The social economy of food

The social economy of food: Informal, under-recognized contributions to community prosperity and resilience

Go to our case studies:

The Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming

Seed Saving in Atlantic Canada

The Ontario East Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) Program

Critics of neo-liberalism argue that people are better conceived of not as self-interested, profit-seeking, utility-maximizing creatures, but rather as members of complex social and ecological systems, whose choices are deeply embedded in social relationships and ecological context (Bourdieu 1998, Ophuls 2000, Siebenhüner 2000, Patel 2009). Recent work on the concept of a social economy focuses on enterprises that foreground social and environmental values yet still recognize the importance of economic viability. While research suggests that such enterprises may be sites of significant innovation and creativity (Leyshon et al. 2003, Gibson-Graham 2006, Downing, 2012), work to date has focused heavily on cooperatives and social enterprises, with significantly less attention paid to activities that are less formally structured.

While the concepts of a social economy and an informal one have traditionally been regarded as separate areas of research, findings from a number of Canadian studies indicate significant overlap between the two (Teitelbaum & Beckley, 2006, Thomson & Emmanuel, 2012, Knezevic, 2015). First, both share an emphasis on personal relationships, trust, and non-market values, which are inherently challenging to define and often impossible to quantify. Second, both offer spaces for non- traditional forms of innovation as well as opportunities for deep insights into social relationships, cultural meanings, and environmental values. Most importantly, both challenge us to think of economic systems in far more complex ways than mainstream economic theory would propose (Ostrom, 2010).

We have used case studies to identify and document a spectrum of multifunctional social economy food activities where people trade/share material resources and skills at times in informal ways. The case studies and interviews have been grounded in Community Based Research (CBR) as a way to develop a clearer sense of issues facing the groups, and dig into specific challenges as identified by community partners. Working within groups over an extended time has allowed a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities, and led to a set of case studies—the first of which we present here.




Bourdieu, P. 1998. Acts of Resistance Against the Tyranny of the Market. New York: The New Press.

Downing, R. (ed.). 2012. Canadian Public Policy and the Social Economy. Canadian Social Economy Research Partnerships. E-book, accessed online at

Gibson-Graham, J.K. 2006. A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Knezevic, I.(2015). Illicit food: Canadian food safety regulation and informal food economy. Critical Policy Studies. DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2015.1102750

Leyshon, R., Lee, A., and Williams, C. 2004. Alternative Economic Spaces. London: Sage.

Ophuls, W. 2000. Notes for a Buddhist Politics. Pp 369-378 in Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, edited by S. Kaza and K. Kraft. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc.

Ostrom, E. 2010. Beyond markets and states: Polycentric governance of complex economic systems. American Economic Review, 100 (3): 1-33.

Patel, R. 2009. The Value of Nothing: Why Everything Costs So Much More Than What We Think. Toronto: Harper Collins.

Siebenhüner, B. 2000. “Homo sustinens – towards a new conception of humans for the science of sustainability.” Ecological Economics, 32: 15-25.

Teitelbaum, S. & Beckley, T. 2006. Harvested, Hunted and Home Grown: The Prevalence of Self-Provisioning in Rural Canada. Journal of Rural and Community Development, 1: 114-130.

Thompson, M. & Emmanuel, J. (eds.) 2012. Assembling Understandings: Findings from the Canadian Social Economy Research Partnerships: 2005-2011. E-book, accessed online at: