A perspective on social economy and food systems: Key insights and thoughts on future research

  • Phoebe Stephens University of Waterloo
  • Connie Nelson
  • Charles Levkoe
  • Phil Mount
  • Irena Knezevic
  • Alison Blay-Palmer
  • Mary Anne Martin
Keywords: social economy, informal economy, context-dependent diversity, food systems, social economy of food


For a concept that was largely outside of the public gaze a decade ago, “social economy” has, in a short time, captured the attention and imaginations of civil society organizations, mainstream institutions, and funders. Local and national governments, international agencies and foundations are embracing the social economy in an effort to generate new models for development and sustainability. This turn requires clarity and critical reflection on what “the social economy” entails and its possible future directions. In this Perspective, we shed light on these areas, focusing on issues of sustainability and food systems, and in the process, advance three arguments. First, context-dependent diversity is a defining characteristic of social economy. Second, though frequently positioned as a counter-point to neoliberalism, the social economy is far broader and more nuanced. Third, research in the social and informal economies of food has opened critical discussions on the appropriate pathways, effectiveness and viability of such initiatives to transform food systems that structurally promote marginalization, exclusion, food insecurity and ill-health for many. In the current rush to brand all things “social economy”, such critical reflection will play a valuable role in shaping the discussion around those transformative pathways.  We conclude by suggesting that the study of social economy has to include deliberate consideration of its informal manifestations, and that food studies scholars are challenged now to develop a comprehensive body of scholarship that articulates impacts and value of social economy in creative and compelling ways.

How to Cite
Stephens, P., Nelson, C., Levkoe, C., Mount, P., Knezevic, I., Blay-Palmer, A., & Martin, M. A. (2019). A perspective on social economy and food systems: Key insights and thoughts on future research. Canadian Food Studies / La Revue Canadienne Des études Sur L’alimentation, 6(3), 5-17. https://doi.org/10.15353/cfs-rcea.v6i3.355