Open Food Network: Non-Capitalist Approaches in France and the United States

As a research fellow at the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy (ICDE) at The New School in New York City, I will be doing a comparative case study of the Open Food Network in France and in the United States. This research should contribute to the strategic debate on scaling “alternatives” or non-capitalist organizations, institutions, and forms of life, within the food sector.

Scaling is multifaceted and cannot be reduced to the quantitative measure of growth in numbers. Scholz and Spicer offer different variants for the discussion of scaling. Scholz suggests that scaling can extend outward, upward, and deep, while Spicer proposes that scalar strategies can be horizontal, vertical, or conglomerate. In all its forms, scaling is an essential concern for organizations that seek to challenge capitalist entities and emerge as more than marginal “alternatives” within a system that is broadly unaffected by their presence. To tackle the challenge of realizing the emancipatory and transformative ideals of such non-capitalist organizations, within and beyond their own fragile and often threatened boundaries, I suggest posing the following questions: is it enough for local alternatives to multiply? Should they federate? Where should they stand in relation to the State?

My research aims to address these questions by looking at the Open Food Network (OFN), a global digital food commons that federates over twenty local platforms, each operating with various governance models and within different ecosystems. The OFN offers an open-source software platform for creating and managing local food hubs. It was established in 2012 in Australia and operates in countries such as California, Italy, Catalonia, the Basque Country (Spain), Brazil, and soon India. While most local branches and the network itself are non-profit, some have formed cooperatives that collectively own and manage the platform, such as in France (e.g., CoopCircuits) and Catalonia (e.g., Katuma).

My methodology involves ethnographic and comparative approaches in economic sociology and food studies. I conducted semi-structured interviews with workers and users of the French and American platforms, as well as with some of the British one and hopefully soon others from Katuma. These include co-founders, farmers, food hub managers, user support staff, board members, and for the most part eaters concerned about access to quality and locally-produced food. I am also conducting participatory observations within food hubs that use the platform, such as food coops and urban farms, and am relying on offline and online archives. As the OFN values global commons and transparency, I have had the privilege of accessing shared research contributions from other researchers on the topic through one of the network’s Slack channels.

The issue of scaling pertains to the OFN on different levels. In one aspect, the platform is meant to enlarge the customer base or the market shares of its users on the producer and distributor sides. Conversely, it allows customers to access a larger local producer basis on short supply chains (or through a maximum of one intermediary). According to an American interviewee, the platform not only enables raising market shares for individual producers but allows the federation of several of them to mutualize their produce and sell together in a local farmers’ market. The questions of whether this remains stable through time and is expandable in space are yet open. Their answers depend on a multiplicity of factors including economic viability, policy enabling context, and community and network-building norms and values, which I will all be investigating.

Changing the scale of short, local food chains may seem paradoxical, but I found that Open Food France was explicitly aiming for it. By sharing a non-proprietary and non-exclusive digital infrastructure, as well as good practices among the global network community, new users benefit from economies of scale and can develop more efficiently. My hypothesis (to be further tested) is that scaling local food chains by federating them as such opens up spaces for them and supports their economic viability, thereby giving them a possible advantage in the face of competition.

The issue of data interoperability, central to scaling, is tackled by the Open Food Network through two major projects: the Data Food Consortium, supported by Open Food France, and the Food Data Collaboration, supported by the OFN UK, and both of which are inspiring other branches. I will investigate data interoperability considering the federation it enables between platform coops and local food hubs in a more general way, as well as the issue of data ownership, in order to measure how much they actually or potentially “weigh up” against competition, i.e., the agroindustry and retail “giants”, who are increasingly linking with the big tech industry.

My comparative research aims to add to existing monographs on the Open Food Network by studying the different policy frameworks, or “rules of the game”, within which Open Food platforms develop. By understanding the different ways in which these policy frameworks can facilitate platform coops to thrive, I can identify potential opportunities and challenges for scaling up. For instance, I am looking at the different types of funding that the French and American branches receive, as well as their different partnerships and competitors within the sector. Furthermore, the comparison is interesting because the two branches are at very different stages of development: while the American one is a nonprofit, with only two paid employees, the French one recently became a SCIC (“société cooperative d’intérêt collectif”), or the French equivalent to a multipurpose or multi-stakeholder cooperative. Taking into account the variations in national contexts, jurisdictions, and policy frameworks, my research can draw learning lessons for organizations that seek to develop as coops.

Lastly, the issue of scaling also touches upon the question of the universality of such an alternative model, or of how it may (or not) expand beyond a certain community. Indeed, users of the OFN join its platform by word of mouth, and therefore members tend to “look like one another” and the community they build is rather homogeneous, in terms of race, age, gender, disability and class. I will also be interested in studying the efforts that the OFN is in capacity to make in order to broaden its reach to marginalized communities, and how other public or nonprofit actors participate in determining such conditions. Some examples include, in the USA, the collaborations between federal and local food support programs and farmers markets that use the OFN platform, and in France, the partnership between the OFN and the Parisian municipality and Île-de-France region to foster social pricing programs.

Thus, I will examine the expansion of alternative or non-capitalist spaces and the role the State or policy frameworks may play in this expansion, or what Erik Olin Wright calls “erosion strategies”. These consist in symbiotic transformations, where from the bottom, alternative, emancipatory or liberated spaces multiply and from the top, the State changes the rules of the game to facilitate and support such spaces, for a new world to emerge in the cracks of the old one.