This article draws on commons-thinking in CERN scholarship that extends Ostrom’s (1990) conceptualization of commons to develop an understanding of commons as a sociality that we can begin to discern, in whole or in part, distributed across economic relationships, practices and institutions. A key device which enables such thinking is the commons identi-kit which visually represents the political dilemmas of commoning—how we determine who can access and use a thing, define the community of benefit or determine the custodial practices of care (Gibson-Graham et al. (2013). Mestrum asserts that commons ‘should be nothing more than the process of commoning’, a framework for determining ‘what we want to use and govern collectively’ (Mestrum 2016: 114, 115). For CERN scholars commons-thinking extends beyond that which is formally commoned, a commons sociality and the sociality of commoning that improves and strengthens a commons (Gibson-Graham et al. 2016; Parris and Williams 2019). Communities need to be involved as active collaborators, as any commons can also be ‘uncommoned’: that is, destroyed, privatized, depleted or stolen (Miller and Gibson-Graham 2019). In our view, thinking like a commoner is vital for maintaining healthy food systems in the context of the pandemic.
Applying The Commons Identi-kit
Gibson-Graham et al. (2013) developed the commons identi-kit as a figure that engages with, and partly simplifies, Ostrom’s conceptualization of the system of ‘rules’ that govern commons sociality. The dominant approach to food security primarily emphasizes access to food in ways that encourage technical innovations to increase food supply. What a identi-kit calls attention to is the use and care of all the things, practices, relationships and know-how that work for common benefit by making food and agricultural systems possible. Ostrom’s (1990) famous example of the Zanjera irrigation system in the Philippines shows how equitable access and use of a water supply was predicated on practices of collective maintenance. It is important to note, however, that this instance of commoning takes place on privately held land. For Gibson-Graham et al. (2013), commoning is a sociality that can unfold across an array of ownership-types. As a consequence, the politics of commoning can be extended across privately held properties which can be commoned whole or in part, just as open access resources can come under common management and new commons can be created as illustrated in Fig. 1.
In our view extending commons-thinking beyond formal commons in particular locations, and connecting it to diverse economic practices relationships and institutions, creates new possibilities for responding to the consequences of COVID-19. In what follows we reflect on two questions to extend commons-thinking:
What are the relationships between commons and processes of exchange (distribution)? How might commons-thinking reconfigure shared understandings of ‘markets’ as sites of diverse and supportive sociality which directly impact health?
What are the relationships between commons? For example, how might Mestrum’s ‘social commons’, which foregrounds the state’s exercises of custodial authority, interact with commons accessed, used, and cared for by community-based organizations? And how might these dynamics affect health as a social commons?
The second part of the article seeks to explore answers to these questions in COVID-times, drawing upon empirical research into commons and food security in Australia and New Zealand (question 1) and Finland and India (question 2). The aim is to compare how commons sociality works ingeniously and in disparate contexts to enable food security. The authorial voice shifts as we move location but what comes into focus is a planetary food commons—not a singular thing but what Escobar names the pluriverse of commons.Footnote 9
Commons Sociality and Exchange: Australia and New Zealand
Both Australia and New Zealand are considered to be food secure nations yet both have seen a steady increase in food insecurity over time.Footnote 10 In New Zealand the food price index has steadily increased,Footnote 11 and almost one in five children (19.0%) live in severely or moderately food insecure households.Footnote 12 People with disabilities,Footnote 13 Māori (Indigenous People) and Pasifika (Pacific Islanders),Footnote 14 and those receiving state welfareFootnote 15 are disproportionately affected. Similarly, Australia’s largest food relief charity, Food Bank, has documented an increase in household food insecurity from 15% in 2017 to 21% in 2019 with women, children, asylum seekers and people in rural and remote areas being most at risk.Footnote 16 The cost of fresh food continues to increase in Australia (Barosh et al. 2014) and the food system is dominated by a supermarket duopoly which wield significant control over price and supply chains (James 2016).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, both nations experienced panic buying and lockdown restrictions that affected market access and, consequently, an increased demand for food relief. The relatively strict pandemic response by the New Zealand government prioritized human health but disrupted the country’s food system, from production to manufacturing and processing, through to distribution, access and consumption. During various ‘lock-downs’ some farms and factories stopped operating; restaurants, food service outlets, and farmer’s markets closed; and international trade was disrupted. Significantly, many social services that included some aspect of food distribution were either temporarily closed, or had to quickly adapt. The circumstances highlighted the multi-dimensional aspects of food security, and has affected people who had not previously experienced food insecurity. As a result, food security suddenly became a national matter of concern for many New Zealanders. In Australia, the pandemic response has also led to increased concerns around food security. For example, in July 2020 Food Bank estimated that approximately 1.4 million Australians were accessing food relief charitiesFootnote 17 although we know these numbers to be higher than estimated with charities in capital cities in particular reporting an increase in demand for food relief by international students, asylum seekers and the recently unemployed. There has never been an actual lack of food in either countries in recent years, with both nations producing a substantial amount of food surplus that is exported, redistributed or wasted. However, in both nations there has been a lack of access to affordable, healthy and culturally appropriate food that the pandemic and associated responses have exacerbated.
The redistribution of surplus food to charities in Australia is a practice that is deeply embedded in existing models of food relief revealing a diversely populated commons. Food relief charities operate on a variety of properties as school breakfast programmes, mobile soup kitchens, food vans, soup kitchens in churches or neighbourhood centres, as drop-in-centres, food box schemes and food pantries. Food relief providers have had to be resourceful in order to access and use the food by growing their own, purchasing or receiving it for free directly from food manufacturers, retailers, cafes/restaurants and farmers or from larger-scale food rescue redistributors: Food Bank, OzHarvest and Second Bite. The benefits of these diverse commons are shared by human and non-human others, as growing concerns with the environmental impacts of food waste are acknowledged by governments and non-government organizations such as OzHarvest which seek to address the concerns of food insecurity, health and food waste. Care and responsibility can be seen as demonstrated through the resourcefulness of the extensive networks of volunteers and supporters that constitute these food commons from growers to individuals. For example, Addison Road Food Pantry is supported by over 60 donors and their emergency food hub that emerged during the pandemic has supported over 27 charity groups in the Inner West of Sydney along with over 2000 people who access the food pantry each week.Footnote 18 In addition, the contested role of the State can be seen through the provision of grant and programme funding for particular initiatives rather than through a sustained increase to government benefits that could provide people with a basic living income. For example, during the pandemic the City of Sydney (local government area) has provided further funding to food relief charities such as OzHarvest to support their ‘pay as you are able’ food marketsFootnote 19 and the Addison Road Food PantryFootnote 20 to support growing numbers of food insecure such as international students, asylum seekers and the unemployed. OzHarvest explains how they have:
introduced a range of new emergency food relief services including; regular weekly Hamper Hubs for international students, a mobile market distributing food to regional and bushfire affected communities and pre-cooked meals by OzHarvest chefs and external hospitality partners.Footnote 21
OzHarvest has a key focus on nutrition and sustainability evidenced in the food they provide and their Nutrition Education Skills Training programmes revealing an important emphasis on health as more than the provision of calories alone.Footnote 22 OzHarvest’s NEST programme delivers healthy eating and simple cooking workshops in small group settings in Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne. Workshop participants set healthy eating goals and learn practical cooking skills together, then share the meal they collectively prepared. In a recent programme evaluation, ninety-five percent of NEST participants said they were more confident about how to make healthy food choices on a budget.Footnote 23 Programmes like NEST highlight the sociality of learning how to cook and eat well together, improving the commons of health knowledge and practices shared by participants and their friends and families. Grassroots efforts like NEST support people’s health and well-being in the broadest sense, providing essential social supports in the face of ongoing government ambivalence.
Similar to Australia, the redistribution of surplus food in New Zealand reflects a diversely populated commons, with local food rescue organizations working with food donors, social service providers and others to address both food insecurity and food waste. Prior to COVID-19 the New Zealand government and philanthropists had been working with existing food rescue groups (primarily KiwiHarvest) to explore a potential national food rescue network. The sudden surplus of food that had to be distributed during various COVID-19 lock-down responses due to market disruptions sped up implementation of what is now called the New Zealand Food Network (NZFN). The NZFN started operating during level 4 restrictions (April 2020) and has obtained NZ$5.5 M in funding from the Ministry of Social Development for the next two years. The ethos underpinning the NZFN is essentially the creation and management of a food surplus common to which a diverse community has access to reduce both food insecurity—with its undesirable health implications—and food waste—with its negative climate impacts. The NZFN will act as a broker to obtain and store surplus food and then redistribute this across the country to community partners who share it for use by their community. In the process the NZFN will gain efficiencies of scale and capacity by processing bulk surplus food in pallets from food growers, distributors and retailers, while respecting the autonomy and distribution practices of local food organizations. These actors also benefit by having an avenue to redistribute quality surplus food that would otherwise be wasted. Donors are required to deliver the surplus food to NZFN warehouses at their cost, taking responsibility to care for the food common, including food safety. Once received the food is logged, checked against food safety standards, and re-packaged if necessary. An algorithm is then used to manage re-distribution. Community partners seeking surplus food sign up to an online portal and describe their need and scale of operation (e.g. regularly delivering 500 meals per week), and capacity and infrastructure (e.g. chiller capacity, storage size). The algorithm processes the available food surplus and requests, and distributes this accordingly. Community partners can then access what is allocated to them and request it when needed, with the NZFN organizing delivery.
As Isola and Laiho (2020) suggest, the wide availability of surplus food in a market system means that its redistribution is an environmental and economic necessity, rather than charity or favour. The Australian example offers insight into the emergent nature of a diverse and networked commons responding to the immediate concerns of the pandemic and the inadequacy of government provision of basic income. The existence of substantial amounts of surplus food whilst people are hungry reiterates the wicked problem of food surplus in markets geared towards export. In New Zealand, not everyone is supportive of state support for the NZFN, arguing that it effectively subsidises over-production and will not help shift underlying wasteful and environmentally exploitative agri-food practices. At the same time, the emergence of a national food surplus commons in New Zealand, managed through the NZFN raises important questions around how more nationally coordinated, partially state funded approaches to surplus food could shift debates about universal access to food and health as a human right. Will these kinds of practices help to reposition people as commoners partaking in that good, rather than dependents failing to be good individual consumers? How might a commons-based food system, attuned to need, eliminate ‘surpluses’ that all too readily becomes climate-damaging waste? These examples provide evidence of shifts that illustrate the potential of commoning practices to address concerns around both food waste and food insecurity at scale and through diverse local initiatives in the here and now.