Circles of Food is an approach that guides engaged and collaborative practice in making our food systems more sustainable, resilient, adaptable and liveable. It is part of a broader approach called Circles of Social Life. Like its sister project Circles of Sustainability, it provides practical tools for creating sustainable cities and communities. For example, instead of designating a pre-given set of indicators, the approach sets out a process for deciding upon indicators and analysing the relationship between them.
How does the ‘Circles’ Approach Work?
The Circles approach provides tools for responding to four key questions. Each of these questions is associated with four related circles. Why circles? Because they provide us with the best way of thinking about and depicting the recursive nature of social life. Social life is rarely enacted as a straight line of cause and effect.
How can we best depict the sustainability, resilience, adaptability and liveability of our food systems? That is, how can we best understand, describe and assess the way in which we approach food in all its complexity — economic, ecological, political and cultural?
Profile Circles provide a direct way of showing the strengths and weaknesses of a city or region with disarming simplicity. Below the surface, Profile Circles are based on a series of deepening and evermore comprehensive appraisals of the various critical aspects of a city or region. The resulting profiles remain simple on the surface, even as they encourage deep research.
What possible practical pathways should we take in the process of developing a positive response to issues of food sustainability, resilience, adaptability and liveability?
Process Circles guide practitioners through logical pathways for carrying out a project — large or small. The pathways are organized around a seven-stage model of project management: commitment, engagement, assessment, definition, implementation, measurement, and communication. Process Circles offer a deliberative method for negotiating different ways through contested or contradictory critical issues towards chosen objectives.
How can we work closely with others on food issues, including the major constituents affected in any city or region?
Engagement Circles point to the range of constituent groups and individuals who might be involved in making our food systems more vibrant.
How can we best seek to understand and interpret the world in which we live?
Knowledge Circles are ways of thinking about how we know things and how this knowledge impacts upon social life. The cognate concept of a ‘hermeneutic circle’ has a long history. One writer described it as ‘the art of interpretation as transformation’. In this sense, all of our work is connected through a continuous circle of feeling, pragmatics, reflection and reflexivity. No fixed or ready answers are given. Rather, we see all four Circles as ways to enhance reflexive learning while continuing to honour the strengths of both felt and pragmatic experience.
Circles of Food, drawing upon the Circles of Social Life method employs four kinds of circles in the task of enhancing the food systems of our cities, settlements and regions.
Profile Circles offer ways of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a food system in relation to a chosen region or urban settlement. Profile circles are divided into four domains of sustainability: ecology, economy, politics and culture. They are used to generate graphic profiles of the food system of different locales. Each of the domains carries a further set of seven subdomains, which can be used to identify, understand and respond to critical issues.
Process Circles represent the key stages of a food systems project. In our approach a project is guided through seven such stages: commit, engage, assess, define, implement, measure and communicate — all the way back to commit, and the cycle begins again. Each of the seven stages is elaborated through four phases. Tools have been developed to guide communities and organizations through each of the stages and its associated phases.
Engagement Circles consider who could (should) be involved in the selection and decision-making about food issues and projects. We identify four key constituents, all of whom should be represented when thinking about and acting upon sustainability challenges and practical alternatives. These constituents are civil society, business organizations, governance institutions, and research-based entities, across all levels from the local to the global.
Knowledge Circles are ways of understanding how we know things. Our Circle is a modification of a once well-known approach called Hermeneutic Circles for thinking about meaning in relation to practice. In the present context, Knowledge Circles help us, for example, to make sense of how the specific details of issues and indicators contribute to understanding broader questions about food. Conversely, by thinking about what we mean by a food system in terms of the social values, ways of life, qualities and accomplishments that we most wish to sustain, we can start to think about the particular issues that matter most to us. This continuous evolving process is best represented as a circle.
Together these four sets of circles help us to develop a comprehensive, integrated and holistic picture of food in a given place, community or project.