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How to research our food environment? – Workshop and publication at the STS Conference

The 21st Annual Science, Technology and Society Studies – STS Conference took place in Graz, Austria, from May 8 to 10. The organisers have a long tradition of bringing the latest and ongoing inter- and transdisciplinary research to the annual conference. In previous years, the ESSRG has also contributed to EU-wide discussions on alternative and healthier food systems at the STS Conference Graz. This time, Alexandra Czeglédi, Vanda Pózner and Diána Szakál from ESSRG co-organised an interactive session with PLAN’EAT project partner Ewa Kopczynska from Jagiellonian University on participatory research processes in food environment research. The workshop was funded by the PLAN’EAT project and the Travelling Ambassador Programme of the University of Pécs.


The STS Conference – Graz 2023

The conference “Critical Issues in Science, Technology and Society Studies” is the joint annual conference of the Science, Technology and Society Unit of the Institute of Interactive Systems and Data Science at Graz University of Technology, the Inter-University Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture (IFZ) and the Institute for Advanced Studies of Science, Technology and Society (IAS-STS). This year, the conference provided a hybrid setting for researchers to attend 2-hour online and in-person sessions. The organisers adopted a more traditional, face-to-face presentation format as the conference has grown recently. Together with the PLAN’EAT partners, ESSRG contributed to the conference with an interactive, word café workshop session in the F: Sustainable Food System thematic call.


Image 1: STS Graz Conference, Thematic calls 


Sustainable food systems across the globe 

The thematic call brought together three different sessions on food system-related sessions. The second (F.2.) was co-designed and organised by ESSRG researchers. 

F.1: Microbes in, for, around Food Systems

F.2: From the edge to the core: participatory food environment research in European cities 

F.3: Food Justice in Alternative Food Networks: theoretical, empirical and transdisciplinary perspectives

F.6: Various Perspectives on Sustainable Food Systems


The Sustainable Food System thematic call embraced presentations looking at the agri-food, social, socioeconomic and technological processes, policy and community-level engagement within the food system from the Netherlands via Greece to South Africa. As the organisers from IFZ Graz put it: ‘There are various efforts to make the food system more sustainable and to tackle shortcomings related to food security, food poverty and justice, nutrition, food quality and safety, resource scarcity, loss of farmland and negative environmental impacts. To address these challenges, diverse strategies are developed at different geographies and scales. They are ranging from local-level initiatives, such as communities reasserting responsibility for food policy, to national, supra-national, and global food policies and initiatives.’


Image 2: Sandra Karner from IFZ introducing the next speaker, Credit: Alexandra Czeglédi

In one of the opening presentations, we heard from Annemarieke de Bruin about just transition of the Dutch food system to a more sustainable one. Researchers from Wageningen University conducted an evaluation study to measure how farmers, consumers and traders perceive the current transition of the Dutch food system: Is it a fair or unfair transition for them? According to in-depth interviews with 28 respondents, a fair transition was undoubtedly perceived in the case of non-human entities. Sustainability seems to benefit the soil, water sources, aquifers and animals. In the case of farmers and low-income households, respondents perceived inequitable transition pathways. Farmers may have received higher incomes but did not believe they had enough power to influence rising market prices. Many low-income households cannot afford to buy sustainable food. This research highlighted the constant presence of just and unjust transformations within alternative food systems.


Participatory food environment research in European cities


Image 3: Presentations of the F.2. session, Credit: Alexandra Czeglédi


Alexandra Czeglédi, Ewa Kopczynska, Vanda Pózner and Diána Szakál co-organised an interactive, workshop-based session to share experiences on participatory methodologies to map the food environment. The ‘food environment’, as coined in the Farm-to-Fork Strategy,  ‘is the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural context in which consumers engage with the food system to make decisions on acquiring, preparing and consuming food.’ From the generic conceptualisation, the session participants jointly discussed and co-learned that food environments are highly diverse and swiftly changing in urbanized regions. Therefore, more locally embedded research is needed to map the traits of a food environment and understand different groups’ and consumers’ perspectives. 

The session’s co-organisers aimed to look at different food environments (home, eating out, shopping, logistics, familial, cultural, and social events etc.) from a critical perspective by integrating marginalised experiences and often overlooked knowledge from the socio-economic peripheries of European cities. In other words, to map the food environments with those whose experiences are often left behind from the generic category of ‘people’ in the Farm to Fork strategy, policy papers, and marketing strategies.

To better identify what interventions are most needed to promote socio-nutritional change, foster sustainable practices, and better distribute healthy food in local and specific food environments, the session organisers thought placing the experiences of marginalised groups and communities at the centre of our discussions is essential in critical interdisciplinary research endeavours. By better understanding consumers’ everyday experiences through participatory research processes, food scientists, nutritionists, and health professionals can be better informed about the diversity of challenges and needs emerging in different food environments.

The session call received proposals addressing challenges and solutions in the broader food environments, co-researching with marginalised and disenfranchised groups such as urban youth, single parents, immigrant communities and adults with low-economic status receiving food donations.

In the session, the organisers initiated a horizontal overview of small-scale participatory research projects on food environments from different European contexts, Austria, Finland, Hungary and Poland. All four research projects mobilised photovoice and co-creative methodologies to grasp better views, norms, emotions, expectations, and material capabilities that are shaping participants’ choices and habits within the food environment: 

  • disenfranchised groups such as low-income households in Graz (Austria),
  • urban and rural youth in Finland,
  •  single parents in Budapest (Hungary),
  • and adults with low-economic status receiving food donations in Krakow (Poland). 

Across these different locations in urban settings, the session aimed to initiate a horizontal overview of small-scale participatory research projects on food environments. A deeper exploration of inclusivity in research and application of the photovoice methodology in the discussion part followed at two tables in small groups, where participants shared their thoughts, reflections and questions on the input presentations.


Publication in the Conference Proceeding

To learn more about the food environment concept and the workshop session’s discussion, read the co-authored and published version in The Conference Proceedings of the STS Conference Graz 2023: Critical Issues in Science, Technology and Society Studies

Alexandra Czeglédi, Ewa Kopczynska, Taru Peltola, Tuija Seppälä, Vanda Pózner, Diana Szakál, David Steinwender, Sandra Karner, Minna Kaljonen, Iikka Oinonen, Maya Hey (2023): From the edge to the core: Participatory food environment research in European cities DOI 10.3217/978-3-85125-976-6-27


Image 4: Vanda Pózner is presenting the Plan’Eat research, Credit: Alexandra Czeglédi


Insight into the Plan’Eat food environment mapping with single parents in the 8th district of Budapest

In Hungary, there is an increasing number and proportion of new family patterns (i.e., cohabitation, mosaic families, families without children, and single-parent families) that differ from the traditional marriage-based family type (Máté, 2018). In recent decades, the share of single-parent families increased from 7% to 14% (Harcsa–Monostori, 2014). Therefore, in the PlanEat EU Horizon 2020 project, Vanda Pózner and Szakál Diana, ESSRG researchers, started working with single parents, predominantly single mothers, in one of the most vulnerable districts of downtown Budapest. The research aims to understand their perspectives, struggles and needs about the local food environment in the 8th district of Budapest.

To better understand their perspectives, a three-step mixed methodology allows us to collect (1) quantitative data on the food environment and (2) qualitative data on participants’ subjective experiences and perceptions through photovoice-based visual storytelling. The qualitative participatory methodology builds on the dimensions of the quantitative survey to gain a deeper, more reflective understanding of food environments.

The combined methodological approach allows researchers to include the availability, accessibility, price and socio-cultural aspects of participants’ environmental food supply and environmental practices and promotion. The qualitative-participatory methods complement the quantitative method and reflect the three food environments integrated into the survey (home food environment, food purchasing/purchasing/home growing environment and dining environment).


Image 5: Plan’Eat approach to the food environment, Credit: Vanda Pózner


The survey data and the photovoice-based focus group discussion results are being processed. However, the preliminary results show that for single-parent families, the lack of time and money strongly influences all the dimensions mentioned above. The photovoice-based focus group discussion helped the researchers understand the reasons behind these issues better and get a more insightful picture of what goes on in the lives of families. During the discussion, single mothers shared more intimate themes and insights about the food environment through images – essential to our understanding.


Image 6: Plan’Eat research, Credit: Vanda Pózner


At the end of the focus group discussion, we also conducted a guided visualization practice with the participants. The guided visualization is an imaginative method that focuses on the perceptions and expectations of the participants for the future. Moreover, it fosters discussion and opens up new perspectives that would remain neglected. We asked participants to imagine themselves and their food environment 10-15 years from now. Think about what and who surrounds them on a typical weekday and a typical weekend and what their desired future looks like. 

The literature lacks current or up-to-date research on the living situation of single-parent families in Hungary; moreover, there is a research gap concerning their food consumption and choices. By focusing on this beneficiary group in the PLAN’EAT project, the Hungarian Living Lab aims to work together with a vulnerable group that is in need pay special attention to gender issues (in most Hungarian single-parent families, women hold the responsibility for taking care of the household); apply a life-course approach as they are at a transition stage that has a major impact on their lifestyle and their peers in the wider population group; fill these research gaps in the literature on a national level.


Authors: Alexandra Czeglédi, Vanda Pózner