The future of food is already here

Five collective actions funders and government can take to put it firmly in our grasp

By Anna Cura

22nd March 2022

Surrounded by headlines that talk of weaponizing food and the cost-of-living crisis, there is every temptation to respond to the UK’s growing needs with quick fixes. It’s understandable - but in the focus on putting food on tables, are we missing a chance to rethink the food system for a better future? Is it possible instead to tackle hunger and hardship with solutions that also make healthy, sustainable food more easily available for all? Thanks to the innovative work of food charities across the UK, the seed of a better future is already here - with answers for both the current crisis, and our long-term prosperity.

One thing we can be sure of is that this need is urgent. New analysis suggests that by April 2022, nearly half of all UK children will be living in families that will struggle to put food on the table. Alongside this, the use of food banks and other emergency food aid continues to increase significantly across the UK. Though emergency food aid is helping people right now, there is a growing risk that a focus on food aid alone fails to engage with the reasons why hunger and hardship has become embedded in our current food system, and may miss critical opportunities to build a fairer, more sustainable future.

Increasingly, in my work at FFCC, I am seeing trusts and foundations that fund food charities and support communities shift their approach to focus on the bigger picture. Food charities like Food in Community are using bold, courageous and imaginative solutions to tackle the crisis at hand whilst also building a fairer, more secure and sustainable food system. Even in the face of increasing food insecurity, they show how nutritious and sustainable food for all is possible. It’s a radical and hopeful ambition, one that is getting me through the morning news.

Local Trust and FFCC brought together a small cohort of people from funding organisations and involved in local food systems to explore investing in community food systems as part of the transition away from emergency food aid. We discussed how food charities could marry the current need for food with the ambition of creating a world where emergency food aid is no longer needed, and how UK nations ensure this ambition does not waver in these volatile times. We proposed five criteria that could put this future firmly within our grasp.

1. “Pot noodles are not enough”: focus on high quality nutritious food

A common thread among most funders is a desire to shift focus towards high quality nutritious food regardless of context. Our Hungry for Health report shows that citizens want high quality food – fresh, tasty, nutritious, sustainable. Whether food comes from a food bank or a community food hub, focusing on quality opens up dialogue around where food comes from and responds to what citizens want and deserve regardless of their economic situation. It also opens dialogue between communities and public health bodies, as community food systems can be part of the solution to a range of health issues local governments are also trying to tackle.

2. More than meals delivered: recognise the impact of sustainable food for multiple outcomes

From social justice and health to environment and climate, organisations across sectors are working together and recognising what can be achieved by working through food. Food can be the pathway to many benefits. . For funders and local governments it opens the door to collaborate across different agendas and to co-fund communities. To be effective, it is crucial that the voice of communities on the ground are directly represented in these conversations, and that government departments look beyond their policy silos.

3. Food builds communities: support the shift towards community wealth building

Multiple benefits arise when communities can set their own agenda and priorities, with food being one key asset amongst many. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has driven a rise in demand for emergency food aid funding support, the scale and speed of response needed accelerated a shift towards more community engagement and participation, shown by our Food Builds Community research, carried out with Local Trust. Trusts and foundations are responding in turn by focusing on community-led agenda setting, longer-term place-based partnerships and core funding.

Government is also making positive moves in support of community wealth building. The Levelling Up White Paper acknowledges the need for social infrastructure, and the importance of places and relationships, as does the Dormant Asset Bill. However, bold action and adequate resourcing is needed, along with effective social security services, good quality work and affordable homes.

4. Tackling crises and building a better future are not mutually exclusive activities

Running through these conversations was a common thread. Food charities, funders and government can tackle hunger and hardship and meet other challenges, if emergency food aid is harnessed as the first step to mobilise resources and networks towards more sustainable models. Through the current emergency responses, resources and finances can be directed towards new infrastructures that are fit for the future. Food Ladders, a multi-scaled approach to everyday food security and community resilience illustrates this, with food activities ranging from catching those in crisis to enabling self-organisation and agency within communities.

5. Build with what you’ve got: it has the potential to be transformative

Food charities and funders are clear: new tools are not what is needed; redefining how to use existing ones can be equally powerful for change. Food banks, food hubs and community cafes, community pantries and fridges, social supermarkets, food vouchers, food parcels - no matter what platform used, each holds the opportunity to be transformative. FreshStreet, for example, uses place-based food vouchers to encourage local residents to buy from local businesses and markets. While food vouchers have been in use for a while, this approach has been adapted for more – similar to our call for a Beetroot Bond. What these initiatives have in common is their ability to meet immediate needs while creating alternative infrastructures, be it social (bringing people together), physical (creating new shared spaces) or economic (shifting financial flows within a community).

Together, these five innovative approaches to tackling hunger and hardship form part of a broad pathway for funders and government, aligning policy and investment to co-create the foundation and infrastructure of a better future. As more food charities shift to this approach, we can expect to see public opinion, and political will, align too. The future of food is indeed here now – in the radical and practical actions in our communities.

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

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