Tyne Fresh is a local food hub bringing together a community centre and local vendors, to see how participatory design can contribute to a more democratic food system.
Open Lab worked with Meadow Well Connected, a community centre based in one of the top 10% deprived areas in the UK, they provide a service for many local residents and run activities such as cooking classes, youth clubs and more.
The food hub used the Open Food Network, and created collaborations between Meadow Well Connected, local bakers, butchers and the YMCA mushroom growers.
Residents could order their food with Tyne Fresh either online, or on the phone, and pick up their food from the community centre. The food either came as meal boxes, with recipes included or as individual items.
The Tyne Fresh project showed that while a more democratic and participatory local food system needs to be community-led, it can be difficult to achieve these aims due to the internal practises of the community centre and the resources available to them.
However, we believe that sustaining long-term and open relationships between research institutions and community partners, an approach also called “infrastructuring”, can be a fruitful approach to go about working towards systematic change towards a “food democracy”.
We can also learn from infrastructuring to develop a sensitivity to the complex challenges of achieving the high ethical aspirations of food democracy that come in odds with the reality of people’s lives in poor neighborhoods.
Besides affordability, there are also challenges to people’s capacity to participate in these alternative forms of food provisioning. There is also the question to what extend these alternatives really contribute to system change or are just niche solutions.
One of the challenges in this collaboration was trying to manage expectations between the food-hub being a community-led initiative, and an income-generating business for the community centre.
Meadow Well Connected wanted to get the food hub up and running before involving the community more actively. They felt that participation in the food hub, starting with the experience as a customer, needed to a ‘low threshold’ as even small issues might prevent people from participating.
Trying to create a food hub that was tailored to the needs of the local people meant that a certain level of inclusivity needed to happen. This meant making sure that everyone could access it both online and offline, and creating a level of affordability.
However, affordability was not enough to generate broad interest in this new offer. The hub needed to be supported with more participatory and social offers that involved people not just as customers, but as citizens.
The food hub managed to create internal links in the centre, such as using Tyne Fresh food in the community centre-run cooking classes and having a ‘food hub special’ on the menu of the café. The partners also launched a co-design process to engage people directly with food and come up with responses to their needs and interests. Meadow Well Connected also started to use the food hub as a vehicle to build coalitions with other charities, the local council and businesses.
However, the staff in the community centre had to deal with many burning issues not related to the food hub and therefore it came secondary to their workload. Another question is how to design for the potential point in which researchers retreat? As a possible solution, the researchers and the community centre are currently developing a more permanent collaboration to support staff, volunteers and the community. This collaboration should serve as a platform for the community to have ownership over what kind of projects are being launched and developed.
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