The context for this article is the rapid international growth of (surplus) food redistribution initiatives. These are frequently reliant on networks of volunteer labour, often coordinated by digital means. Movements with these characteristics are increasingly viewed by researchers, policymakers and practitioners as cases of self-organisation. The article explores the nature and extent of self-organisation in food redistribution initiatives. Two contrasting UK initiatives were studied using ethnographic methods during a period of rapid expansion. The concept of self-organisation was operationalised using three dimensions—autonomy, expansion and governance. One initiative established food banks in close cooperation with corporate food actors. Its franchise charity model involved standardised safety protocols and significant centralised control. The other initiative deliberately pursued autonomy, rapid recruitment and de-centralised governance; nevertheless, collaboration with industry actors and a degree of centralised control became a (contested) part of the approach. We highlight the interplay of organisational agency and institutional structures affecting the self-organisation of surplus food redistribution, including ways in which movement dynamism can involve capture by dominant interests but also the seeds of transformative practices that challenge root causes of food waste, particularly food’s commodification. Our analysis provides a way to compare the potentials of food charity vs mutual aid in effecting systemic change.
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