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Introducing Bridging the Gap, making agroecological food affordable to all

Bridging the Gap is an ambitious new programme being coordinated by Sustain. Here Sarah Williams, Programmes Director at Sustain, sets out how the alliance experience has built towards this ambition and how the work aims to bridge not only the broken food system but also divisions in the movement. 

Granville Community Kitchen's Good Food Box. Copyright: Jonathan Goldberg

Granville Community Kitchen's Good Food Box. Copyright: Jonathan Goldberg

Every good solutions-focused programme, like Bridging the Gap, starts with a problem. In the case of Bridging the Gap, this problem is how can we get agroecological food to everyone – particularly those on a low income. This perennial question feels more relevant than ever, following a pandemic, declaration of climate emergency, years of increasing household food insecurity, the widening of health and income inequalities and now a cost-of-living crisis. 

A defining moment for me came during a webinar Sustain ran on Good Food Retail. We were sharing results of attempts to get more healthy, affordable food to people on a low income through engaging convenience stores. This was a challenging and complex project in itself, but in the discussion there were many comments from the virtual room – ‘what about sustainably grown food’?

At that moment, I really saw that the problem was creating a division within the movement. On each side of the gap there are wonderful people doing amazing work. On one side of the gap is health and equalities, with a focus on increasing access to healthy food including fruit and veg. On the other side of the gap is sustainable farming, focusing on building supply chains for agroecological food. Taking a whole systems approach is needed to unite this work and advocate for change that works for people AND planet. 

The real price of food 

Fundamental to the Bridging the Gap programme is to look at the price of food as a key barrier. As we started to come out of lockdown, we got together at Sustain to ask: what is it we want to see change in the next 10 years? My key comeback was – “I want agroecological food to be the same price – if not cheaper- than conventionally produced”. Just imagine it for a second – someone goes to the shops confronted with the choice between organic milk and non-organic milk at the same price. The community lunch club supplier can offer them all their veg agroecological without the cost going up. People shopping at the local market can buy climate-friendly fruit without thinking twice.

It sounds like pie in the sky - but why? Because the supply chains brought about in our global, supermarket driven supply chains do not pay for the true costs of producing food – be it fair pay for workers, the environmental damage that comes as a result of the farming systems, or the surplus that is produced in a wasteful system that is now being ‘saved’ when it shouldn’t be there to start with. 

What’s our big idea to solve this? 

There is no magic bullet. However, our food and farming movement is full of amazing organisations, thinkers, experiences and a lot of willingness to square this circle. We know people are out there trying things, talking to people, thinking big, experimenting and we want to harness this.

We have been given a pivotal opportunity to do that thanks to funding from National Lottery. This will enable us to simulate, at a local urban level, what food supply chains COULD look like if price was not the barrier to getting agroecological food to people on low income. This could be through a market, lunch club, meal provision or some other route. How would this produce be received – practically, but also does it matter to people? We think it does and hope we can work together to prove this. 

I see Bridging the Gap as a way to link up two areas of inspiring activity within our movement, which are currently divided by a fast-flowing river – our broken food system. Down in the river people are building some amazing experimental ‘stepping stones’ to attempt to cross the river, but it’s challenging and they're just keeping their heads afloat in the pandemic and cost-of-living storm. The bridge we build together will provide a better view of the problem and these solutions, and eventually create the structural change that is needed. The work will be supported by advocacy for support for these solutions in the longer term, which is a critical part of the programme. 

Spirit of enquiry 

One of the key principles of the Bridging the Gap programme is to bring in people from across the divide, from inside and outside of the movement. In order to make this work and to tackle a problem this big we want to embed a spirit of enquiry. We hope to bring in curious ideas, outside-the-box thinking, to harness different ways of working. While we know there are some fundamentals to the problem, there is nuance, misunderstanding, different perspective and new ideas that could help us to make better, more robust solutions that will find support with policy makers and budget holders. 

We want to co-create the solutions and build a stronger food and farming movement with fairness and food justice at its heart. 

We are starting with a few pieces of the puzzle – or building blocks – to get us going with our delivery partners, Growing Communities and Alexandra Rose Charity already developing solutions to be explored by co-production teams. We want to get the ball rolling quickly so we can start to test, fail, learn, improve and do it all again.

We know it’s ambitious, we know it’s big, we know it will take a movement rather than a single programme, but we will take it one step at a time, hopefully with the support and guidance of you – the movement that can make it happen. 

Sustain is coordinating the Bridging the Gap programme. Funded by the National Lottery, this aims to demonstrate ways to build better supply chains between climate friendly food and people on a lower income, initially focusing on urban areas. Key to our approach will be piloting, evaluating, identifying what works and advocating for financial interventions and other mechanisms to enable this to continue.

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Published 28 Jul 2022

Bridging the Gap: Transitioning ‘from food aid to food trade’ to provide healthy, affordable, planet-friendly food for all.

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Sarah is Programme Director for Sustain having joined in in 2009, as part of the Capital Growth team who successfully supported 2,012 new community food growing spaces in London. Sarah has developed new areas of work at Sustain including the national Big Dig programme and work on our Growing Health project. She currently oversees most of the London programme of work, run under the London Food Link umbrella and represents Sustain on the London Food Board.

Sarah Williams
Programmes Director

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