Serving up a food strategy

04 September 2023

Amid the current cost of living crisis – exacerbated by Brexit, the war in Ukraine and the ever-present threat of climate change – it is difficult to ignore the fragility of our food system. Widening inequalities in accessing nutritious and affordable food are affecting communities across the UK.

The Food Foundation’s 2023 Broken Plate report revealed the most deprived fifth of the population would need to spend 50% of their disposable income on food to meet the cost of the Government-recommended diet. This compares with just 11% for the least deprived fifth (ie the wealthiest). Healthy food is also less available: in England, one in four places on the high street are fast food outlets.

In the absence of national Government action, local authorities are starting to play a more prominent role in shaping healthier and more sustainable food systems. In addition to recognising the environmental benefits of sustainable food production, councils are aligning action on food with their social value objectives around good jobs and local investment as well as reduction in health inequalities.

But even at a local level, change is slow. In many instances councils do not have dedicated capacity or strong enough leadership to drive the food agenda in a co-ordinated way, avoid working in silos and truly embrace a systems-approach to food transformation.

Being tied into long-term procurement or advertising contracts creates barriers, as well as exacerbating the struggles recruiting into key roles in teams like environmental health.

The more risk-averse approach to policy change in some areas is being driven by the fear of losing revenue or increases in costs. For example, introducing a new procurement system like dynamic purchasing needs investment in new technology and economies of scale which councils may not be willing to risk without well-tested models being in place in other localities.

Nevertheless, there are trailblazing councils who are taking bold action and have strong senior leadership that recognises the important role of council strategy and policy in shaping how the food system operates, both within the immediate area and surrounding region.

Food Foundation works closely with Birmingham City Council. It has a permanent food systems team in its public health department and works across a broad spectrum of food issues, including sourcing, production, economy and employment, skills and knowledge, food waste and recycling, and food safety and standards.

This holistic systems approach accelerates work across the council, ensures longevity that can withstand internal organisational change and continuously adapts to directly reflect council priorities.

Bristol, a Gold Sustainable Food Place, has taken a One City place-based approach to develop its food equality strategy, where partners across the city (including Bristol City Council) take ownership of delivery, development, and evaluation. One priority is to expand the growing capacity within the city to make it more accessible and equitable for people from all communities and backgrounds.

By mapping potential on the city’s Grade One growing land, they hope to create more small-scale farms within the city where fruit and vegetables can be grown utilising agro-ecological methods. More nutritious food will be produced in a way beneficial to wildlife, will be more affordable and can be accessed locally, making Bristol more food secure.

In February, the Mayor of London announced that from September, the Greater London Authority will fund all state primary schools in London to offer free school meals to every child for a year.

Before 2023, no English local authorities outside London had provided universal free school meals for all primary school children – but pilots and initiatives are now launching to respond to needs in different parts of the country demonstrating that investment in school meals creates better social, financial and health outcomes.

Planning and licensing is another set of levers local authorities have at their disposal for creating healthier food environments.

For example, Brighton and Hove, another Gold Sustainable Food Place, has a specific Planning Advice Note on Food Growing and Development in urban settings.

This tool has been successful in conversations with developers to incorporate food growing in the city’s new developments. In London, alongside Transport for London, five borough councils – Greenwich, Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Southwark and Merton – have successfully implemented restrictions on advertising of food containing high fat, sugar and salt across council estates to help improve the long-term health and wellbeing of communities and reduce childhood obesity.

In Scotland, East Ayrshire has adopted a new local procurement strategy to improve the quality of school food, championing the use of local suppliers for school meals to stimulate economic growth.

While many local suppliers initially found it difficult to navigate the complexities of public procurement contracts, with the right support and guidance from the council, SME participation has gone up.

East Ayrshire has adapted by diversifying its income streams through hospitality and events and has seen positive social return on investment.

In Wales, Monmouthshire – a rural county with many food producers – is also exploring new procurement practices, like dynamic purchasing, to create easier access to regional public food supply chains for local food suppliers.

Even though the initial feasibility study across the Marches region didn’t justify a business case for dynamic purchasing, councils learned valuable lessons that will aid future innovations.

More local authorities are recognising the opportunities for achieving better environmental, social and health outcomes by acting on food.

Faced with many funding pressures, it is important they continue to work closely in partnership with community organisations and other anchor institutions as well as the private sector to help with action, prioritisation and delivery.

Dealing with food system transformation is no mean feat, especially without national leadership. But local authorities already have powers and levers to support this endeavour when it comes to procurement, planning and local food production. To achieve this, dedicated funding and resources to work on healthy and sustainable food is an essential first step in place-based food system transformation.

Leticija Petrovic is city food policy lead at the Food Foundation

Case Study: Birmingham City Council

Birmingham is England’s second-largest city and Europe’s largest local authority, with a hugely diverse population, so the potential impact of local action on food cannot be understated.

The city faces challenges, including high deprivation levels and disparities in diets and health. One in four children are obese by the time they leave primary school. Birmingham is committed to addressing the obesity crisis, establishing a specific team to drive the food transformation agenda, spearheaded by the director of public health. Political leadership has also helped increase visibility and commitment to food work, both internationally and locally.

The city is one of only six in the UK to join the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact – an international partnership for action on creating a healthy food environment in cities and towns. In summer 2022, it hosted a Commonwealth Food Futures conference as part of Food Cities Partnership, supporting cities to develop and implement city-led food policies and action plans, focusing on low to middle income countries in the Commonwealth.

Now it is time to develop a UK Urban Food Forum to help local authorities nationally to support them in their city’s food transformation journey.

In Birmingham, that journey started in 2018. The Birmingham Food Conversation shared experiences of 400 residents from the city’s diverse communities, captured through 33 focus groups.

The Creating a Healthy Food City Forum, established in 2019, has played a key role in building the council’s capacity on food and making sure a whole-system approach has been applied to understanding the food landscape of the city.

The vision of the Birmingham Food System strategy is to create a fair, sustainable and prosperous food city, where food options are nutritious, affordable and desirable so everyone can thrive. The council has 10 workstreams covering the whole food system, with a dedicated lead to support with mobilisation and development of action plans for each workstream.

The food team works cross-departmentally with colleagues, including the commercial, waste, procurement and tourism teams. It is also developing food policies across climate change, net zero and nature teams and creating a new catering and food procurement strategy. A range of partners – such as schools, universities, food producers, dietitians and food system experts – have helped create the strategy and are now working to implement it.

It is a roadmap all of Birmingham owns and is committed to driving forward. The development of the Big Bold City Tool and the Food Action Decision-Making and Prioritisation (FADMaP) tool helps capture and measure progress against our objectives and goals.

To celebrate the launch of the Birmingham Food Revolution in 2023, the city ran the Birmingham Food Legends Fund subsidy scheme. Grants of £5,000 were made available to kickstart new projects or continue the good work of existing projects in line with the food strategy’s vision.

Underpinning all the work is a pledge to Food Justice, which is closely tied to the Birmingham Food Revolution movement. This advocates for sustainable, equitable access to healthy food for all residents in a significant policy move that puts Birmingham at the forefront of tackling food insecurity at a political level. Through the pledge, the city amplifies its commitment to revolutionise its food systems and calls upon other cities to join this global movement.

Overall, Birmingham’s multi-dimensional approach not only addresses the immediate concerns surrounding food insecurity, but also serves as a blueprint for incorporating food justice into broader city planning and action, while its dedicated food systems team increases cohesion both horizontally, across the council, and vertically.

The city is committed to the mantra: ‘Be Bold, Be Birmingham’ and will lead the way nationally and internationally as it reregenerates its food system.

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