Funded by EIT FOOD [2021]

EIT FOOD Proof of Concept [PoC]

HelpFood investigates the potential of innovative models of food distribution for fostering transition towards fairer, healthier and environmentally-friendly food systems

1. PoC idea

By combining multi-level perspectives and practice approaches on socio-technical transitions, HelpFood investigates the potential of innovative online food distribution models in favouring the adoption of a more sustainable and plant-based diet in times of multiple emergencies. We are interested in investigating innovative approaches of circular economy linked to regeneration of urban and rural communities through the construction of Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) and deploy concrete initiatives of education, training, dissemination and communication for the key actors (citizens-producers and citizens-consumers). AFNs are commonly defined by attributes such as the spatial proximity between farmers and consumers, commitment to sustainable food production and consumption and to more democratic, healthy, ethical, culturally appropriate and better quality ways of food provisioning. In recent years in Europe, the challenge posed to sustainability by the global food system has spurred the rise of alternative practices for food provisioning (European Farm to Fork strategy, being part of the European Green Deal). The emergence of new consumer demands for healthy food products with minimal environmental impact has been followed by the spread of different initiatives, which aim to ‘re-socialise’ and ‘re-localise’ the food production-consumption chain. HelpFood aims to analyse the potential of recent socio-technical innovations occurred in the food systems also as a consequence of the severe COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Expected impact

The project responds to the theme “Sustainability in the food chain to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” as it aims at supporting bottom-up initiatives (AFNs) which base their operating rationales on creating more sustainable food systems. Some among the elements which are embedded in the framework are: the promotion of low carbon footprint agriculture; shorter food chains with reduction of transports-related emissions; reduction of plastic packaging; reduction of food loss and waste; promotion of plant-based diets. The scale up phase will go beyond technological solutions by focusing on systemic innovations that can contribute to achieving the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) and to increasing the resilience of food systems to shock (such as COVID-19) by experimenting with operating spaces that would contribute to sufficient, safe, healthy and convenient nutrition comprising disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

The need for a transition to more sustainable, resilient and healthy ways of producing, distributing and consuming food has been long recognised. Contemporary food provisioning models are proving unsustainable for both human and ecosystems’ health. They are also proving very weak in the face of crisis events (i.e. COVID-19 pandemic). Overall, they pose issues of food security and access, health, wellbeing but especially socio-environmental and economic sustainability. From the consumer side, transitions towards sustainable diets and healthy everyday food practices has mainly focused on individual behaviour change. Yet, dietary transitions cannot take place independently from the wider socio-material contexts in which they are embedded, the organisation of everyday life and local affordances. In the proposed project we aim to adopt a multi-level perspective (MLP) to investigate how social subjects are enabled (or discouraged) to change their dietary practices.

In particular, our project aims at understanding if and how new online models of food distribution (digital “food hubs”) provide an opportunity for citizens and consumers to engage in healthier, more sustainable, food practices – i.e. buying local seasonal and organic food, reduce waste, reduce meat and animal derivatives, improving environmental awareness. On the other side, the analysis performed in this PoC will help create favourable conditions for producers and improve the sustainability of local food systems, in a farm to fork approach.

The potential of the PoC and its outcomes will be validated with the help of the actors involved in the Trento, Nutrire Trento Project, a local food policy council which is operating in the town of Trento since 2017. The PoC will target both families living in the city of Trento (between 50 and 80 families) and local farmers/producers/transformers (about 20).

Online food sales are a growing reality. The European legislator has given increasing attention to the food chain (reform of the food control system; endorsement of the directive on unfair practices in the food chain), on the one hand, and the digital economy on the other (with the introduction of the data protection regulation and the new regulation on relations between business and online platforms). The endeavour to respond to social and economic pattern transformation thanks to technology has led to a frequently changing regulatory framework. However, citizens are not always aware of their rights as consumers, food consumers, or data holders; or unable to exercise their rights individually due to a disproportion of power between them and commercial actors or online intermediation services.

Small farmers or food producers, facing the development of the regulatory framework affecting their sales strategies, witness an increasing economic burden or risks attached to the compliance of the often fragmented and unclear norms. Big commercial actors or online intermediation services have the economic and technological capacity and expertise to comply or update their organization to legal innovation. They could also be able to benefit from disrespect of the norms, since they have the economic strength to factor in costs of economic sanctions.

During the project we aim to address the following questions: What is a fair balance between consumer rights and producers’ need for simplicity and flexibility in online food sales? To what extent innovative food platforms’ regulatory framework can benefit the weaker actors in the food systems? How can web-design promote platforms’ users awareness on their rights and duties?

The project we outline is set to investigate the dynamics and potential for, scaling up or scaling out alternative, sustainable, food systems. The platform brings together multiple actors. This innovative configuration allows direct exchange of information, needs and issues among all stakeholders involved in local food production- distribution chains. This gives the opportunity to critically assess the potentials of spreading ICT instruments for food provisioning, a platform that was launched during COVID-19 emergency in March. The project will:

  • Increase awareness in linking agro-urban and rural-urban relationships & promoting a “regional” market or proximity-digital-market
    • Testing new commercialisation models
    • Increased share of local food in public institutions
    • Assure Greater resilience of uninterrupted food supply in cases of pandemics
    • Create new job profiles

Finally, The PoC will aim to improve scientific and public understanding of the potential economic, environmental, health and resilience benefits of niche innovation

2, Workplan

The PoC builds the experience made in Nutrire Trento (literally: Feeding Trento) and its evolution. Nutrire Trento is a project promoted by the Trento City Council and the University of Trento, involving producers, various sectors of the economy, schools and associations with the aim to improve the quality of the food for the city, providing healthy food that adequately remunerates all actors in the food supply chain. At the same time, the project aims to develop and restore a local economy based on new relationships between city and country and between farmers and consumers.

The project formally began as one of the activities under the Unicittà memorandum of understanding between the Trento City Council and the University of Trento in June 2017 and was preceded by a series of open meetings involving people already in working in this area, such as producers, citizen groups and associations (including cooperative purchasing groups), researchers and administrators. During the COVID-19 emergency the project has continued to operate trying to help the coordination between small producers and families. The Nutrire Trento #Fase2 pilot project has aimed to facilitate the direct encounter between small-scale food producers and families living in the city. A “human based” online food provisioning system, managed by three people, has been set up to facilitate the connections between producers and consumers. This has enabled the construction of a community of about 60 people including consumers and producers which has been functioning since then.

WP1 – Analysis and update of the online food provisioning system

Starting from the experiences gathered within the Nutrire Trento network and with the testing phase of the food provisioning system before and during the COVID-19 emergency, WP1 will define the requirements for the implementation of the identified online food platform models. The analysis of the requirements will consider several aspects, including: structure and contents of website features, governance, stakeholders and community engagement strategies, sustainability, societal impacts,

Moreover, a systematic assessment of the (European, national, regional) regulation of interest for the platform users will be carried on; and the design a website which facilitates awareness-rising of, and compliance to applicable rules and rights will be explored. Starting from this analysis, the existing online food provisioning systems (OFPS) will be updated to match the emerging needs and proposed to the community. To this purpose, external expertise will be required, in accordance with European law for procurement.

Duration: 4 months M1-M4; Responsible: UNITN

Output: analysis of the requirements for the implementation of the models for food distribution; updated online food provisioning systems (OFPS)

WP2 – Experimentation and analysis

The three models will be implemented with the support of the updated OFPS within the community and socio- technical investigation will be carried out. The objective of this WP2 is two-fold. First, we aim to produce and in- depth investigation on the potential of online food platforms to promote sustainable food systems by investigating in depth both the demand and the supply side. By means of statistics about the use of OFPD, structured questionnaires and in-depth qualitative interviews we aim to understand why consumers and producers choose to purchase/sell through online food platforms and what is the effect of this kind of intermediation for sustainable food practices in the home and in the farm (e.g. reduction of waste). Second, we aim to observe what are the technical and legal obstacles or burdens that hinder the effective and sustainable use of the platform. In the light of that, the study will assess the experience in view of influencing ongoing policy development processes, such as the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy or the development of the Farm to Fork strategy.

Duration: 3 months M4-M6; Responsible: UNITN Output: – Report about implementation and analysis of the models

WP3 – Preparation of scale-out plan

This WP3 will set up the conditions for the scaling out to a systemic level and replication in other regions and settings. The emerging lessons from the previous WPs will allow us to distil knowledge and good practices to make the studied models and the community active, effective and sustainable. To this purpose different strategies of community animation and empowerment will be considered, including education and awareness campaigns for citizens and producers, link with social channels, social games and rewards. Suitable business and implementation models will be explored. Moreover, since sustainable diets and food waste are key themes on the Common Agricultural Policy and the Farm to fork strategy (Commission Staff Working Document Analysis of links between CAP Reform and Green Deal, Brussels, 20.5.2020 SWD(2020) 93 final), has a proposal for a legislative framework for sustainable food systems to be released by 2023, there is scope for the research to bring its experience at the service of public institutions, producers and consumers in implementation of both policy agendas. The results of the PoC and related KAVA will be used to inform the drafting of regional rural development plans and food systems schemes. Another task within this WPs is to explore the existing networks of international partners and collaborators to replicate

Duration: 3 months M5-M7; Responsible: FEM Output: plan for scale out; guide for public uptake

3. Consortium and staffing


The Department of Sociology and Social Research (DSRS) is the oldest and most prestigious department of sociology in Italy, being consistently ranked among the top social science institutions. CoACT (Research Group on Collective Action Change and Transition) is one of the Department of Sociology and Social Research (UNITN) research units. CoACT is in charge of several national and international projects among which the PLATEFORMS project dedicated to the study of how food practices in the home are affected by new innovations in food provisioning platforms, viewing consumption in all its phases of planning, provisioning, storing, cooking, eating and disposing (project H2020 COFUND and SUSFOOD2). The research group is also in charge of the coordination of the Nutrire Trento project (Feeding Trento ), a joint project with the Municipality of Trento, which aims to identify ideas and solutions to improve the quality of food for the city, promoting territorial approaches and the transition to circular food systems. The group covers research from food policy and consumption, environmental policy and communication, Social Movement and Environmental issue, Sociology of Environment and energy policy.

COACT will take the lead of WP1 and WP2 and it will coordinate the whole PoC.


FEM is a leading Italian institution active in education, research, technology, and technology transfer related to the agro-food sector. FEM is a public agency under private law jurisdiction. FEM comprises a Research and Innovation Centre (CRI), a Training and Education Centre, and a Technology Transfer Centre, all carrying out activities in the fields of agro-food and sustainable development. Currently, FEM makes up a full-scale rural centre stretching out over a 14-hectare campus, with classrooms, greenhouses, offices. FEM owns 120 hectares of land cultivated with apple and grape and 80 ha of forests. Nowadays, around 1,000 students attend classes, assisted by over 100 teachers. FEM is organized into Centres geared to the specific aims of: 1. Education and Training (CIF);

2. Research and Innovation (CRI); 3. Technical Experimentation and Transfer (CTT). FEM is involved in several projects related to Agro-Food systems, and also participates in a dozen of initiatives financed by the EIT, in particular in the Climate-KIC

Within the partnership, FEM will strengthen the initiatives of education towards green entrepreneurship to local and young producers. FEM will lead WP3.

Hub Innovazione Trentino

HIT – Hub Innovazione Trentino is a Foundation acting as the local innovation ecosystem catalyst whose assets are provided by the Autonomous Province of Trento. Our shareholders include the major academic and research institutions in Trentino (University of Trento, Bruno Kessler Foundation and Edmund Mach Foundation) and the Regional Development Agency (Trentino Sviluppo S.p.A.), therefore involving all the actors of the different domains within the Knowledge Triangle. The core mission of HIT is in advanced technology transfer. It provides a response to the needs for innovation and technological development of companies in Trentino and the territory, works to promote entrepreneurial training and supports the development of a new generation of companies able to compete in a sustainable way in the international market. The role of HIT is to maintain the link with EIT Food and support the activities mostly WP1 and WP3 bringing its competences in innovation ecosystems and community engagement.


  • Francesca Forno, UNITN
  • Alessandro Gretter, FEM
  • Lisa Rizzetto, FEM
  • Elisa Morganti, HIT
  • Ilina Petkanovska, HIT


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