Alternative Agrifood, as a Social Movement, as a Community of Practice and as One Voice

Between scares of salmonella on spinach, talk of an obesity epidemic among the nation’s children, migrant farmworker rights protests, and controversy concerning what constitutes a nutritious school lunch, the public is becoming more and more aware of the complexity and implications of our country’s agrifood system. What has not yet emerged, however, is any consensus on how to move forward to address these concerns. Our language to discuss our agrifood system is limited, not just in the public realm, but in the academy, as well. This essay examines two possible theoretical lenses from which alternatives to agrifood can be viewed, and considers the implications of each.

Alternative agrifood has emerged as a social movement, on par with the feminist and civil rights movements (Allen, 2004). For Allen, “discourse is what forms and maintains social identity” (p. 6). So, with a coherent discourse, and relatively stable vision over time, one may have a social movement. But do current alternative agrifood efforts evidence these characteristics, especially the first named? Constance, Renard, and Rivera-Ferre (2014) have argued the discourse of the alternative agrifood movement addresses four major topical areas: the environment, agrarian communities, quality food and emancipation. The environmental domain concerns the biophysical sustainability of our current food system. The alternative agriculture discourse also addresses how society should collectively value the quality of life of its farmers and agrarian communities. Advocates for new thinking regarding food production have likewise explored the ability of the existing system to produce fresh, healthful food. Finally, those seeking change in existing organization and practices have offered conceptions of what might constitute a more emancipatory and socially just food system. The alternative agrifood discourse is suffused with claims concerning “social, economic, and environmental justice and health, democratic participation, the importance of local wisdom, local dreams, community spirit, and often [commitment] to spiritual traditions” (Feenstra, 2002, p. 105). These advocates and the rhetoric they employ are rooted in an “anti-oppression ideology premised on notions of social justice and autonomy” (Sbicca, 2012, p. 464).

The alternative agrifood effort may also be considered a community of practice , as in Figure 1.

Figure 1


Source: The Community of Practice Construct, Lave and Wagner, 1991.

A community of practice (CoP) (Lave and Wenger, 1991) is a body of skills, knowledge, and practices engaged in socially with others. Scholars have argued that sociocultural learning occurs through legitimate participation (Lave, 1988) in a joint enterprise. In a community of practice, a novice learner starts on the periphery, mutually engaging in a shared effort with the experts at the center of the community. Through these exchanges, the learner develops a repertoire of language and skills and passes through boundaries governed by rituals, institutions and artifacts, while negotiating their new identity as an expert in the community of practice.

Farmers may be the experts at the center of the alternative agrifood CoP. Guthman, Morris and Allen (2006) found that farmers were indeed valued and privileged over other participants in alternative agrifood discussions and so could be considered the epitomic insiders in these communities of practice. Others, however, could also be regarded as the insiders, including community or opinion leaders, such as farmers market coordinators and food writers. Novices, new entrants into the alternative food CoP, negotiate social identities to progress to the middle of the community, and so become experts themselves. They engage in joint enterprises with existing authoritative actors, such as growing food at community gardens, cooking wholesome meals for potluck dinners, shopping at the farmers market, attending canning workshops, and otherwise supporting community agriculture. The more they learn, the closer they become to becoming experts themselves, and they begin to negotiate an identity as a practitioner of alternative agrifood. They may be called “hippies,” “veggies,” “foodies,” or “aggies” and further to community of practice constructs, use words and perform rituals that may not relate to the express values of their CoP (such as wearing certain clothing).

Is there evidence that novices negotiate around boundary objects in alternative agrifood communities of practice? Is there a rite of passage, or mode of belonging to the alternative agrifood CoP? Let’s envision starting a home garden or volunteering on a farm as potential rites of passage for membership. Or perhaps being given a kombucha starter, undertaking a juice cleanse or slaughtering a chicken could be considered rites of passage for the community. These are all imagined possibilities for consideration of alternative agrifood as a community of practice. Viewing CoP provides a language and model for a rich description of activities within a local food community.

So what are the implications of these two perspectives for alternative agrifood?  Both theoretical lenses acknowledge there is a unified group of people engaged in a shared effort in the same types of activities. Both views highlight a mutual repertoire of activities and capacities or common culture in which people are learning from each other.

Social movement theorists often argue that mutual grievances serve as a cohesive force in such groups (Allen, 2004). This is not a strong argument for alternative agrifood, since its activities are often not linked to any specific concern. Social movement theory also lacks a descriptive language for the sociocultural learning that occurs within alternative agrifood groups, a gap filled by community of practice theory. CoP theory describes how and why people learn socially within groups involved in the same activity and how their shared activities act as a cohesive force binding them together. This frame also directs our gaze to the power differential between newcomers to a community and old timers, who determine acceptable discourse, so change will occur slowly, and social reproduction will be prevalent. What community of practice theory lacks, however, is recognition of the potentially transformative power behind the cohesion of beliefs among members, and the capacity that represents in turn for groups to act together to influence others outside the community. In sum, alternative agrifood can be described as both a social movement and a community of practice, but a much richer analytic portrait of the dynamics and possibilities of the phenomena can be drawn by combining insights arising from application of each frame.

Both theoretical lenses are also helpful in understanding why among this body of actors, there is little consensus concerning how to move forward. Social movement theory stresses the collective discourse that binds members together. The community of practice construct suggests that novices learn from experts, thus reproducing knowledge through identity shift towards the center of the community. Lavin (2014) has argued, however, that the alternative agrifood movement lacks sufficient language with which to address the issues that its members wish to change because it is embedded in the North American political neoliberal regime. Lavin (2009) has pointed out that Michael Pollan (2006), who has emerged as a major (unofficial) champion of alternative agrifood after publishing The New York Times Best Seller Omnivore’s Dilemma, argues that buying local, among other consumer spending habits, is the best strategy to realize the alternative agrifood system. Lavin contends that this approach is popular precisely because it fits well within our hegemonic principles of neoliberalism with their emphasis on the primacy of the market in society. Others have also argued that the neoliberal agenda has dominated the discourse concerning alternative agrifood (Niewolny & Wilson, 2007).

Employing the community of practice construct lens suggests that the economic focus of alternative agrifood discourse will likely continue to dominate as social reproduction occurs. Viewing alternative agrifood as a social movement, meanwhile, reveals that those pressing claims are actually working from conflicting values.  Civic action to change the background paradigm or frame guiding actions (demanded by advocates’ equity claims) is not currently occurring in lieu of the “vote with your dollar” approach. Voting with dollars means that those with more consumptive capacity have more votes, which is anathema to the democratic ideals of the community/movement. Thus, it remains unclear how those advocating for food system change will move forward.

While our dominant agricultural production system has created a plethora of issues that we must address as a society, neoliberal ideas continue to dominate the alternative agrifood discourse, making it difficult to secure widespread and meaningful social and economic change.  Viewing the alternative agrifood phenomenon as both a social movement and a community of practice makes painfully obvious the major tensions now in play within this discourse, and why a food revolution is not now imminent. By finding new ways to frame the arguments of those seeking change in the food system, perhaps proponents will more readily unify their efforts and begin to speak with one voice to promote change.


Allen, P. (2004). Together at the table: Sustainability and sustenance in the American agrifood system. Penn State Press.

Constance, D. H., Renard, M. C., & Rivera-Ferre, M. G. (2014). Alternative Agrifood Movements: Patterns of Convergence and Divergence. Alternative Agrifood Movements: Patterns of Convergence and Divergence (Research in Rural Sociology and Development, Volume 21) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. iii, 21.

Feenstra, G. (2002). Creating space for sustainable food systems: Lessons from the field. Agriculture and Human Values, 19(2), 99-106.

Guthman, J., Morris, A. W., & Allen, P. (2006). Squaring Farm Security and Food Security in Two Types of Alternative Food Institutions*. Rural sociology, 71(4), 662-684.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. (1991). Situating learning in communities of practice. Perspectives on socially shared cognition, 63, 82.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lavin, C. (2009). Pollanated politics, or, the neoliberal’s dilemma. Politics and Culture2(2).

Niewolny, K., & Wilson, A. (2007, June). Economic Knowledge Production of the Growing New Farmers Consortium, 2000-2005: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Adult Agricultural Education. In Proceedings of the 48th Annual Adult Education Research Conference (pp. 457-462).

Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals. Penguin.

lorien thumbnailLorien E. MacAuley has nine years’ experience coordinating efforts to teach adults and youth about nature and gardening in governmental and nongovernmental organizations. She is currently a PhD student in Agricultural Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech (VT). While at VT, she has worked with the Mapping Sustainable Farm Systems project, the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program and the Dan River Partnership for a Healthy Community. She has focused her research and development efforts on beginning farmer and rancher preparation and community-based food systems initiatives.

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