Digital food activism – workshop report

On 25 November, the Oxford Food Governance Group convened a one-day workshop entitled ‘Digital Food Activism’, at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Based on our ongoing research into the emerging forms, roles and uses of food-related information and communication technologies (ICTs), the workshop explored what happens when food activism goes digital.

We asked seven scholars to respond to and discuss this question based on their ongoing research on food, new media and/or social activism.

Digital food activism - Workshop programme with abstracts 2015 - Oxford Food Governance GroupAfter an introduction by Stanley Ulijaszek, who provided a short overview of our research project and workshop aims, the morning session began with a presentation by Ryan Foley (SAME, University of Oxford, UK), who gave an overview of her ethnographic research on Italian food cooperatives. In her talk, Foley reflected on moderating one cooperative’s social media posts on Twitter and Facebook, a task she performed as part of her participant-observation. Drawing on this ethnographic experience, Foley’s presentation queried the boundaries between marketing and activism. Specifically, Foley asked: when does the proactive communication of an activist cause – such as promoting local, organic, fair trade, or sustainable food – turn into the marketing of a commercial organization and the products/services it sells?

Next, Katharina Witterhold (University of Siegen, Germany) presented findings from a four-year research project, led by Sigrid Baringhorst (University of Siegen, Germany), on food-related political consumerism and the role of new media. Witterhold’s presentation defined four different types of ‘consumer netizens’, distilled from the analysis of media diaries written by 27 political consumers in Germany. The ‘consumer netizen’ typology Witterhold presented contributed to a discussion on how social web practices impact on the definition of food as political, while shaping consumers’ formation as online citizens (see also special issue of Soziale Bewegungen (2015) – articles in German).

The third presentation, given by Mariano Beguerisse Díaz (Imperial College London, UK), Amy McLennan (University of Oxford, UK) and Stanley Ulijaszek (University of Oxford, UK), focused on how health-related information – in this case, information on diabetes – is presented, discussed and shared on Twitter. Based on a systematic analysis of a large collection of tweets containing the term ‘diabetes’, the authors found that top global diabetes ‘authorities’ comprise a mix of bloggers, advocacy groups, NGOs related to diabetes and pharmaceutical firms, and that for-profit firms, with no specific expertise in diabetes, exert a strong influence on the conversation. They also found that, depending on the messenger, the messages shared about diabetes vary considerably. Their discussion focused on the makings of authoritative voices in the Twitter advocacy networks, and how this might impact on public health efforts. The paper on which their talk was based can be accessed here.

The fourth presentation, given by Karin Eli (University of Oxford, UK) and Tanja Schneider (University of St. Gallen, CH, and University of Oxford, UK), offered a working definition of digital food activism, as developed through the Oxford Food Governance Group’s research project. Drawing on three case studies of different types of digital platforms used in food activism – a mobile app, a wiki platform, and an online-centric activist organization – Eli and Schneider suggested that digital food activism does not simply refer to food activism that occurs on digital media; rather, it encompasses forms of food activism enabled and shaped by and through digital media platforms. The presentation showed how, in each of the case studies examined, the origins, development and implementation of the activist projects were interwoven with a digital platform. These digital platforms, then, were conceptualized not as supporting consumer action, but as fostering and mediating activism.

The workshop’s invited keynote speaker, Steve Woolgar (Linköping University, Sweden, and University of Oxford, UK), provoked the workshop participants and organisers to think about food as a mundane object of governance, or, in other words: how stuff organises our life. Drawing on the example of the McDonald’s hot coffee case – a product liability lawsuit that took place in the United States in the mid-1990s  when McDonalds was sued by a customer for serving coffee that was too hot and had led to third degree burns after the customer accidently spilled the coffee – Woolgar suggested that the legal respecification of coffee in terms of what counts as appropriate temperature resulted in coffee’s newly accomplished ontological status. Woolgar then explored how new accountability relations arise in response to the ontological status of coffee. Ultimately, he argued that ‘the appropriateness of actions towards mundane objects is entangled with the enactment of just what those objects are’. This poses important questions as to how digital platforms used in food activism co-constitute food and to what extent this enactment already entails appropriate actions to be taken and by whom.

The afternoon session, chaired by Catherine Dolan, kicked off with Michael Goodman’s (University of Reading, UK) talk on celebrity chefs as political activists. In his presentation, he discussed ‘what audiences think about celebrity chefs and what effects this might have on food behaviours and knowledge at the everyday level’, based on an (ongoing) food media survey (n=600) conducted among the British public on their viewing habits, engagement and thoughts about celebrity chefs and food media more broadly. He showed that the public’s relationship to celebrity chef discourse was ambivalent: at times, celebrity chefs’ advice was incorporated into everyday food routines, but at other times, it was resisted. Goodman suggested that, while celebrity chefs seem to raise awareness about food issues, their effect is inconsistent. Moreover, Goodman argued that, through raising awareness about food issues, celebrity chefs also raise their own profile; a balance that carefully needs to be maintained, as he pointed out, to successfully convey chefs’ genuine interest/care about food and to build authenticity.

Eva Giraud (Keele University, UK) then offered a media theory perspective on food activism. Giraud explored how online and offline activism go hand in hand to support ‘polyvocal protest’ (Ruiz, 2014), through analyzing food activist groups such as Food Not Bombs and UK vegan campaigning groups. Having discussed food’s communicative capacity, Giraud suggested viewing ‘food as a medium, and situating it within the broader on- and offline media ecologies of activist groups’. She described food as a polyvocal tool that can be thought of as disruptive, relation-building and prefigurative, arguing that food offers relational affordances contingent on different media.

The workshop’s final talk, by Melissa Caldwell (University of California, Santa Cruz), was titled ‘Hacking the food system: technologies of justice and inequality’. Caldwell reflected upon the uncertainties surrounding digital technologies that aim to solve food justice concerns. In particular, she focused on issues of privacy, surveillance, accountability and bodily integrity, analyzing a range of technologies, from Fitbit devices to barcode apps. Caldwell then introduced us to another type of food activism: activism as practiced in food hacking labs. She discussed the Centre for Genomic Gastronomy, which focuses on new technologies with the aim to change the nature of food itself, arguing these hackers/ inventers/entrepreneurs/citizen-scientists ‘are carving out spaces and opportunities for social justice concerns in ways that allow individuals to reclaim their own autonomy, pleasure and sense of personal responsibility’. A space to be watched!

So what happens when food goes digital? Listening and reflecting upon the thought-provoking presentations and keynote speech presented as part of the workshop, a new or refined set of questions/tasks on digital food activism have come to the fore for us organisers:

  • Following Eli and Schneider’s presentation, we recognize that, to understand the implications of digital platforms, we need to understand the productive logics that structure them and to study the activist logics built into their infrastructure.
  • With the conceptual tools provided by our keynote speaker, Steve Woolgar, we pose the question: what kind of ontological respecification does food experience when it goes digital?
  • Drawing on the insights presented by both Foley and Goodman, we then ask: in what ways do activism and consumerism overlap in food issues?
  • The diverse analyses presented by Beguerisse Díaz et al., Giraud, and Witterhold call our attention to the question: what kind of work does digital food activism do at the individual and collective levels?
  • And finally, attending to the emergent issues flagged by Caldwell: to what extent can research on digital food activism address questions of food justice?

‘Digital Food Activism’ – Workshop Announcement

Wednesday, 25 November, 9:30am-4pm
Vernon Harcourt Room, St Hilda’s College, Oxford

Keynote speaker: Steve Woolgar (University of Oxford)

Invited speakers: Mariano Beguerisse Díaz (Imperial College, London), Melissa Caldwell (University of California, Santa Cruz), Ryan Foley (University of Oxford), Amy McLennan (University of Oxford), Eva Giraud (Keele University), Katharina Witterhold (University of Siegen), Michael Goodman (University of Reading)

New information and communication technologies (ICTs) increasingly enable social action and civic organisation, on both local and global scales. Within these fast-growing digital platforms for activism, food-related consumer action is gaining new contours and publics. In this workshop, we will examine and aim to define the emerging field of digital food activism, exploring how consumer-ICT interactions generate new knowledges and practices in relation to food. With invited talks by scholars studying food, new media and/or social activism, the workshop will critically analyse and assess how consumer activists, non-governmental organisations and social entrepreneurs use ICTs to facilitate new or alternative forms of engagement with food and how media, corporations, academia and government agencies respond to or mediate these engagements. The workshop will build on and extend the rich literature on food activism and critical food studies by asking what happens when food goes digital.

Attendance is free, but registration is essential. Please RSVP by 19 November at: You will receive an email to confirm your place by 20 November.  Please direct all enquiries to oxfordobesity [at]

‘Food Systems Advocacy: From Platforms to Policy’ — Workshop Announcement

On Thursday, 11 June 2015, the Oxford Food Governance Group will convene an afternoon workshop entitled ‘Food Systems Advocacy: From Platforms to Policy‘.

The workshop presentations will examine the case studies that comprise our current project, with particular emphasis on the advocacy practices that characterize each of the ICT platforms we study, and the policy implications they may hold. Highlighting emerging modes of consumer mobilization and action, the workshop will foster discussion on the project’s potential impact.

The workshop will take place at the St Cross Room, St Cross College, Oxford, 1:30-5:30pm.

Registration is essential; please RSVP by 4 June at: You will receive an email message to confirm your place by 5 June.

Workshop: Food Systems Advocacy

Workshop Announcement:

On Thursday, 22 May 2014, the Oxford Food Governance Group will be convening an afternoon workshop entitled ‘Food Systems Advocacy‘. The workshop will focus on working papers, developed as part of our ongoing research project on consumer engagements with food governance.

The workshop will take place at the St Cross Room, St Cross College, Oxford, 2-6pm.

Registration is essential and places are limited; please RSVP by 9 May at: You will receive an email message to confirm your place by 10 May.

Learning how to buycott? Political consumerism and new media

by Tanja Schneider

As part of our new research into ‘Emerging forms of food consumer behaviour and food governance’ supported by the Oxford Martin Future of Food Programme, we are exploring what kinds of information and communication technologies are available to assist consumers in gathering and exchanging knowledge on a broad spectrum of food issues. We are particularly interested in learning more about consumers’ use of mobile phone apps, online consumer organisations and databases and other websites that provide information on food content, price, availability etc. Related to this, some of you may have seen our invitation to participate in a short online survey to share with us what about food matters most to you and how you go about finding out relevant information with or without the use of new ICTs.

Based on the information you provided in the survey (we are still looking for more participants!) and our own mapping of potential ICT-enabled sources of food information, we recently have become interested in a number of mobile apps, how they work, what they allow consumers to do and for whom these might be of interest and relevance. So one of our OFG team, Tanja, set out to test some apps in her everyday consumer life, took notes and offered to report back her experiences to the group. We decided to share her report with our blog readers for further discussion, thoughts and reflections.

I’m relatively new to using mobile phone apps and my experience with food apps is quite limited. The only mobile phone food apps I have been using so far are a) a major UK supermarket’s mobile phone app that allowed me to order my weekly family shopping and to have it delivered to the door (in the meantime I have moved countries and now use the two major Swiss supermarkets’ mobile apps), b) an international major coffee distributor that does the same for coffee deliveries and c) a German cooking app that I have come to regularly consult for new recipes or old favourites. Admittedly, I have only downloaded the latter after all my cookbooks had been sent to storage when moving house and I suddenly found myself without my favourite recipes. I also have to say that, if certain websites hadn’t advertised to me that they have an app that allows me to do my shopping or recipe search via my mobile phone, I probably would still use my laptop rather than an app on my phone.

The food apps I have been using so far are probably chosen for convenience first of all. However, since embarking on the OFG research on ICT-enabled consumer food activism, I have become quite curious about what other sources of food knowledge are accessible via mobile phone apps. So when one of our team mentioned an app called buycott, I decided it was time to use food apps for more than shopping or recipe hunting. Searching for buycott, I learned that it is a relatively new app that allows its users to scan bar codes from a range of consumer goods and then “…. look up the product, determine what brand it belongs to, and figure out what company owns that brand (and who owns that company, ad infinitum)”. Users of the app can also join (or create) campaigns tied to issues such as GMO labeling or fair trade to avoid products of certain companies. Alternatively they can support campaigns for brands they approve.

The first product I scanned was a water bottle that was sitting on my desk right beside me. The water I had bought and was drinking that day uses the name of a Swiss thermal spring in its name and so I had assumed I was buying a local product and supporting a local company located in a Swiss mountain valley. To my surprise, I found out that the water brand was owned by Coca Cola, a company whose products I don’t tend to buy very often. So unintentionally, I had been spending money on one of their products.

My surprise and my researcher’s curiosity led me to check out the water company’s website and search for more information on who owns the company. Interestingly there is no mention that the company is owned by Coca Cola under the ‘company’ tab on their website. So I suppose the use of the app was helpful right away in knowing more about the products I consume. However the information left me wondering what to do now. Being only an occasional drinker of bottled water but a frequent user of empty plastic bottles for tap water refills when I’m on the go, I knew that the clever solution would be to stop buying/using plastic bottles and buy a glass, metal or hard plastic water bottle for refill. That would have the positive side-effect of reducing plastic waste. On the other hand, it would have the negative side-effect that I wouldn’t support jobs in a company located in a Swiss mountain village.

Those reflections and my further explorations into the buycott app led me to join the campaign “Avoid Plastic Bottled Beverages”. After joining the campaign I rescanned the plastic bottled water and the app said ‘no campaign conflict’. Well, that could not be the case! A bit more research into the campaign revealed that the initiator of the campaign had listed a couple of brands/companies (mostly US-based ones) that bottle water in plastic but the list was by no means exhaustive and so did not include the brand I had scanned.

Based on these and some more initial scanning with the buycott app, I found the app a useful source of information that gave me new insights into corporate ownership of brands and made me think about joining and actually join campaigns for or against certain practices. However, I also felt that more knowledge was at times needed (which required further research on my part) or a review of what that campaign entailed, who had set it up, etc. As a European consumer I also got the impression that so far the app was US-focused and needed more input from other parts of the world, which I’m sure is part of their growth strategy.

Reflecting further about my experience with the app, I kept wondering how the app and the information it provided had altered my relationships to the products I buy and consume. First of all, I think that in my daily shopping I’m relatively familiar with a number of brands but I certainly do not always know which company owns that brand. After using this app a few times on random items in my kitchen cabinet, I kept wondering: was that information important? Would I be prepared to use the app while shopping? And would it ultimately alter my shopping behaviour?

It is probably to early to answer these questions based on my limited experience. However, I did realise that the use of this app compared to the use of my earlier food shopping apps did have some effect on my engagement with the low-involvement consumer goods I buy as part of my shopping routine. Rather than passively shopping based on accumulated assumptions and hopefully some product knowledge, I did start to seek more information on these products and this led me in some way or another to form an opinion on whether I would like to continue buying a product owned by this company or not. In fact, I found myself seeking out more information with the help of other food apps such as Codecheck, as corporate ownership was not always the key variable in my considerations about food purchases. Codecheck is a free app that enables scanning of an item (food and non-food) and learning more about a product’s price and content, as well as warnings about certain ingredients and their potential side effects (linked to experts’ articles) and labels the product has received (fair trade, organic etc.). Equipped with such knowledge I felt I was more pro-active in seeking out information that would inform my shopping decisions, and that I was better equipped to express social preferences through boycotting certain products/brands. Admittedly, my interest was also driven by the OFG research agenda which allowed me to spend time exploring mobile food apps and reflecting on my experiences. How much of my time would I continue to dedicate to seeking out this information in my consumer life?

Having recently read Gil de Zúñiga et al’s (2013) article “Political consumerism: civic engagement and the social media connection”, I found myself comparing my early explorations into app-informed food consumption  with the authors’ findings on the relationship between digital media use and political consumerism. In parallel to their reflections on the connections between political consumption, civic engagement and political behaviour and the mediating relationship of digital media use, I wondered whether I could make sense of my new, food-app mediated product knowledge as a source and motor for political consumerism in the making – but was it?

Gil de Zúñiga et al collected original survey data in the US to “… examine the extent to which digital media use, and social media use in particular, increases the likelihood of engaging in political consumerism” (2013: 2). They define political consumerism as “purchasing decisions based on ethical or political considerations (Stolle et al., 2005 as cited in Gil de Zúñiga, 2013) … [and] a tool through which people can articulate social or political preferences …’ in the form of a boycott or buycott  (2013: 2-3). Based on the analysis of their survey data, Gil de Zúñiga et al. conclude that political consumerism is more strongly associated with civic engagement, which they conceptualise as “informal community-based assciational activity that does not involve political organizations, parties, or officials, and that is undertaken on a voluntary basis for charitable and social purposes” (see Putnam, 2000 as cited in Gil de Zúñiga, 2013). This is not to say that political consumerism is not political, but that the authors view political consumerism as a form of lifestyle politics that is akin to civic rather than political behaviour (2013: 13).

These findings, and related studies emphasising the role of so-called citizen-consumers’ potential in redefining the food system, form the backdrop against which we seek to explore what roles consumers and consumer organizations can play in redefining contemporary food governance.

The OFG team would be thrilled if you, the blog readers, would be happy to share your experiences of using mobile phone food apps! Please write a comment to this blog post or email us directly at oxfordfoodgovernance at gmail dot com . Thank you!

Towards Food System Transparency – Workshop Slides Now Online

On 16 May 2013, the Oxford Food Governance Group, in association with the Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity, convened an interdisciplinary workshop that examined emerging efforts to enhance food system transparency in the EU. The workshop, which took place at St Cross College, Oxford, brought together scholars, advocates, and policy-makers.

Slides and papers for most of the day’s presentations are now available online:

Workshop: Towards Food System Transparency, St Cross College, Oxford, 16 May 2013

On Thursday 16 May, the Oxford Food Governance Group will be convening a half-day workshop entitled ‘Towards Food Systems Transparency’.

Speakers include:

The workshop will take place in St Cross Room at St Cross College, Oxford, from 1-5pm.

All are welcome to attend the workshop, but registration is essential at: