Putting Food Banks Out of Business?

Putting Food Banks Out of Business? Digital Transformations and Local Capacity-Building for Long-Term Systemic Change

The Biospheric Foundation is ‘part farm, part urban research laboratory’, set in the heart of the Blackfriars district in Salford, Greater Manchester. It was established by ecopreneur Vincent Walsh drawing on his experiences in the USA, Africa and Eastern Europe. The Biospheric Foundation was conceived in part as a response to increasing issues over food poverty in the city, but also as an attempt to eradicate these issues – through building local capacity for a systemic approach to food production, supply, distribution, waste and diet in an inner city area. The Biospheric Foundation has already achieved success in establishing integrated food systems, including mushroom production, aquaponics, vertical farming, vermiculture, permaculture, a Forest Garden and wholefood shop, located in the community. A suite of community engagement and learning opportunities have been developed, including food box schemes, volunteering, recipe cards and workshops. However, beyond a website and twitter feed, the potential of digital technologies to support community capacity-building and learning remains undeveloped.

This project is a collaboration between the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures (SURF) at the University of Salford Manchester, the Biospheric Foundation (BF) and the Social Action Research Foundation (SARF). There are two goals. First, we will retrospectively interrogate the case of the Biospheric Foundation, in terms of the lessons for addressing long-term food austerity and locating its development and role in the context of broader digital transformations. Second, the project is also prospective. We will seek to engage multiple communities in conversations about how digital transformations may further underpin, or indeed undermine, local capacity-building for long-term systemic change – putting food banks out of business.

This is an important corollary to existing projects funded by the CCN+ network. These have explored individual perspectives, experiences and narratives through interviews and mapping exercises, with an emphasis on food banks. They also acknowledge that food banks are a ‘sticking plaster’ and that there is a gap in understanding options for longer-term approaches to addressing food austerity.

This project addresses this gap and contributes to the CCN+ network aims through a problem-oriented, user-led approach and engagement with multiple communities of knowledge and practice. It is grounded in an asset-rich approach, seeing communities not as culture-deficient, but as agents to be empowered to build and develop local capacity to address food austerity. Through an innovative approach to co-inquiry, it will produce high-quality academic outputs, as well as policy recommendations and practical action plans for those involved in the project.

Perry, Context and Rationale




Key Participants

Dr Beth Perry, PI: Associate Director of the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures at the University of Salford Manchester and Senior Research Fellow. Beth has written widely on the roles of universities in urban development, co-producing knowledge and the research-practice relationship. Currently she is writing two books ‘Cities and the Knowledge Economy’ (Routledge) and ‘Reflexivity: A Guide’ (Sage), with Tim May, and writes regularly for non-academic audiences. She is currently leading a 5 year programme of work with the Mistra Urban Futures Centre, a global centre for sustainable cities with partners in Sweden, South Africa and Kenya. Key partners include the Greater Manchester Low Carbon Hub for the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, creative media company Creative Concern and the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations. Examples of co-produced projects include setting up a digital platform for knowledge-sharing (http://www.ontheplatform.org.uk ) and working to integrate community knowledges into formal policy processes, using the case of urban food policy. Beth is also Co-Investigator on an AHRC Connected Communities project on ‘Cultural Intermediation’ (http://culturalintermediation.org.uk) with a particular emphasis on governing practices in the creative urban economy.

Vincent Walsh, Co-I: Director of the Biospheric Foundation. His action-research was chosen as one of the Big Ideas that will change the future by Research Councils UK in 2011. Through the Biospheric Foundation, Vincent developed the Biospheric Project in 2013 as a collaboration with Manchester International Festival and supported by Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and People’s Postcode Lottery. He has also engaged a wide range of partners, such as Siemens, BDP architects, Salford City Council and the Tenants and Residents Association. Vincent was a co-chair for East Salford, Communities Living Sustainable program, a five year investigation, implementing complex urban infrastructure based on ecological economics. He is also co-founder of Microcosm, an Ecological Development Company working in collaboration with innovating system thinkers, deep ecologists & architects, exploring the boundaries of advanced ecological urban systems. Vincent has a BA in Moving Image Design, a Masters in Biological Urban Systems, an MPhil in Technological and Biospheric Urban Communities and is completing his PhD in whole system approach to urban farming. In 2014 Vincent Walsh won the Top National Environmental Apple Green Award.

Dan Silver, Co-I: Co-Director of the Social Action and Research Foundation (SARF), a social enterprise that co-produces policy with communities to address poverty. Dan has a Masters in Public Policy and Governance from the University of Manchester, following the ESRC recognised research route. SARF works with communities that are socially, politically and economically marginalised to evidence the impacts of poverty and to develop local solutions to address this, including focussing on food poverty. He is also an active blogger for the Guardian Northerner, LSE Politics and Policy blog and the Platform and has experience in translating academic and policy literature to enable public participation. A recent piece on food poverty can be read here http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2013/feb/19/manchester-greater-manchester.

The academic team also includes Graeme Sherriff, Research Fellow in Salford Housing and Urban Studies Unit and Mike Hardman, Lecturer, Geography and Environmental Management. Both Graeme and Mike are researchers in urban agriculture, food policy and practice. Alex Wharton is Research Fellow in the Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures and is supporting work on digital and social media in urban governance. Tim May is Professor of Sociology and Director of SURF and is also co-investigator on the AHRC Cultural Intermediation project. Tim’s interests centre upon the relationship between knowledge, strategy, context and practice and he has written widely on these themes.