Can a new focus on food policy help fix our cities?

benreynoldscroppedOver the past 50 years, continued urbanisation – 80% of the UK population now live in towns and cities – and an increasingly global but invisible food system, has created a fundamental disconnect between people and food.

The resulting negative impacts on both the environment – food production, distribution, consumption and disposal are the greatest single contributor to society’s ecological footprint – and on public health – with an epidemic of diet-related ill-health and a generation growing up lacking the skills and knowledge to feed themselves healthily and sustainably  – are well documented.

Significant recent investment by public and private funders – approximately £100m over the last five years – has led to an extraordinary diversity of small-scale local food initiatives across the UK and to a burgeoning public interest and involvement in healthy and sustainable food issues, succinctly captured in the 2011 Food Census Survey.

For the most part, however, there has been a lack of strategic coherence to this activity in terms of projects working together and ensuring that their efforts are effectively embedded into and supported by public sector institutions and policies.

Without such support there is a clear danger that, as funding contracts, many grassroots initiatives will disappear. More importantly, perhaps, the opportunity to make sustainable food a mainstay of institutional policy and practice will be lost and with it the opportunity to nurture a dynamic partnership between institutional and civil society working together in the new spirit of ‘localism’ to drive a fundamental shift in food culture and the systems that support it.

In several UK towns and cities, key public sector institutions have begun to recognise the pivotal role that food can play in driving positive social, economic and environmental change, and are working with civil society and private sector partners to develop integrated city-wide healthy and sustainable food programmes. While progress in many of these towns and cities is at a relatively early stage, it is evident – particularly among some of the early pioneers such as Brighton, Bristol, London, Manchester and Plymouth – that this integrated cross-sector approach has the potential to deliver significant and sustained measurable improvements in food, health and sustainability across all social groups and throughout the food chain.

Launched in August this year, the Sustainable Food Cities network is hoping to build on the interest this approach is generating across the UK. It brings together places that have formed cross sector partnerships that are creating action plans to address a breadth of food issues. Despite their local priorities, the thirty towns, cities and urban boroughs already taking this approach share many common aims including tackling food poverty, promoting food enterprises and community food projects, and improving supply chains, particularly through the buying power of public procurement.

Underlying this, many of these places are realising the role that food can play in regenerating areas. The London food board’s support of Capital Growth has helped to transform parts of London with over 2012 new community food growing spaces, turning often derelict plots of land into thriving gardens and providing a focus for community activity. Many of the UK’s fledgling partnerships are looking for ways to support new entrepreneurs, and, through them, revitalise local markets with unique and exciting food offerings which are increasingly in demand as part of the UK’s street food revolution. In areas where it is hard to access healthy affordable food, derelict shops are being considered for food co-ops.

But to be successful all these initiatives need co-operation. Even to identify that these opportunities exist needs local authorities to realise the power they have through offering peppercorn rents or meanwhile leases to groups that offer a social benefit; it needs environmental health collaborating with local catering colleges, property owners and cafes to help provide the missing step of flexible premises that the explosion in home-based catering businesses need to scale up; it needs that communication between councils, community groups and businesses to understand each others’ priorities and barriers.

The list of possibilities is endless, which, depending on how you view it, is either thrilling or overwhelming. To create meaningful change, and where these partnerships have really worked and not descended into talking shops, requires buy-in from across the board, a focused list of actions, and, perhaps most importantly, an understanding of where and when they can make a difference.

To find out how to get your area involved visit


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