my doctoral research in a Sicilian fish market and on local fishing boats. The 18-months of in-depth ethnography in Sicily allowed me to enter the field gradually, leading to gaining access by bodily participating to the daily activities of the market. Elsewhere I describe this process of acquisition of knowledge as apprenticeship (Marovelli 2012). Within the food market, apprenticeship was not formalised, but the use of this term referred to the idea of food as craft and to the combination of bodily participation and cognitive knowledge. Learning in the form of apprenticeship implies acquiring first hand-experience and expertise (Marchand 2010).

In the specific context of food sharing activism in London, my activist past and my own cooking s­­kills became a tool to access the field. I spent the last ten years of my life cooking surplus food and volunteering in community kitchens. I co-founded the Dinner Exchange London, a social enterprise that transformed surplus food into gourmet meals. In 2015, before starting this research project, I had the pleasure to work alongside Feedback’s energetic team, coordinating the organisation of Feeding the 5000 Milan. On October 17th, 2015, Milan Municipality celebrated the signing of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact calling Feedback, to organise Feeding the 5000 in Piazza Castello, right in the centre of Milan and I worked as event coordinator. This wealth of grassroots involvement became my apprenticeship and helped me gaining access to the field of my research in London. These previously acquired know-hows allowed me to enter the flow and the messiness of each initiatives’ daily activities, aiming to create an embodied understanding of what happens on the ground. It meant to include in the ethnography the visceral experience of the everyday work of these initiatives.

As Rabinow and Stavrianakis (2013:33) state “collaborative participation presupposes an endeavour of transformation”. In different degrees, all these initiatives have developed ways of accommodating change and transformation. In the process of studying them from within, cooking and gardening with them, I intervened in their daily activities providing them my skills. However I also acquired more knowledge and expertise, especially around gardening. So I was also transformed through my engagement.

One day while helping out at one of the initiatives, the garden manager looked at me helping to plant some seeds and said: “Oh, oh, the doctor is making her hands dirty!”.  As academics ‘making our hands dirty’ implies a reconfiguration of the relationship between the researcher and the participants. Clearly this type of approach carries implications. First of all it raises some ethical concerns. It is very challenging to find the critical distance after being involved. To try to be clear about my role within the organisation, I made sure that every person I was introduced to knew I was a researcher. I spent time explaining the project to volunteers and guests of different activities. It was important to me that everyone was aware that I was participating but I was also observing.

The Q&A provoked by my presentation at Birkbeck provided me and the rest of SHARECITY team interesting feedback to keep in mind, while analysing and writing up our data.

First, I was asked whether the long history in anthropology and history about giving and exchange, not only Marcel Mauss, but also Polanyi and others, is relevant to our work and if I think that it will be possible to identify a system below the surface of these exchanges. It is definitely too early for me to be able to identify a system, but as research team, we are also generating comparative data across different cities, so it will be possible to compare what kind of systems of exchange are operating for instance in community gardens in Berlin and in London.

There was also a discussion about how activists felt regarding the way SHARECITY had grouped charities, start-ups, for-profits all under the same definition of food sharing. I am very aware that these are not simply organisational structures, but terms loaded of political meaning. However SHARECITY wanted to embrace a broad definition of food sharing, in order to explore the variety of ways of sharing. We looked at a range of different sharing types in relation to what is shared and to how is shared, but we also took into account the type of organisation and the ICT component. This definition did not raise any question among research participants, so far.

Another topic debated was the significance of temporary space in cities and rules of inclusion/exclusion within these spaces. Meanwhile leases and agreements are seen by many as a way of moving towards a more temporary and precarious way of occupying urban space. At the Skip Garden, this idea of the ‘temporary’ is integrated in the daily practice, so much that their activities are organised in decentralised way. They involve continuously other parties, other spaces, where they are also present, but still in a very temporary way. Their project initiatives from an idea, not from a cultural lack. They think that it is better to occupy it temporarily in a positive way, then to give up and don’t do anything in that space. During the talk I mentioned that the Skip Garden might get a permanent space and I was invited by the audience to further explain how the participants reflect on what this shift could possibly entail. I believe they think of the future as something fluid that will just happen. It is true that they very often follow the flow of what comes, of what spaces are given to them, what opportunities arise and so on.

Rules of inclusion and exclusion were also taken into account. I stressed that they are very different in each case. At Community Shop membership is provided according to income. Be Enriched works with a very hyperlocal network of people in Lambeth. The Skip Garden is a complex case, because it depends on what kind of programme we are looking at. They work with local schools, businesses, restaurants, also in this case locality is relevant in the attempt to involve the local community. With this question, we touched a crucial point that concerns all these initiatives: how to involve people around them? In the words of one of the gardeners “how to be a bit more than a refuge for tree-huggers”?

Some methodological issues also emerged, particularly concerning how to find a critical distance after getting involved with these initiatives. One member of the audience pinpointed that in a way the initiatives take the extra hours of your labour as a payment for the time they dedicate to talking to me and she wondered if such a perspective was too cynical or we could see it this way. I believe these relationships are reciprocal, but also getting involved gives us the chance to see the organisations from within, to understand how it works.

In a similar vein, I was also invited to reflect on how I would feel about being negative towards what people are doing on the ground. I believe that SHARECITY is giving visibility to good practices in different cities and we can be critical in a positive way. We don’t need to be negative or destructive towards one initiative.

Some questions were left open and answered, since the data still needs to be analysed. I would like to thank the audience for such a thought-provoking debate and the Institute of Social Research for hosting me during these months.

Dr Brigida Marovelli Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Prof Anna Davies PI SHARECITY


Ferguson, J. (1999). Expectations of Modernity. Myths and Meaning of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Marchand, Trevor Hugh James. 2013. Making knowledge explorations of the indissoluble relation between mind, body and environment. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell.

Marovelli, Brigida. 2012. Landscape, practice and tradition in a Sicilian market. Thesis (Ph.D.)–Brunel University, 2012.

Rabinow, Paul, and Stavrianakis, Anthony. 2013. Demands of the day: on the logic of anthropological inquiry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.



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