The sharing economy’s role in re-shaping food distribution

By David Frost

Organic farmers and growers naturally welcome the return to growth in the market for organic food that the Soil Association and market analysts have been reporting for the past three years. Organic producers are more than just profit maximisers however; they also want to expand their market because they believe organically produced food has health benefits and because organic food production systems are sustainable and environmentally benign. As the recently published, ‘Communicating Organic Food Values’ puts it, “Organic farming is well suited to developing a vision of long-term systematic change to the food system.”

Despite these values there has been insufficient concern in the organic food and farming discourse about how organic food and its benefits can be made available to those on the lowest incomes. Even the multiple retailers who trade the most in organic food and pride themselves on their ethical, environmental and animal welfare credentials are targeting customers with most spending power. No surprise then that as market research suggests, sixty-six percent of all organic purchases are made by ABC1s and when non-buyers are asked why they don’t buy organic food, over half say that price is the main barrier. For those on low incomes it has to be the case of, “grub first, then ethics”.

It’s also the case that because food inequality is so closely related to income inequality it doesn’t seem to merit being a separate category in most political debates. As many people argue, we can’t solve the problem of food inequality without reducing the general level of inequality in society. While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do something about food inequality in the short-term.

In the work Naomi Salmon and I have been doing on Affordable Food and Human Rights my focus has been to look at how consumer access to good, and particularly organic food, can be improved during a period of increasing income inequality and declining social justice. How can we tackle food poverty? How can the best, nutritious food be made more widely available to those on low incomes?

Reformers need to remember that the long term is ultimately a series of short terms and in the economy, markets are continually changing. In the current situation, analysts have pointed to the incipient rise of a collaborative economy as new technology enables greater sharing of goods and services. In the UK food market we see examples such as Food Cooperatives like the Food Cooperative programme in Wales which has provided healthy Welsh food to the community through 340 healthy buying groups and 130 foods coops in schools; Food Banks – that on some estimates are used by up to 1 million people; Social Supermarkets that sell discounted food exclusively to those in poverty; FareShare – an organization that distributes surplus supermarket food; and Food Assemblies, platforms that have spread to the UK after starting in France in 2011.

There is also a group aiming to build their own new food system. In Greater Manchester, Kindling is trying to create a model that helps people to become organic food producers and increases access to good fresh food for everyone – “…as a right and not a privilege” in their words. So they are including people from all along the food chain –producers, distributors, caterers, customers and ‘land army volunteers’.

In Berlin – the sharing capital of Europe – I came across the Feuerbohne organic-shop-collective who want to make it possible for a larger number of people to buy organic food by having two price options: the solidarity price and the reduced price. And there is Biosphäre a not-for-profit retail shop where they say, “Organic for everyone. Our two price system with a reduced price for those on a low income means that good quality organic food doesn’t have to be a luxury”.

Also in Berlin, the first supermarket without prepackaged goods opened 2015.

Meanwhile in Zurich, Tor14 – a food cooperative – has aims similar to the Welsh Community Food Cooperatives. Their objective is to provide members with high quality, organic and GM free produce, where possible directly from the producer, at fair and affordable prices. Their shop offers organic products on average 30% cheaper than other food shops in Switzerland. Producers are paid a fair price and Tor14 also operates a weekly veg box which can be delivered by bicycle to customers’ home; and there are special offers such as bulk orders of citrus fruits from Spain and whole beef carcass from a Demeter farm, etc.

This year in the UK another discovery for me has been, ‘How it Should Be’ – hiSbe, a pilot store for an independent supermarket chain that started in Brighton in December 2013. They say, “It’s a social enterprise that exists to do the right thing, as well as make money.” With sentiments that recall how the Himalayan state of Bhutan sought to replace the goal of increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with Gross National Happiness (GNH), hiSbe say “ putting happiness first is a route to a more responsible, fair and sustainable food industry… we consider the happiness of people, animals and the planet when it comes to sourcing our products.” Their aim is operationalised by a sourcing policy summarised in eight imperatives – go local, pick seasonal, protect nature, support ethical, think welfare, save fish, consider waste, choose real.

Not bad ideas to include in a Food Manifesto for Wales.

There are many examples of what is being achieved in the short term. Maybe they don’t fully achieve the objectives of tackling food poverty and making the best, nutritious food available to all those on low incomes, but we need to avoid the pitfall of making the best the enemy of the good. These new models of food distribution may indeed be evidence of an emerging collaborative economy that challenges dominant food supply chains in ways that benefit those at either end of the chain: both producers and consumers.

You can contact David by emailing or by visiting his website at

One thought on “The sharing economy’s role in re-shaping food distribution

  1. Mark Jones (formerly with RRU) says:

    I read David Frost’s September posting and would like to make a couple of quick comments:

    New technology enabling greater sharing of goods, as suggested by David, could be used to develop organic food co-operatives benefitting those on low incomes. I was in the process of introducing 2 organic growers to local community co-ops, one in the North and one in the South, before the Community Food Co-op Programme started its Exit Strategy. Unfortunately funding for the Programme ended in September. I imagine linking IT systems, banks and the third sector could attract funding support.

    Following The Kindling Trust’s work in Manchester, there are plans to develop Starter Farms in Wales. The RRU produced a feasibility study for Horticulture Wales in August. This highlighted that 18% of Welsh horticultural land is growing organic food and recommended a similar % of Starter Farms follow organic practices. The organic and non-organic sectors should work together closely to develop Starter Farms.

    If anyone would like to chat about these or other related issues contact me at

    Mark Jones (formerly: Welsh Produce Manager, Community Food Co-ops in Wales)


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