The elusiveness of inclusiveness: A practice-based perspective on health and sustainability in urban food practices

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


As cities are growing, new responsibilities around food and inclusiveness emerge. While their populations get more diverse, urban governments are struggling with their new governance task around food system transformation towards health and sustainability. With this increasing urban diversity, differences between various socio-economic and cultural urban population groups also grow. Urbanites from lower socio-economic positions and ethnic minority groups appear to lag in healthy and sustainable food, and are underrepresented in food policy development. These apparent inequalities have led to the call for more inclusiveness in urban food systems. However, precisely what it means to be more inclusive appears not to be very well defined. Existing approaches to understanding these inclusiveness challenges are problematic, as they are driven by binary understandings of in- and exclusion and overlook lived experiences. This thesis therefore aims to contribute to this quest around inclusiveness by exploring dynamics of in- and exclusion that occur within and through urban food practices, i.e. food consumption practices (Chapters Two and Three) and urban food governance processes (Chapter Four). The primary empirical context is the Dutch city of Almere, a highly diverse city with growing administrative attention for food.

Chapter Two studies the cultural dynamics of inclusiveness in food practices of Syrian migrants, from a practice theoretical perspective. Methodologically, in-depth life-history interviews are combined with observation. Inclusiveness takes different forms as food practices and the food environment change. Understandings and competences around particularly fresh food changed over time. This applied to both short- and long-term migrants, where making things from scratch with seasonal products was replaced with buying more processed products and out-of-season products. The chapter concludes that the performances of food practices and their configurations in food environments and lifestyles are dynamic and cannot unequivocally be interpreted as in- or exclusive, but that a more nuanced understanding is required.

Chapter Three studies socio-economic in- and exclusion, by studying what the dynamics of de-and re-routinization of food practices of people with type 2 diabetes look like, and in particular their potential sustainability impact. The hypothesis here is that people with type 2 diabetes have been confronted with a physical health issue which has spurred some reflexivity around food consumption. The chapter studies this reflexivity and how it relates to sustainability in food practices, through de- and reroutinization. Like Chapter Two, it uses a practice-theoretical approach and also takes a similar methodological approach. Chapter Three illustrates a diversity in the extent to which food practices are disrupted after being diagnosed with diabetes. It concludes that reflexivity is not necessarily inspired only by being diagnosed with a major health issue, but that there are more factors determining whether or not lifestyle changes actually take place, such as experiencing bodily discomforts and broader societal attention to lifestyle change. In terms of sustainability, positive environmental effects could be identified ‘piggybacking’ onto changes in practices that were performed towards a healthier diet, such as diversifying protein intake and eating less processed foods. These effects were often not explicitly considered as sustainable by the participants themselves, and thus can be seen as "inconspicuous sustainability": sustainable elements in food practices that are not labelled as such.

Chapter Four looks at governance processes. It examines the governance network around Almere’s emerging urban food strategy and studies what mechanisms of in- and exclusion can be identified within this process. Theoretically, the chapter uses Manuel Castells’ network theory of power and methodologically, a network survey is combined with expert interviews. The chapter illustrates that the municipality is at the centre of the network, trying to balance inclusive versus efficient governance. This highlights the tension of governance through networks, as a network is only responsible for those included in the network, whereas governments are ultimately responsible for all of their citizens, even if they are not directly included in the governance network. This calls for further reflection on the roles of citizens in urban food governance in a network society.

Chapter Five provides a theoretical reflection on what in- and exclusion means from the two theoretical perspectives employed within this thesis. From a practice theoretical perspective, the concept of ‘inconspicuous sustainability’ is elaborated as an operationalization of in- and exclusion. It is embedded in practice theoretical debates on ‘doings and sayings’, and linked to one of practice theories’ founding fathers, Bourdieu, and his notion of (mis)recognition. Next, an account of Castells’ view on in- and exclusion is provided with a particular focus on the role of power, after which both theories are compared and contrasted for their understandings of in- and exclusion and potential compatibility.

Finally, the conclusion reflects on the common element emerging from the chapters, which is the central role of framing and the associated lack of recognition and representation of certain sustainable and healthy food practices. By unravelling the complex processes around in- and exclusion, this thesis has challenged the almost default categorization of people into excluded, vulnerable groups based on the dominant frames of culture and socio-economic status. Instead, it has highlighted the variety of urban food consumption practices and the somewhat hidden sustainable and healthy elements within them. As this variety of food practices and their potential for healthier and more sustainable food consumption are not always recognized in current governance practices, opportunities are missed to actually advance more diverse transition pathways to healthy and sustainable food practices. When citizens’ diverse understandings and practices around healthy and sustainable food are not taken seriously, neither are their needs and preferences to further advance these healthy and sustainable elements, which might result in actual exclusion. This creates a kind of paradox: although inclusiveness is dynamic and elusive, at the same time practices can actually be excluded from governance processes when a static and normative frame of in- and exclusion is applied. It is necessary to make an effort to include a broader variety of stakeholders in current formal governance practices, but also to look for alternatives to the formalized food governance practices that better align with the variety of current and future food consumption practices.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Oosterveer, Peter, Promotor
  • Wertheim-Heck, Sigrid, Co-promotor
Award date17 Jun 2022
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789464471656
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jun 2022


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