Beyond the cost of living crisis

How can we get healthy food onto the table?

By Anna Cura

9th February 2022

A growing number of citizens have been forced to rely on emergency and charitable food aid over the years, and this demand has risen yet further during the pandemic and as the country faces a cost of living crisis. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the use of food banks and other emergency food aid was increasing significantly across the UK, and many more communities began to provide emergency food during the pandemic.

Though emergency food aid is helping people in need, its providers will be the first to tell you that it is not a long-term solution. In fact, the question of how to transition away from current food aid models towards a system that delivers healthy food to all is becoming all the more urgent.

Findings from our research into Big Local areas last year show that areas working on food activities already doubled during the pandemic. This echoes what is happening in communities across the UK, with community groups having to operate in unsustainable food systems and models. Our latest report, Hungry for Health, explores in further detail the potential for community-led solutions to food insecurity and analyses the underlying assumptions about the importance of price for those experiencing food poverty.

Read the full news story on Hungry for Health here

As the food crisis continues, and is exacerbated by a rise in cost of living and inflation, conversations around food affordability become a major concern for millions of families across the country. While simply looking at cost of food may seem like the simplest and quickest solution, tackling root causes and transforming food systems at scale beg the question: “what do people really want from food, particularly those already experiencing hardship?”

"People told us that what matters to them more is quality"

In partnership with Food in Community, Devon, we interviewed people experiencing household food insecurity, and it became clear that decision making around food is far more complex than successive governments and supermarket marketing teams sometimes claim. Affordability is an interplay between cost, value and budgets. It is a multidimensional concept that connects with people’s relationship with food, how food fits into their everyday lives, and what foods they value as part of their diets. People told us that what matters to them more is quality, therefore solutions to household food insecurity need to go beyond lowering cost of healthy food.

People told us about the gap between the food they want and the food they can get - download report

The long-term solutions people talk to us about suggest rebalancing the cost of food, making healthier and more sustainable options cheaper than unhealthy and unsustainable food. Then, it is about supporting and promoting the production and accessibility of high-quality food. And most importantly, it requires improved financial circumstances for citizens – with higher and more stable wages and benefits, more affordable housing and transport – more investment into small, agroecological food production systems, and a more level playing field between local, sustainable and ‘industrialised’ food producers.

Food in Community is piloting innovative approaches to food charity - read more

With the publication of the government’s Levelling Up paper last week, questions around inequality, lack of opportunities for communities around the UK, and the power of local action came back to the fore. But what does it mean in practice?

With food being so central to people’s lives, the report missed an opportunity for serious transformation. What could levelling up really look like if it took into account people’s experiences and difficulties around healthy diets, particularly in rural areas? References to empowering local leaders and communities, and restoring a sense of community have potential, and echo what people told us in Devon. What could our food systems look like when citizens are engaged in the design process? What actions do people take when they are able and supported to get involved?

"Community food organisations have a role to play, but they need political and financial heft"

Community food organisations have a role to play to connect and empower citizens, but they cannot act alone. They need the political and financial heft supplied by governments, trusts and foundations, businesses, and other institutions working alongside them.

What is already happening in areas where public funding and local authorities have worked alongside organisations embedded within communities, shows the potential when resources are brought together. When will the government’s public funding match the shared ambition for a levelled-up UK?

Anna Cura is Senior Researcher: Food & Health at the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Read bio and contact