Over the last twenty years, Alternative Food Networks (AFN) have become increasingly successful at reducing the length of the chain that connects food production and consumption in an attempt to counteract the impact of the contradictions of the industrial food system and its supermarket-dominated distribution. Their grassroots actions, aimed at overcoming pre-existing socio-economic structures, are in line with social innovations, which have the objective of promoting the social participation of consumers and producers in food systems (empowerment, socio-political activism or social integration in society). In Italy, the Solidarity Purchasing Groups (SPGs), have been the subject of numerous academic studies, but the scope of these studies has, to date, been limited to the political activism of the consumer. The ability of this experience to foster the social participation of the groups’ suppliers and the effects that the exchange has on the economic life of the producers have not yet been adequately studied.
This article addresses this gap by investigating the extent to which SPGs can reduce the economic marginalisation of their suppliers and evaluates if the activities they promote could increase their social participation. Based on quantitative and qualitative data, this study shows that SPGs, in contrast to other AFNs, maintain a clear separation between consumers and producers and this could mitigate the positive impact of these initiatives on their suppliers. Our analysis of the suppliers shows that SPGs can act as a safety net against economic downturns and that the social participation of the producers involved is higher at the macro, meso and individual levels, compared to producers who do not cooperate with the SPGs.