How to make a healthy, sustainable diet accessible and affordable for everyone?
Authors: Dr Nadina Luca (Lecturer in Marketing, University of York); Marsha Smith (PhD candidate, Coventry University); Prof Sally Hibbert (Professor of Marketing and Co-Dean Nottingham University Business School, University of Nottingham); Professor Bob Doherty (Chair in Marketing and Agrifood, University of York, and Senior Policy Fellow in DEFRA Systems Programme team - Chief Scientists Office).
This is a response to the request for evidence on the role of community-based food initiatives, run by civil society organisations in responding to hunger and promoting health and well-being in local populations. Other areas of interest in the call for evidence brief such as question 4 (i.e. the role of local authorities in promoting healthy eating) are addressed only peripherally. We address this question by focusing upon ‘social eating’, specific type of community-based food projects that provides opportunities for people to eat together in local spaces using surplus food to create a meal that is fresh, affordable and environmentally friendly. Projects operating on a social eating model have the potential to address certain limitations of food charity (i.e. food banks), such as insufficient food, inadequate nutritional quality, stigma and marginalisation (Lambie-Mumford and Dowler, 2015; Power et al. 2017). Our response is informed by our research that examined social eating projects and their role for community development and well-being. Progress in accepting the link between health and socio-economic conditions has contributed to a shift in focus from health, defined as the absence of illness, to well-being. We examined how food consumption is experienced in community settings and the role of social eating projects in addressing key dimensions of food well-being beyond nutritional health (e.g. food availability, food socialisation and literacy) (Block et al., 2011). We draw upon a literature review (both peer reviewed and grey sources), mapping meetings with four community groups (volunteers and coordinators of these initiatives) and 45 interviews with members of the public as service users and volunteers at three sites in the Midlands Region. The names of the participants have been changed to protect anonymity.
1.1 Think tanks and grass roots organisations (e.g., The Food Foundation, The Fabian Society, The People’s Food Policy) that have campaigned for action on food insecurity have highlighted the need for sustainable food systems such that everybody has access to good food while benefitting, or at least not compromising, well-being and the natural environment. Campaigners are keen to emphasise that social policy cannot rely on civil society to ‘solve’ the problem, but they recognise that community-based initiatives deliver significant benefits and can be part of the policy response at local authorities. For example, Derbyshire County Council invested in a three-year programme of community-based food initiatives in partnership with FareShare (a surplus redistribution charity), local food banks, Churches, schools, social eating initiatives and community groups to address local food insecurity as part of the Feeding Derbyshire pilot.
1.2 Nottingham City Council invested in a pilot and a year-one holiday meal provision programme in partnership with FareShare, Nottingham Good Food Partnership and local community initiatives. Emerging studies highlight the role of holiday clubs in reducing food insecurity among children in the UK (Long et al. 2018). In Nottingham, the City council also invested in supporting partnerships between FareShare and the local social eating network, a social supermarket and various hyper-local surplus food distribution schemes. Social eating initiatives in Nottingham for example have formed partnerships with local Police and Fire services to utilise under-used catering kitchen spaces in return for healthy and freshly-cooked meals being available to staff.
1.3 These partnerships have enabled some groups to subsidise cheaper meals in community settings and have strengthened local service links out into communities through partnering with these social eating ‘anchor’ organisations. They demonstrate that local ‘anchor’ organisations require funding support from local authorities whilst local authorities require contacts and networks within communities to establish and deliver community food initiatives. However, funding precarity, the variability of surplus food quantity and quality, infrastructural issues around food safety compliance, food storage, waste recycling and issues around minimising stigma around access were all raised as issues which effect the successful delivery of community food partnerships.
2.1 In the UK, community-based initiatives such as kitchens and cafés who use surplus food (i.e. food deemed surplus to commercial requirements by supermarkets and/or the food industry) provide an integrated model for recovering and using surplus food, localizing food and providing spaces of interaction that can address food insecurity, support health, well-being and social capital (Midgley, 2014). Generally, these social eating projects use surplus food distributed by FareShare (or other organisations including supermarkets directly) and local volunteers to cook and provide nutritious meals in a community venue for a suggested donation of, for example, £2.50 per three course meal for adults; children eat for free. The meal is generally offered once a week in venues such as children’s centres, community centres and churches.
2.2 Our findings show that these initiatives serve people from various socio-economic backgrounds. Service users include older people, people who live on their own, single mothers with their children (especially during school holidays), jobseekers, people who had their benefits removed or significantly changed (e.g. Universal Credit changes), people who work but cannot cover their expanses (e.g. one of the partners may be on maternity leave etc.), asylum seekers, people who have recently moved to the area, people with mental health conditions and other members of the community who simply appreciate the good value food and the community spirit of these spaces. In Nottingham city for example, social eating initiatives are feeding an estimated 800 people per week as public, shared mealtimes, increasing participation over the school holidays as holiday meal provisions are added on to services. Social eating initiatives in the city are now well-established with most groups running from between nine and three years, forming part of the structure and rhythm of participants’ weekly lives.
2.3 These projects provide a unique opportunity for people to access a home-made nutritious meal once a week. Service users and volunteers often characteriste the local food culture as fast-food and takeways dominated with limited access to fruit and vegeatables. Having access to an allotment was invoked as a reliable source of good food. Social eating spaces are seen as special places that provide ‘fine-dining’ experiences but also emergency cooked meals to those who run out of food banks supplies and cannot cope: “Very friendly. Nice food! The food's absolutely excellent when you start thinking about it. […] We've had steak, it's beautiful. […] It's just nice food and it's nicely cooked. No complaints about the food here at all. It's nice, and you can help yourself to a little bit of vegetables, too.” (Jamie, service user). They offer a welcoming and friendly environment and meal choices (e.g. vegetarian options, take-away; gluten-free etc.) that cater to different needs.
2.4 Our review of grey literature and empirical data indicate that there are tensions around access to, and the availability of, surplus foods. Community groups show resilience and creativity in making the most of the surplus received. However, issues around access, collection-times, storage and short-date and food-suitability remain a challenge to the use of surpluses. The positives around saving beneficiaries money, which can be redeployed for other essential service costs and improved access to higher-value foodstuffs, are contrasted with the haphazard nature of surplus food streams which can mean recipients have to take foodstuffs they do not want or need, or get insufficient or overabundant volumes of foodstuffs. “…some of the stuff is just, what on Earth is that? […] I think we had 14 tubs of spring onions once, it's like, brilliant, where are they going? […] I think it needs adjusting slightly to the needs rather than to what they've got.” (Laura, volunteer)
3.1 Food socialisation and literacy are key dimensions of well-being. Food insecurity is linked to food literacy (e.g. people do not want to take any risks and will choose foods they are familiar with) influencing eating practices and diet (people may have to compromise on choice, nutrition and pleasure in their food purchasing behaviours) (Bublitz et al. 2019; Garthwaite et al. 2015; Kneafsey et al., 2017; Manni et al. 2013; Viswanathan et al. 2009). “You always want the best for your children, and you want them to try new things and you want them to be able to say, 'Well I like this fruit', or 'Actually, I don't eat fruit because mummy can't afford it'. So, I always want to let her [her child] try new things and to be into foods…” (Sandy, service user)
3.2 Our research shows that many service users and volunteers do not pay much attention to labels and nutritional facts but in these social eating spaces they learn about new food and new ingredients. The meals offered in these spaces expose people to foods they have never tried before. In addition to knowledge about food and new ingredients, they also increase awareness of food waste and support the development of skills and motivation through cooking classes and the participatory culture which facilitates service users’ involvement in food related activities: “Coriander, I'd never, never had that. Spinach, hadn't had that before. I forgot what's it called. [Butternut squash]. There's quite a lot of stuff that I've never had before that I've tried while I've been here and enjoyed it, and it's ended up in the cupboard now! In the fridge.” (Bella, service user).
4.1 These initiatives are not solely about food. They facilitate community belonging and combat loneliness by emphasising the commensurate qualities of food. Such projects go beyond addressing hunger to enabling socialising spaces and creating opportunities for making a contribution. “I normally always put my change in. Odd occasions, all depending how much I've got, I put a bit extra in, so I feel then that, at least I have contributed to what they're doing.” (Bella, service user)
4.2 Beyond addressing hunger, these cafes act as social hubs in tackling social isolation which is linked to food insecurity (Blake, 2019) and a significant risk for ill health (Holt-Lunstad et al, 2015). The communal meal is an opportunity for people to get out of the house and interact with others and reaching those who have mental health conditions and who do not access other community services. In doing so they provide spaces for community connection; where conversations can be fostered and individuals and groups can also establish, receive, or be signposted to other, complimentary services. “Our friend, she suffers from depression. Her and her friend come here, and it breaks it. If she stays in the house, she stays in bed all day and all night.” (Benny, 69, service user). “so, there's generations, so my Nanna and myself, and my aunty, and my daughter come and it's a lovely atmosphere and you always feel welcomed and that's my perfect way.” (Sandy, service user)
4.3 Our study suggests that these initiatives have potential to support social capital (Edmondson, 2003) and community development. Exposure to this type of food venue, and observing local people helping others, makes people feel that they can trust one another and that they are part of a community. “Well, before [the food project]… I remember doing one event where it was a bit like a craft fair. There was loads of stuff going on and literally nobody came. Then only last year we did an event which was similar. It was just having the food, having a few stalls and a few other things going off outside, and we were literally rammed all day. That's not known for round here. People don't like going out, especially if it's going to cost them £1 to get in or something, but they were all here.” (Sara, service user and volunteer)
4.4 Food is used not only to tackle hunger but to create opportunities to take part in the community. Some of the service users progress to volunteers, showing the potential for these projects to stimulate participation. “when I first came to […], I was a bit lost and didn't know what to do, and all of a sudden I'm part of the team here. It changed my life, to be honest.” (Sam, service user and volunteer). “I'm here not because I struggle with money, but because I struggle with people and it's different for everybody else, so it doesn't matter what you struggle with, you meet the local people. It's like a small family.” (Doreen, service user)
4.5 These initiatives also facilitate access to resources other than food, supporting capacity building. Some of these initiatives enable the delivery of health and well-being services such as cooking lessons, clubs for children, craft clubs for all ages or by linking to drop-in mental health services. Service users are supported in a range of activities, for example, dealing with paperwork and even completing health and hygiene training.
Our findings highlight the key role that such community groups promoting social eating could play in supporting health and well-being and the role of food in galvanising communities. They demonstrate that surplus food is a resource that can be used to facilitate the delivery of services concerned with sustenance as well as those designed to enhance health and well-being. They provide spaces for socialisation around food, facilitate social connections, address food availability and nutrition aspects and a gap in the community food system. But most importantly, these initiatives enable spaces where food can be again experienced with communities and as a pleasurable activity which has important implications for supporting healthy diets, eating practices and well-being.
Key recommendations to government
5.1 Programmes and initiatives promoting healthy eating would benefit from working closely with such social eating organisations in reframing the issue of ‘healthy diets’ to consider the social, emotional and experiential nature of food and eating. Such programmes should also consider the impact that food insecurity has on individuals’ perception of healthy food, ability, and motivation to adopt a healthy diet. Adopting a ‘food as well-being’ approach is useful for understanding the different dimensions that influence behaviours in relation to eating and diets and contextualise efforts to tackle obesity and food insecurity.
5.2 Re-framing projects away from solely addressing food insecurity and food waste could de-stigmatise these projects as well as enticing in new customers who can pay for meals. This would have the effect of broadening participation, building further capacity into community food projects (Kneafsey et al. 2017), ensuring longer-term sustainability and avoiding a ‘two-tier’ food culture that creates further social inequality (Caplan, 2017). For example, by embedding community food initiatives alongside other services such as local MP surgeries, elders’ games clubs, food banks and mental health drop-in services, participants are both supported instrumentally with foodstuffs and more broadly with increased access to support services and opportunities to engage in volunteering.
5.3 Funding support should consider the infrastructural needs of community groups utilising surplus foods- food storage, increased recycling requirements and better food waste collection schemes such as vermiculation or composting. Support is also needed to develop capacity for running such projects (e.g. logistics, training) and replicating the model in more than one location in larger communities.
5.4 Policies to support diversifying community food provision (e.g. allotments; local markets) and the redistribution of surplus with clear guidelines regarding the quality and diversity of surplus foods are needed to address some of the limitations of the current supply system and move towards a model of surplus redistribution practices that is driven by charity/users’ needs, rather than by donors’ needs (Garrone et al., 2014).
5.5 Policies which express a pragmatic understanding that eating in groups may not just be a response to current issues around food insecurity and food waste, but might also be considered as a ‘future food’ response to the requirements for careful management of water, energy and foodstuffs might also enable community groups to better position themselves as providing much more than just a meal (Dunbar 2017).
Key recommendations to local authorities
5.6 We recommend that local authorities increase promotion of existing ‘social eating’ initiatives, including support through social prescribing schemes (i.e. enabling GPs, nurses and other primary care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services). Messaging around the environmental effects of using surplus food, opportunities for volunteering, partnership-working and a strong focus on the all-round benefits of commensality or group eating practices for social capital would also be useful in promoting these services beyond the current emphasis on food insecure ‘customers’, ensuring economic sustainability through a broad range of both paying and subsidised customers.
5.7 Partnerships with food banks or local youth groups can widen participation, maximise resources and volunteers. Partnerships with community services can be formed to utilise under-used spaces to run social eating events in return for catering to staff.
5.8 Being visible community hubs, social eating spaces can facilitate the delivery of services and reach people who might be unable to access mainstream services. Partnerships with Public Health and local authorities more widely are important for supporting the sustainability of these initiatives through grants, funding and the use of social eating spaces, for example, to conduct community consultation, outreach and MP surgery services.
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Dr Nadina Luca
11 September 2019
 This evidence is submitted by the authors who act in an individual capacity. We would like to express our thanks to the following community groups who have supported our research: Oscari Community Cafe, Riddings, Derbyshire; FoodHall, Sheffield; Soul Food Cafe, All Souls Church, Radford, Nottingham; FoodWorks, Sheffield; Parkgate Community Cafe, Clifton, Nottingham; Nottingham Good Food Partnership, Nottingham; That Bread and Butter Thing, Manchester
 Our response is informed by research funded by N8 AgriFood (https://www.n8agrifood.ac.uk).
 Socialisation is defined as the process that people use to learn about food through food-based interactions and rituals that foster connections. These processes are embedded in social networks and socio-economic and cultural contexts (Block et al., 2011). The concept of food literacy includes learning about food, ingredients and nutrition; applying that knowledge when shopping for food or making food choices and the ability, opportunity, and motivation to apply that knowledge about food in various contexts.