Beyond hand outs to solving food poverty

The food partnership innovating in the face of crisis for a sustainable future

16th March 2022

“Sustainable food has a central place in Cambridge.

We visited Sam Dyer to find out how Cambridge Sustainable Food (CSF) is creating a sustainable, local food system in the city of Cambridge. Sam is the CEO of CSF and a Director of CSF CIC (the not-for-profit company which implements the projects recommended by the CSF Partnership Board). CSF CIC also collaborates with Cambridge Food Poverty Alliance and the Think Communities team at Cambridgeshire County Council (more about these organisations below).

Sam Dyer at Cambridge Sustainable Food

Sam explains, “CSF CIC works to raise awareness and campaigns for good food for all. In the past two years, and in particular during the pandemic, we’ve been addressing food poverty and access to healthy food. But fundamentally we are promoting a vibrant sustainable food system in the city, which entails working on all the 6 key issues.’’ Sam is the first to admit that this makes the work varied and challenging; “This morning I’m distributing surplus food, one of my colleagues is running seminars on carbon reduction for local businesses, another is talking to local residents about growing food.“

“We are looking to shift the narrative away from equating food waste or surplus food with solving food poverty.

Before the partnership came into being, there was a ‘food scene’ in Cambridge but little at the strategic level and that’s what makes this such an inspiring and unique programme. Sam’s inspiration also comes from the smaller success stories, “watching people discover how to chop onions for the first time” or "seeing the fabulous produce from the local community farm CoFarm reach those people who are food insecure.” Now, CSF is raising awareness around what a healthy climate diet looks like and the link between the food system and greenhouse gas emissions. Sam thinks, “anybody that holds up a vegetable and asks, ‘what is this?’ - be that an aubergine or pumpkin – shows engagement and a real interest in where food is coming from. More excitingly though, there is then the opportunity to make the links with other projects in the City be that a cookery session run by Red Hen Project or to go along to CoFarm and learn about how food is grown.” It is these links and partnerships that Sam is interested in exploring and promoting.

In June 2021, CSF achieved a Silver Award from Sustainable Food Places and are now starting their journey to a Gold Award. “The award system asks that you fulfil three criteria - continued and demonstrable work across the 6 key issues, embeddedness in policy and practice and two key areas of excellence in your city. The CSF partnership has chosen those two areas of excellence to be climate and biodiversity and then food justice and building resilience in the food system.” Sam points out this can be difficult to separate into different areas because a sustainable, local food system interlinks and overlaps and “requires a holistic approach.” On the journey to becoming a Gold Standard City, CSF is seeking an academic partner for the climate area of the award. “We’d like to be able to identify some simple indicators for the city that are measurable as we would like to be able to demonstrate this way of working makes a difference. Going for Gold is about a whole City approach and that means organisations, residents, community groups and the public sector are all behind making Cambridge a Sustainable Food System.”

“How do residents get involved in growing food?

CSF are particularly keen to make sure food is embedded in strategies and action plans across the city. “In terms of food justice we are starting to ask how we can think differently and shift the narrative away from equating food waste with solving food poverty, or simply handing out boxes of food to a deeper and more participatory engagement in the food system. We want to explore how people are able to have agency in the food system. With the best will in the world, much of the surplus coming in is foodstuffs about to go out of date or that nobody’s bought in the shops.” Whilst giving out surplus food is necessary at present, it’s sticking a plaster on a deeper problem. ”Instead, our vision is of a City where everyone is able to access a sustainable, affordable and healthy diet and where those most in need are able to access opportunities to participate and make a difference. How do residents get involved in growing food? How do we make sure people who need healthy food engage in the food system?” Engagement, whether that be growing, buying or cooking, can mean low-income families are not reliant on charitable handouts or the cheapest food available in the supermarkets. ”We want to see that those voices not normally heard are able to influence strategic outcomes through policy change or otherwise.”

Sam Dyer at Cambridge Sustainable Food

Sam thinks that the Food Hubs set up during the pandemic may hold the key and opportunity for exploring some of these interconnected local issues through a Good Food Neighbourhood model. Sam also points out that it’s not just access to food that people find beneficial but many people who attend them feel that food hubs alleviate their loneliness and isolation, as well as provide a place where they can find out information. Sam says, “Hubs are run and organised by the local communities they serve and have a slightly different model in each area, many are keen to develop the hubs into a more participatory community model, for example though growing spaces, community meals, cookery workshops and at the same time, form a centre where people can access information, be that on breastfeeding or access to benefits, and ultimately build a community around food.” Local food hubs are a particularly important resource because “those local communities are the ones that know the people.” Building upon this model is key to making sure healthy food reaches the people that need it most.

“Hubs are run by the local communities they serve, which means they know the people.

Sam recognises the valuable work that is happening but thinks local organisations and local authorities are under-resourced and under-supported in work around sustainable food. She explains, “Unless sustainable food is written into some sort of government strategy which means local authorities are able to act, it's very difficult for people to grasp that food is a huge part of the climate emergency and global emissions.” As such, CSF welcomes the National Food Strategy’s call for each local authority to have a food strategy and action plan at the heart of what they do. Yet at present, a “lack of funding holds local authorities back and shows a lack of support from government.”

“Unless sustainable food is written into some sort of government strategy it's very difficult for people to grasp that food is a huge part of the climate emergency.”

There are always “challenges around funding and capacity” but Sam thinks the primary challenge is “peeling back the layers to uncover how food gets into the city, where it’s coming from, and then how everyone is able to afford a healthy and sustainable diet.” For the city to become more sustainable, it’s important to shine a light on the links between Cambridge’s procurement of food and where food is produced, especially through links with local growers and producers, with the goal of making supply chains shorter, reducing emissions and allowing fair access for all. Sam suspects opportunities for the future will become apparent as the City moves through the Sustainable Food Places journey to Gold, and she thinks that “maintaining the positive things we gained from the pandemic - this vibrant and engaged community response” is critical for a move towards a more sustainable and fair food system.

The Cambridge Sustainable Food Partnership Board (CSFPB) is an established and innovative partnership of public, private and community organisations in Cambridge and the surrounding villages. The partnership, established in 2015, is part of the Sustainable Food Places (SFP) programme run by SUSTAIN and the Soil Association and works to promote and achieve work across six key issues:

  1. Promoting healthy and sustainable food to the public
  2. Tackling food insecurity, diet-related ill health and access to affordable, healthy food
  3. Building community food knowledge, skills, resources and projects
  4. Promoting a vibrant and diverse sustainable food economy
  5. Transforming catering and food procurement
  6. Reducing waste and the ecological footprint of the food system

The partnership was awarded a SFP Silver Award in 2021, one of only 6 other cities to achieve this award, and work has now started on Cambridge becoming a Gold Standard City. See the action plan 2021 - 24 here and the Going for Gold application here.

Cambridge Food Poverty Alliance

The Cambridge Food Poverty Alliance (CFPA), formed in October 2017, aims to work together strategically and collaboratively to alleviate food poverty in the city. The Alliance includes over 27 organisations who act as members of the Alliance and are drawn from the voluntary sector, local authority, food banks and community groups. The Alliance was formed to promote an upstream and coordinated approach to food poverty in the city, to consult with users of relevant services as well as those organisations providing services, to share resources, best practice and information locally, and to develop a Collaborative Food Action Plan which would provide an evidence-based joined-up approach to food poverty in the city.

Role of Cambridge Sustainable Food CIC

For the first five years (2013- 2018) the work and administration of the partnership was undertaken as an unincorporated partnership/community organisation. However, due to the growing success and activity of this, Cambridge Sustainable Food CIC was set up (2018) to act as the backbone delivery and lead organisation for the partnership. Both the CIC and the partnership are closely aligned to the SFP programme.

The CIC also administers and leads on the work of the Cambridge Food Poverty Alliance (CFPA). The CFPA is represented on the CSFPB by Cambridge City Foodbank and the Cambridge Ethnic Community Forum. CSF CIC is also working to facilitate this model of working alongside the Think Communities team at Cambridgeshire County Council.

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.