Improving access to sustainable food

  • 22.11.2023
  • article
  • Food Education
  • Food Security
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • Dr Celia Plender

A just transition to sustainable farming means giving everyone the opportunity to be part of a more sustainable food system. But with over a million people in the UK currently struggling to find healthy food, it’s clear that there are barriers preventing many of us from accessing nourishing, sustainably produced food. In this article, we hear from Dr Celia Plender who considers how asking the right questions is essential in giving more people access to good food and highlights some inspiring projects that are already achieving this.

Throughout my time working with community food projects, one issue that has come up time and again is the accessibility of healthy, sustainable food, especially for people on low incomes.

While food insecurity in Britain is not a new issue, it is rapidly growing – there are now 14 million people in the UK who are food insecure. Many households are also feeling increasingly pressed by the rising cost of food, often struggling to afford even the most basic ingredients, let alone produce with good environmental values. Over a million people in Britain also find accessing healthy food difficult – this is due to a range of issues from the absence of stores that sell healthy foods in poorer areas to difficulty with transport and getting food home, even when stores are local, especially for the elderly and disabled.

Ensuring that everyone has access to nourishing, climate friendly foods is a big concern for many of the growers, producers, retailers and distributors that I meet, but it can be challenging to successfully work on social, environmental and economic issues within a busy project. Understandably, decisions are made about what to prioritise with their limited time and resources.

Devon Community Foundation Food for Thought Project
Devon Community Foundation Food for Thought Project


Asking the right questions

As I explore with my students on the Masters in Food Studies at the University of Exeter, there are many barriers to making healthy, sustainably produced foods more accessible. Price is often the most obvious one due to the increased time and labour that can be needed within more ecologically sound farming systems (as well as the need to pay workers fairly). There are also questions about what kinds of foods are typically on offer in sustainable food projects. Whose tastes do they conform to? And who feels comfortable entering into the kinds of spaces where sustainable foods are typically sold?

These conversations can feel disheartening to students at times as they come to terms with just how complex these issues are. There are also moments of hope, however, as we discuss projects that we know or have worked with that are finding proactive ways to bring food access and sustainability together. Researchers in this space typically call for greater ‘reflexivity’, i.e., thinking carefully about who is setting the agenda around how to live or eat sustainably, who is getting left out and what the consequences of this might be. The aim is to move away from one perfectionist vision of sustainable practices designed by those with the loudest voices towards multiple visions that take the needs and interests of a wider and more diverse group of people into account.

Inspiration through collaboration

This is a message I try to keep in mind within my own work. Since 2020, I’ve been hosting workshops that bring together food practitioners (growers, retailers, distributors), academics, funders and policymakers to reflect on the challenges as well as practical approaches to bridging the gap between access and sustainability. I run these in collaboration with practitioners from a range of organisations and projects including St Sidwell’s Community Centre in Exeter, UK, which runs many food-based projects for the local community, and the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming in the US, which has a project that facilitates partnerships between farmers and hunger relief projects. More recently, I have also been collaborating with Devon Community Foundation who have been connecting North Devon producers with rural residents dealing with food insecurity as part of a Young Foundation funded project called Food for Thought.

In the workshops, we have reflected on how we understand good food access, coming up with the definition of ‘stable and dignified access to sufficient quantities of affordable, healthy, sustainable, equitably produced and culturally appropriate food for all that meets personal needs and preferences.’ We have also discussed what constitutes sustainable food, building on the work of Sustain to take into account local economies and livelihoods, the protection of plants, animals and planet and the provision of social benefits (see Sustain’s definition here, and for more about a holistic approach to farm sustainability take a look at the Global Farm Metric).

St Sidwell's Community Centre Garden
St Sidwell’s Community Centre Garden


Identifying and overcoming barriers

Inevitably, many barriers to accessing healthy food have been identified. These take into account issues ranging from price and the challenges of cooking potentially unfamiliar foods to the scarcity of funding or the complex logistics of food distribution. Suggestions have also been made for resources that food projects would find useful, such as evaluation tools to keep projects on track with their aims around more equitable access to sustainable food. Such resources could also help assess who a project is for, who is speaking for the project users and how different stakeholders are being brought into the conversation.

Despite the many barriers, at every stage of this project I have been met with passion and commitments by those involved, seeking to find ways of furthering access to sustainable food and identifying practical means of improving policy. I have also seen powerful examples of people working closely with the local community, asking what they want and what they need, resulting in farmers growing specific crops for local, ethnic minority groups in upstate New York as part of Glynwood’s Food Sovereignty Fund project, or community growing networks preparing ready meals and ingredient kits for food insecure families in East London during the pandemic, to give just a couple of examples.

While my work in this area is still ongoing, the long-term aim is to produce a toolkit of resources and practical case studies. We also hope to offer some policy insights in acknowledgement of the fact that changes are needed at multiple levels. In the spirit of reflexivity, many different voices, experiences and insights will continue to go into shaping these resources.

Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming Food Sovereignty Fund Project
Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming Food Sovereignty Fund Project
(photo by Jennifer Young)


Building momentum

As we face the current cost of living crisis and heighted concern around the climate emergency, I am heartened to see that there seems to be increasing momentum around the issue of how to achieve a just transition towards a healthy, sustainable and equitable food system. This includes projects such as Bridging the Gap, which look at making climate friendly foods more accessible to people on lower incomes through pilot projects across the four nations of the UK; or Just FACT, which looks at equal access to sustainable food in Tower Hamlets, a London borough which has a long history of deprivation and nutritional health issues; or the Sustainable Food Trust’s work on true cost accounting which aims to highlight the many hidden costs of food production that are being paid for by the public.

Embracing the unique qualities of different communities enables us to better understand who it is that we need to bring together and how we can most effectively do so. I feel hopeful that by researchers and projects adopting a reflexive approach – one that acknowledges the significance of context and of including multiple voices in decision making processes – we can ensure that local needs and concerns are captured in our work to shape policy and practice, giving more people the opportunity to source healthy and sustainable foods.

What is healthy, sustainable food? For more information on the Sustainable Food Trust’s vision of how we can eat more sustainably, check out our report, Feeding Britain from the Ground Up.

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