From crisis to transformation

By Jane Campbell

1st July 2021

Today we are publishing Food Builds Community: From crisis to transformation, new research from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and Local Trust that shows how communities can create lasting change.

Conducted from December 2020 to March 2021, the research highlights how much we can learn from the communities’ work on food to help shape a new national food system and ensure a more sustainable food future. It sets out to understand what communities prioritise around food and what that means for food system transformation and community resilience.

The current food system operates at a high cost to nature, climate and health, but today’s report shows that many communities are already taking significant action and, with the right support and policies, local communities could be at the forefront of leading a transformation of our food system.

The Big Local communities featured in the report range from inner city urban neighbourhoods to remote rural villages. When given £1m to make resident-led change happen in their neighbourhoods, 143 of the 150 Big Local areas chose to work on food, or to use food to help bring their communities together.

We heard repeatedly about the important role that food plays in encouraging community engagement and participation, and in creating a positive community culture. When the pandemic hit, Big Local communities were able to switch gears entirely or step up their food provision in response to increasing food poverty and need for support. They were able to do this because of their existing structures, networks of volunteers and the links and trust they’ve built within their communities.

The research also reveals that the food work of Big Local partnerships is largely responding to challenges caused by the current food and broader policy systems – especially the emphasis on emergency food provision across Big Local areas. There is a huge opportunity for Big Local areas, and other similar communities, to use these networks and community relationships to change and improve their local food system rather than just responding to crises. Communities are stuck in a system where surplus or waste food is the least expensive way for them to meet immediate food needs of their residents. Not only is food waste damaging for the environment, this approach does not solve the problem or its underlying issues, and does not treat people with the dignity they deserve. Much of the food system (and housing, benefits, and development systems) lies beyond the control of community partnerships, which can lead to feeling trapped and unable to change things.

A new approach is needed, which puts power in the hands of communities and enables them to respond to their specific food needs while supporting a more equitable and sustainable food future. There is a clear role for government and funders to support communities in undertaking this work, and as we heard in this research, communities are keen to do so. The community leaders interviewed for this report had immensely creative and energetic ideas for a different food future in their community, and knowledge of the context they were working in.

The food system could look entirely different if communities, like those within Big Local, had the resources and power to enact their versions of our food future – and this is something that government, funders and others can help with. This food future would be possible if:

  • Communities were allocated the resources they need to make change but are not alone in making that change: For communities like Big Local areas to deepen the impact of their work on food, they need to be supported through policy frameworks and information that enables them to act – and there are issues like poverty which should not be falling to communities (and charities within them) to solve.
  • Communities were at the heart of our response to the climate crisis: food system strategies and plans would focus on helping communities to create healthy and agroecological food systems and to create shorter routes to market for food that is fair and fresh.
  • Every community across the UK could access land for community food projects and food growing: Communities need access to land not only to grow their own food or set up community spaces for sharing food, but to form strong connections and resilience.
  • Solutions to challenges in the food system were driven by relationships and connection: Focusing on relationships and connection and putting real decision-making power in the hands of communities will create new community-driven food systems with more flexibility and resilience. These would not be in competition with the ‘mainstream’ food system, but would be there to supplement it and meet needs not currently met by the food system.
  • Funders supported vital and vibrant community food systems: If we were to ask funders to imagine a better food future, the same question that we asked our Big Local participants, it is unlikely that they would answer with food banks and other emergency food provision. A good question for funders to consider is: what does a vital and vibrant food community look like, and how can your funding help support that?

Food, Farming and Countryside Commission’s Chief Executive, Sue Pritchard, says,

“In the UK, decades of policy have been designed to produce ever cheaper food. Yet over the last year, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief the extent to which communities are grappling with food poverty and the fact that community-led projects - like food banks - have often filled the gap.

“As we look forward to COP26, and the emphasis that the UK government has put on locally-led solutions, today’s report from FFCC, Food Builds Community, is an important insight into how food can bring communities together and, if nutritious, improve health outcomes. We need to learn from what local communities across the country are doing already and encourage governments to invest resources into locally-led solutions which can build local resilience and accelerate a transition plan for climate, nature and health.”

Local Trust’s Director of Partnerships, James Goodman, says,

"When communities have the resources, time and decision-making power to take action to improve the place where they live, food is clearly a priority. Whether it's growing it, cooking it, sharing it, or ensuring that people have enough of it. This research shows that food is at the heart of bringing communities together.

“But to achieve even more, we need to invest in the foundations of what makes communities work, such as residents’ skills and capacity, or places like community centres where people can come together and take action, then local communities will be able to play a major role in the shift to a more sustainable food system."

Download the report above, or follow the link below.