The power of place for lasting change

By Genevieve Agaba

6th August 2021

The National Food Strategy (NFS) makes it very clear, with the data to back it up, that the current food system is not working for everyone and needs a radical overhaul. FFCC’s Genevieve Agaba asks, is a national approach the only route to a fair and sustainable future?

“You live in a place, you understand that place and the lives of your neighbours … that lived experience enables you to have a view on what solutions are appropriate to the issues in your area.”

Bryony Boyle, Selby Big Local volunteer (from the FFCC Land Unlocked series)

An effective National Food Strategy needs to be capable of implementation through real - and rapid - action in every community across England. And, as Bryony Boyle from Selby Big Local points out in our recent Land Unlocked podcast, people face different contexts, challenges, and inequalities in different parts of the country. It’s a perennial challenge for policymakers. Increasingly it is recognised that these same people and communities also hold the very levers of change needed for action to take place. So how can government harness the power of communities to tackle the root causes of the food system problem and create lasting change?

For a start, there is a huge opportunity to learn from the 50 places across England that already have a local food strategy. Building on these experiences will help ensure the NFS recommendation for "Local Authorities […] to put in place a food strategy […] in partnership with the communities they serve” (p. 162) can be implemented swiftly and effectively.

We also know that food holds huge power to unite and provide a focal-point for community change-making, as FFCC’s recent research with Local Trust demonstrates. Many communities are already doing this, and, with the right support and policies, local communities could be at the forefront of leading a transformation of our food system.

Despite the best efforts of communities, food insecurity is still both prevalent, and unevenly distributed, across England. Different regions and locales will therefore need different, and differently targeted, levels of investment to tackle current inequalities and develop the structures needed for a more equitable future. Data alone cannot provide the basis for policy design here: the direct input of communities themselves is an essential tool. But what could this look like in practice? Access to land and the space to grow healthy fruit and veg; more local healthy food markets and box schemes; community education projects to develop cooking skills; share and repair schemes for cooking kit; planning decisions based on making sure every high street is healthy and welcoming. We need to be thinking creatively, strategically, and long term. Collaborative place-making initiatives are key to communities becoming more resilient and adaptable for a range of potential and uncertain futures. Community food planning isn’t just about implementing national strategies, it is about revitalising places and the people in them.

Food is something that unites us all; a healthy food system reaches across so many interconnected aspects of our daily lives. A National Food Strategy calls for a holistic, place-based approach, requiring thinking across sectors, implementing at different scales through partnerships, and resourcing in a way that is appropriate to context, to ensure no-one is left behind. Making food strategies an obligation and supporting initiatives that are already happening, like the Sustainable Food Places movement.

“Local people understand the problems and solutions - but they also see things in a different way to remote agencies like government, which have a tendency to silo issues as environment or social etc, but when you live the reality you see how everything is interconnected, you get a much more holistic way of working.”

James Goodman, Local Trust (from the FFCC Land Unlocked series)

And yet place-based policy alone is not enough. Making changes at a local level needs to be combined with a wider system shift, beyond administrative boundaries. There are lessons to be learnt from the devolved nations and vice versa. Scotland is committed to becoming a Good Food Nation, and the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme is being successfully utilised as a mechanism to drive positive change in the school meals sector and local supply chains, with full backing from the Scottish Government. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in Wales forms the basis of a long-term approach to changing systems for the better, recognising the importance of local communities in driving this forward. Northern Ireland is delivering on A Fitter Future for All and is working on a Food Strategy Framework. A recent report by the Food Research Collaboration questions whether the NFS should be for England alone or a UK approach (not necessarily led by Westminster) would be more appropriate given the complexity and cross-border flows of people and businesses.

Implementing a National Food Strategy, in places with different environmental, socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts, will need organisations and individuals from across government, business, and civil society to harness the power of local communities. As the Government shapes its White Paper, we urge policymakers to seek out robust conversations with place-makers and to support greater investment in place-based actions, to ensure the Strategy leads to real, lasting change.

This short paper is part of Healthy food is everyone's business - a series exploring and developing the ideas in the National Food Strategy, and discussing what needs to happen now.

The National Food Strategy is a rigorously researched, eloquently written and passionate call to action. As the dust settles, it’s time for serious conversation about how we work together to take the eminently achievable recommendations in the Strategy into the promised White Paper. They are the first steps on the route to a different future for food, farming and land use, improving the public’s health, reducing inequalities and acting on the nature and climate crises.

This is a critical moment. It’s both deadly serious - we have just 9 growing seasons left until 2030 - and hopeful, as we see a growing consensus forming around a route to a better future. When we published Our Future in the Land in 2019, which shares the same analysis and many recommendations as Henry’s Strategy, that consensus was not so clear.

It’s time to let governments know we want them to be bold, radical and practical, to create the conditions for business and citizens to work together to get this done.