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Cost of living crisis and sustainable food

Sometimes it can feel like there is a tension between high quality sustainable food and the needs of low-income families. But everyone deserves to access a healthy, sustainable, nutritious diet. With cheap food, somebody, somewhere in the food chain pays. So how can we deliver high quality food that is kind to people AND the planet through local policy and planning and what is the role of food partnership?

Cost of living crisis. Credit: Anthony Pexels

Cost of living crisis. Credit: Anthony Pexels

Food insecurity and food prices

The cost of living crisis is a key current issue in the UK. Tracking by the Food Foundation shows that food insecurity levels are rising. The number of people struggling to buy food has gone up by 57% from January to April, now affecting 7.3 million adults. Two million households reported someone in their household had not eaten for a whole day. Food prices in the UK have risen by 5.9% in the past year – and are on track for a possible 10% - driven by global fuel and gas shortages which also impact on fertiliser prices; and by labour shortages due to Covid and Brexit. The full impact of the war in Ukraine has yet to be felt. The country is a major producer of sunflower oil and wheat, and sowing season has been interrupted.

At the same time as rapidly rising food and energy prices, income for many is dropping due to the rise in inflation. For those in receipt of Universal Credit, the removal of the pandemic-related uplift of £20/week has been devastating. Food is often a more ‘flexible’ element in the household budget. As a result, the cost-of-living crisis is forcing 16% of households to cut back on quantity and quality of food to afford other essentials.

So how are food partnerships, many of which have already played a leading role in tackling local food insecurity under covid responding now?

Resistance, not resilience

Resilience has been a buzz word throughout covid. But recovering from difficulties assumes organisations and individuals have resources to draw upon to rebound. At our recent panel discussion, Hull Food Partnership shared widely felt frustration that many of those affected have nothing left with which to be resilient and we need to adopt a strategy of resistance instead.  

Many food partnership are clear that ‘cheap food’ is simply not the answer. For  a start, many of the 4.1M working in the agri-food sector – whether farmers, those working in the processing industry, supermarkets or hospitality – are the ones experiencing food poverty in the UK or overseas. There is a huge imbalance of power in the food system. Only 9% of the £128.7bn generated by the agri-food system reaches farmers and it is estimated that 25% of farmers live below the poverty line. Over two fifths of UK supermarket workers earn below the real living wage and may struggle to put food on their own table.

Many food partnerships are strongly critical of the common idea that all we need to do is get better at redistributing ‘waste’ or surplus food. [1] Surplus food redistribution perpetuates the problems it tries to solve i.e. food waste and household food insecurity. It distracts from addressing the root causes of both issues and shifts responsibility from central government and commercial organisations to the voluntarily and community sector and individuals. And in any case, food partnerships tell us that the amount of surplus in the system drops radically just when it is needed most – so dependency is dangerous.

The current sharp rise in food prices and food insecurity sittings alongside the obesity, nature & climate crises demonstrate system failure. Food doesn’t need to become cheaper, but income and benefits need to rise to keep with inflation. Looking upstream, at a national level, Sustain proposes five food measures we need to help beat the cost of living crisis, from supply chain fairness and Real Living Wages to adequate safety nets for families on lower incomes such as Healthy Start and free school meals.

At a local level, by adopting a systems approach to food, local actors can have a significant impact in responding to the cost-of-living crisis without compromising the long-term goals of providing everyone access to healthy food while caring for our planet. The examples below are an illustrative example drawn from the presentations and discussions at our recent panel discussion webinar.

Local answer 1: Redesigning the food system

By experimenting with cooperatives, pantries, food hubs, affordable food projects or other models, food partnerships are testing the limits of new and alternative forms of marketing that don’t rely on the just-in-time supply chains that generate so much imbalance of power in the food chain in favour of supermarkets. And which often put back the dignity which ‘free food’ from food banks can strip away. Some are including work with local and sustainable farmers to help them get fair prices. This interest in alternative economic models is mirrored at national and international levels in discussions around different economic models such as doughnut economy, circular economy, etc. Effectively, food partnerships finding creative ways to redesign the food system from an economic perspective.

Local answer 2: Public money for public goods

In recognition of the role of public sector food in driving innovation and best practise and generating positive outcomes with public money, several councils have good food standards. Brighton & Hove Council’s Good Food Standards match the Soil Association Food For Life Silver Award and ensure thousands of healthy and sustainable meals for example in schools and also for  market and street food traders and caterers operating at city events. They were modelled on Bristol's Food and Catering Procurement Policy which also brings  great leadership towards a more sustainable food system.

Local Answer 3: Rethinking the role of safety nets

In the last two years, Scotland and Wales have committed to expand free school meals to all primary pupils and there is a renewed interest in investing in universal free school meals at a local level in England. In the London Borough of Newham, the ‘Eat for Free’ programme reaches pupils in 66 schools. The council invest £6M, and the £14M spent on food is anchored within the borough, demonstrating a positive financial benefit to residents and local businesses.

Emergency food networks, which have played a key role during the pandemic [2], continue to fill the leadership gap on local food issues post pandemic. In Brighton and Hove, the network now includes 44 organisations (21 pre-pandemic). They are more than just food banks and include meal providers and affordable food projects. At the request of members, the network wrote to Rishi Sunak before the Spring budget laying out 12 demands to address the cost-of-living crisis, from a rise in wage for young people, to the removal of No Recourse To Public Funds, becoming a powerful lobbying voice with good support from local MPs and councillors.

Local Answer 4 –Local food strategy and plans

Food strategies look at food issues including health, climate and food poverty together and develop local actions across a Partnership. Brighton & Hove revamped their existing long standing food strategy with ‘food poverty goggles’, looking at ways where actions could address the upstream causes of food poverty or inequality whilst retaining a healthy and sustainable focus. They held focus groups to co-develop solutions with those who are experiencing the greatest food poverty.

Hull began to look at developing a food strategy at the end of last year. As in other places, the reliance on food sourced from national and international markets makes residents vulnerable to price raises and shortages. Hull started to consult residents on what they consider the most important points when it comes ensuring access to healthy food for all. They reconvened the Hull Food Inequality Alliance in December 2020 and developed a food poverty action plan for Hull which will feed into the food strategy for Hull in a joined-up approach.

Local Action 5: Out, loud and proud

Food Partnerships are the key places for tackling food system wide issues and contradictions by taking local action. Or as Prof. Corrina Hawkes from City, University of London puts it:

Be out, loud and proud about what you are doing. It is more radical and important than you think.

Listen to our webinar & panel discussion: ‘Cost of living crisis and sustainable food’


Day of celebration and action
The forthcoming Day of celebration and action 20 July is an opportunity to celebrate the vital role that local food partnerships and plans play in galvanising local and national action on food and farming and responding to the cost-of-living crisis. It will highlight food partnerships’ role in delivering on national policy priorities, in the wake of the Government Levelling Up White Paper, and progress on Scotland’s Good Food Nation Bill and a Welsh Food Bill. Food partnership coordinators from all over the country will travel to the House of Commons to meet their MP and participate in a parliamentary event but everyone will be able to join online.


[1] 'The future of surplus food redistribution in the UK: Reimagining the true ‘win-win’ scenario’ paper sets out an agenda for the future of surplus food redistribution in the UK for the next five to 10 years, including policy interventions.

[2] The recent report from University of the West of England highlights how Sustainable Food Places members stepped up to play a vital role in the food crisis relief effort.

Published Friday 13 May 2022

Sustainable Food Places: The Sustainable Food Places Network helps people and places share challenges, explore practical solutions and develop best practice on key food issues, so if you are working to drive positive food change or are interested in developing a programme, please do get in touch.

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Sofia provides strategic oversight, programme and staff management to local action projects and campaigns at Sustain.

Sofia Parente
Head of Local Action

Emily helps food partnerships to develop and become stronger, to produce effective food strategies and action plans, and to influence policy. She is also leading our work on adapting and extending the food partnership model into counties and rural areas. Emily lives on the South Coast where the South Downs meet the sea, along with several chickens, vegetables, cats, dogs, family members and an unruly edible hedgerow.

Emily O’Brien
Partnerships & Development Lead Food Matters

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