How can we build community wealth through food and farming?

Community wealth building is an increasingly common term in the food and farming sector. But what exactly is it, how can we use it in the food and farming sector and who is leading the charge?
07/02/2022

Riverside Market, Cardiff. Credit: Food Cardiff

Riverside Market, Cardiff. Credit: Food Cardiff

Economics can feel abstract, a bit dry and far away from us but there is nothing like food to make that visceral link to an economy that could be close to our hearts but often feels the opposite - Frances Jones, CLES

We know, we’ve used the word ‘economic’ in the first sentence of the blog, but hear us out because this could also be one of the most exciting opportunities for food and farming this year (and beyond).

Our current economic system is hollowing out communities and drawing money and assets away and into the hands of the few – big business, shareholders, overseas interests. Community wealth building offers an antidote to this by promoting an alternative economic model that keeps money, assets, jobs and resources flowing within a community, rather than leaking out.  

Here at Sustain & Sustainable Food Places, we believe an economic system should be sustainable, ethical and provide the conditions needed for people, places and planet to thrive. Such a model is often referred to as a ‘generative model’ where people, resources and assets are used to strengthen and build places. Money is invested in businesses, organisations and assets that have wider benefits on top of being commercially viable or income generating. It’s a model gaining increasing traction, especially in the food and farming sector and we’re all for it. 

 

Why is this relevant to food and farming? 

Everyone needs to eat, yet food and farming are victims of the current economic system. As a result, not everyone is able to access the food they need, our land is being reaped dry and our places have little control over their food systems. Due to large corporations dominating the sector, poor working conditions, low wages and short contracts are common;  farming practices are forced to focus on quantity not quality, contributing to the climate and nature emergency; supply chains are precarious, and the list goes on.  

There is a growing movement for change though that opposes the dominant food system that is failing so many. One that supports farmer-focussed supply chains, gets more people into good food jobs, and increases the number of good food enterprises and food markets. Community supported agriculture schemes (CSAs), food cooperatives and community owned enterprises are all examples of approaches delivered by the movement to ensure farmers have fair wages, land is managed sustainably and more people can access good and affordable food.  

This movement has grown since the pandemic too, as empty supermarket shelves in 2020 saw people turn to local producers and suppliers (veg boxes saw a 111% increase in demand and nearly two thirds of smaller food enterprises had higher footfalls), communities saw the need to invest in more resilient systems that worked for them. 

Grassroots organisations have been developing and promoting this model long before the coin was phrased, but as with most seemingly radical ideas, there needs to be a tipping point of leverage and scale. Anchor institutions (universities, local authorities, hospitals, schools etc) are key to this, especially for the food sector. They are rooted in place, they are big employers (in Leeds, 1 in 7 people are employed by anchor institutions), spenders, landowners, and some even have a responsibility for feeding people. They can use this power to influence how local food systems operate by spending public money on fairly produced food from local farmer-focussed supply chains. Their land could also be used as spaces for growing, producing, selling, or serving food that would increase access to good food, create jobs and ultimately benefit the local community. 

Examples of community wealth building through food 

 

  • Soul Farm is a CSA in Cornwall offering veg box schemes to local residents and restaurants, hosting food markets, education programmes and linking with local food cooperatives. They also run a solidarity scheme, where higher tier veg boxes subsidise veg boxes at cost price, or free, for the local food bank and a refugee charity. Rather than a transaction, their food box scheme brings local people into their food system. This is further helped by their delivery driver playing a connector role, sparing time chat to with customers to ensure they are meeting demand and growing the right produce. 

 

  • North Ayrshire is the first council in Scotland to develop a community wealth building strategy. As a region of high deprivation, low unemployment and a large amount of unproductive land, the local council wanted to reimagine their local economy to better serve and support the local community. Through their strategy they have committed to procuring food for their school catering services locally. They already hold a Food for Life Gold award, sourcing 95.5% of food from the UK and nearly 50% from Scotland, but they plan to increase this further. Soil Association research suggests for every £1 spent on local producers, £4.41 is returned in social investment . With the councils’ £3m catering budget, they are reinvesting a huge amount in the local economy.  
  • Leeds University's Markets4People research highlights community-led economies through markets which offer shorter supply chains, more jobs per square foot, and social benefits. In the UK, traditional markets tend to serve low income, ethnic minorities and older groups of customers, provide more affordable food and culturally appropriate options, create spaces for social interactions and create jobs. 80% of retail markets are owned or managed by local authorities, providing key opportunities for anchor institutions to invest in inclusive economies as well as linking in with public health. Diversifying the grocery market to support markets and other independent traders provides a huge opportunity to keep wealth flowing locally. 

 

Making community wealth building work for food and farming

Community wealth building has huge potential for people, places and the planet by putting the power back in the hands of communities. Yes, it focuses on money and finance, but it also incorporates wellbeing, the environment, relationship and network building, and community need.  

The pandemic has helped to champion community wealth building and accelerate the need and interest. That’s why a third of local authorities, national governments including Wales and Scotland, Sustainable Food Places, businesses and community organisations up and down the country are looking to incorporate community wealth building in their work. To make sure these models deliver for everyone though, it could be useful to adopt a series of principles for community wealth building through food and farming. 

The Food Learning Forum has developed a draft set of principles in this discussion document, which is intended to kick start conversation across the movement as we explore and develop these models together. This is a living document so please do get in touch with additions or comments. 

Sustain has a number of other publications which show the merits of community wealth building. Including the case for local food, unlocking the path to farmer-focused supply chains, putting good food jobs at the heart of the economic recovery and Good Food Retail in London or you can watch this webinar on the topic.  

We’ll be developing this work at Sustain and Sustainable Food Places and as part of that we’d love to hear how you’re designing and trialling these approaches so get in touch if you have examples, comments or stories to share. 


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