Building resilient, secure and sustainable food systems

This World Food Day, we’re highlighting research that's changing food systems for the better.

Research across the Faculty of Environment delves into food systems and structures, the impacts of climate change on food and many more issues that affect how and what we eat across the world.

Sustainable, safe and culturally appropriate food

The latest episode of the ‘How Can We Fix...’ podcast covers the current issues that we are facing with food, such as poverty, the cost of healthy food and the health implications that come with food insecurity. 

The podcast host is joined by Dr Effie Papargyropoulou, Professor Sara Gonzalez and Dr Michelle Morris.

In the UK, more people than ever are struggling to afford nutritious, sustainable, safe and culturally appropriate food. This affects the population’s physical health in terms of malnutrition, illness and obesity. 

As highlighted in the podcast, not being able to afford appropriate food also creates shame, stigma and increasingly poor mental health effects.

In the past, solutions have focused on increasing food production to meet the needs of the rising population. However, these have not addressed the affordability of food, which is an issue during the cost-of-living crisis in which poverty and inequality are further increasing.

In the podcast, the speakers discuss the need for structured support for food hubs and pantries, the need for access to culturally appropriate food and the role of traditional markets as not only a place for affordable food but also as a source of social interaction and community building.

Listen to the podcast here.

Food hubs need more support

Dr Effie Papargyropoulou in the School of Earth and Environment recently completed research into Food hubs for Food Security, Health, Inclusive Growth and Sustainability.

Dr Papargyropolou worked alongside Foodwise, Leeds City Council, the Global Food and Environment Institute and Policy@Leeds to assess the impact of food banks and advocate for them to get more support and recognition. 

Together, they created an Impact Evaluation Tool to quantify these impacts.

They found that, among other benefits, food hubs:

  • improve sustainability by reducing food waste and food miles;
  • support the local economy by providing market access to small businesses and creating employment; and
  • improve people’s physical, mental and social wellbeing.

All the recorded benefits and recommendations are in the policy brief that the team created and launched in July 2023, at an event with food hubs, local authorities and other third sector organisations. 

Leeds City Council are considering the project’s findings in their Leeds Food Strategy.

The research team have since applied for funding to expand the geographic reach of their project across the UK and engage with national policymakers.

Traditional markets are a key source of affordable food

Dr Sara Gonzalez, Dr Andy Newing, Professor Graham ClarkeDr Paul Waley and Dr Lisa Buckner partnered with the Open University, New Economics Foundation and the National Market Traders Federation to explore the role of traditional markets.

Their project, ‘Understanding and Enhancing the Community Value of Traditional Retail Markets in UK Cities,’ investigated traditional retail markets to understand their community value. 

They created “the first dataset to provide the opportunity to investigate and analyse, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the community value of Traditional Retail Markets (TRM) in the UK. Interview, workshop, and focus group transcripts, alongside survey data, provide insights into how TRM stakeholders, experts, and users conceive the functions and values of the UK traditional markets sector.”

This project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Their findings are published on their website, as well as guides and recommendations for best practices. 

They also created a policy brief about a particular market, Grainger Market in Newcastle. The policy brief is titled ‘The Importance of Newcastle’s Grainger Market as an Affordable Source of Food (PDF)’. 

Among other findings, the report states that Newcastle’s Grainger Market is “a key source of affordable food, drink and other goods for lower-income households and students, as well as being an important social space for elderly and vulnerable consumers.”

Mapping the Leeds food system showed the need for change

This work was completed alongside an interdisciplinary project that investigated the production-consumption gap, health outcomes and potential for circular economy in the Leeds food system

Researchers calculated the gap between the production of food in Leeds and the energy requirements of the local population. They found that, in line with the national figures, there was a 51.6% deficiency of food, calculated by caloric intake requirements. 

“The mapping process highlighted several relationships between food system components and what appear to be spatial disparities in deprivation, food poverty and health outcomes,” the authors write in the published paper, titled 'Mapping the Production-Consumption Gap of an Urban Food System: An Empirical Case Study of Self-Sufficiency and Resilience’.

Supporting international food systems

As well as projects like these in the UK, researchers at the University of Leeds work with international collaborators to support their work in sustainable food systems.

The Global Food and Environment Institute at the University of Leeds has joined an international research partnership with the University of Pretoria and the University of Montpellier. 

They will be part of the Cluster of Research Excellence (CORE) for Sustainable Food Systems. Working in this cluster will put African research and researchers at the forefront of research projects, supporting them to work on challenges in their food systems by sharing resources and co-creating solutions to the challenges they identify.

This will build on the success of previous collaborations such as the Global Challenges Research Fund Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) and the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), which support sustainable food systems in Africa by informing policy processes.

One research project based in an African country involves AXA Research Fellow Dr Nwamaka Okeke-Ogbuafor, who is currently working in Sierra Leone. She is collaborating with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs), local researchers and communities to support improvements to their fishing systems.

The country is facing challenges with hunger, malnutrition and wild fish decline from over-exploitation and climate change. 

Dr Okeke-Ogbuafor is using a co-learning approach to understand the issues that the population are facing and restore autonomy to fishers in the area. 

They will work together to create solutions that the communities can independently and sustainably use in the future.

What does a sustainable food system look like?

When asked what a healthy and secure food system should look like, Dr Papargyropoulou says: 

“The main aspect we’re missing is justice. The food system is full of inequality and powerful players make huge profits while large parts of the population struggle to secure the basics. 

“We need to address this imbalance in power amongst the stakeholders in the food systems.” 

While food hubs, markets and community support are crucial to support food-insecure people, food aid cannot address the root causes of poverty or climate change and is not a long-term solution.

The researchers emphasise the need to address the underlying causes of food insecurity, through decent wages and benefits in line with the cost of living.