National Food Strategy #11: City level responses to food insecurity

In 2015, we published Food insecurity in Birmingham — a city level response? based on a consultative project we’d run over the previous few months.

This blogpost outlines what we said then, and gives our 2019 perspective on it all.
At the beginning of the 2015 project, we’d asked ask ourselves: If external drivers on our food supply networks are here to stay in one form or another, what strategic measures can Birmingham take to mitigate against their effects? Is it possible to have an effective city-level response and, if so, what does it look like?

We put forward four ‘core principles’ under which all actions at all levels should follow:

  1. Food security is a public good as well as a human right.
  2. Reciprocation, fairness and equality in all food exchanges whether monetised or not.
  3. Hospitality: Eating in company is social glue.
  4. Encourage food sector profit to derive from local entrepreneurship, not rent (e.g. as in franchises)

The core principles and their relevance to a National Food Strategy?
The first
has direct relevance. Food is widely considered a public good as well as a human right. Hence we are stating that governmental responsibility to ensure food security should be core to the National Food Strategy.

The second was made in our 2015 Report because a growing number of our citizens weren’t able to exercise their human right of economic access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food.

The principles of reciprocation, fairness and equality were, we felt, ethically appropriate but lacking. But non-monetised applications of these principles don’t begin to address the poverty that causes their lack of access in the first place.

note: On pp15-16 of the 2015 Report, we put forward means to generate/test reciprocation, fairness and equality in non-monetised food exchanges. They are outlined, too, in a later blogpost in this series: #17: The price of plums and other social exchanges.

The third, about hospitality and eating being social glue: A difficult one for a national food strategy other than being a mere statement. Hospitality and the eating of meals is, by its very nature, not a national activity but a local, hyperlocal or household affair.

The fourth is in essence about how to encourage new entrants to the sector. This is both a local issue as well as a national one, and challenged by the high barriers to entry to much of the activity in the sector, as mentioned in the earlier blogpost in this series Supply chain permutations are endless.

There are, however, opportunities for small scale, new entrant entrepreneurs in specific niches, particularly in the food services. Not all of them require substantial capital investment. For example, the start-up costs are low thousands with a return in months (of admittedly very hard work) to set up a street food business. Moreover, there’s a wealth of advice and support available on how to do so from the Nationwide Caterers Association (NCASS) whose HQ is in Kings Norton.


We went on to say (pp4-6) that ensuring all of us here eat well depends on lots of changes at lots of levels (including at an institutional (suggesting community-scale public provision of meals, starting with existing institutions such as schools and leisure centres), taking advantage of smart technologies such as collection cards, and the use of national and local quantitative info on food insecurity matters, the latter already part of Public Health Intelligence).


The following levels at which change could happen are quoted directly from the Report (p5-6) along with today’s comments on any that has happened since 2015 below:

At a neighbourhood level

  • Well-established food banks across the city to set themselves up as advice or community centres, possibly in partnership with other organisations (e.g. Citizens Advice Bureau)  . . .
    Comment: This already widespread, both here in Birmingham as in other cities.
  • Expansion of community-scale meals and healthy hot food take-aways into estate precincts and High Streets, some with pop-up or temporary status.
    Comment: Community-scale meals, other than in temples, are a rarity. The challenge with provision of healthy hot food takeaways is cost. How to compete with £1.99 or £2.99  chicken’n’chips with dodgy provenance is a challenge for consumer health, our stretched environmental health inspectors and new entrant providers.
  • Development of community shops, including those with complementary or local currency systems.
    Comment: This was optimistic, given all that’s needed to make a community shop happen, let alone thrive. As for local currency systems, they sound attractive, but aren’t yet feasible at any scale. There are, however, emerging technologies (e.g. 5G, black chain and cryptocurrencies) that look promising. (BBC R4 The Bottom Line episode episode broadcast on 13th October 2019 was on Cryptocurrencies, currently (sorry!) downloadable here.

Birmingham City Council: Procurement and other commercial relationships

  • Birmingham City Council continues its policy to pay a minimum Living Wage for all its employees and contracting the same for all employees of its suppliers.
    Comment: This has happened; see on-line here. This good initiative by the City Council goes only a slight way, however, to change why in-work poverty is rising.
  • If Birmingham City Council outsources functions to the private sector, it denies the latter the right to compete on differential wages and conditions of service.
    Comment: We don’t know if this happens.
  • Birmingham City Council reconsider existing and avoid future commercial relationships with all food and drinks companies whose products have low or zero nutritional content. (The Health and Social Care Act 2012 puts statutory duties on Birmingham City Council to improve the health of its residents. Their contracts with some large food and beverage companies may be in conflict with these duties. A rule of thumb: If all or most of a company’s [food or drink] products have standard-rate VAT, these are the companies to avoid doing business with.)
    Comment: This hasn’t begun to happen. On tour part, however, we have done more work in the role of VAT; see this summary blogpost on the matter here. We’ve also made economic assessment of the burden of human and planetary health made by these companies; see What does this food sector ‘balance sheet’ tell us?

At a city infrastructure level

Encourage the development of food sector businesses, along with fast track spatial and planning permissions for entrepreneurs to supply affordable, healthy food
Comment: This is now on the agenda of the Director of Public Health.

  • Investment in public transport and safe walking and cycling routes between wards with high levels of deprivation and schools, community spaces and healthy food outlets
    Comment: there has been some limited investment since 2015, but there is a long way to go, especially for some of our more deprived wards.
  • Free public transport for all under-11s (as in London), and subsidised public transport for all.
    Comment: We knew at the time that these kinds of initiatives are far easier for London where buses are regulated by Transport for London. Then, as now, the challenges for a city such as Birmingham, is who will pay, and under what regulatory regime.
  • Free high speed broadband in all public and community spaces without the requirement to give personal information.
    Comment: This is extant but patchy.

At a regional infrastructure level

  • Incentive systems/trading options for fresh foodstuffs from the rural shires around the conurbation to community-scale meal providers as well as other markets.
    Comment: This appears an even less likely prospect than it did in 2015. Why would regional farmers be interested in such a small and uncertain market within the complexity of the food supply chain (see here and here)?

Further comment:
The regional political landscape was redrawn with the set up of the West Midlands Combined Authority. The Mayor, Andy Street, was elected in 2017. We have written three reports for him:

  1. Before he became Mayor, he was Chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, and asked us in December 2015 to brief the LEP on the food and drink sector to help them draw up the LEP’s economic strategy.
    After wide consultation and desk research, we submitted our Report to them in January 2016 and published it on-line here.
  2. The food sector was, however, overlooked in their draft Strategic Economic Plan 2016-2030 which was circulated for review. We sent this Response to them, and published it on-line here.
  3. Our third report for Andy was this two-pager briefing for him on his election to Mayor in May 2017.

Judging from their current work, it appears food and the food sector is still off-radar for the WMCA.
Their latest Industrial Strategy (May 2019) mentions ‘food and drink’ once on p16, seeing the regional strengths in the sector as “machinery, food and fluid control technology and photonics R&D” [sic].

Their latest Strategic Economic Plan mentions food twice, on page 17 with a reference to “the Dairy Crest Food Innovation Centre co-located with Harper Adams University” and on p39 there is reference to two EPSRC Centres for Innovative Manufacturing at University of Birmingham, one being simply stated as “Food” (the other is for Liquid Metal Engineering). Although none of their ‘priorities’ are about food, their Annual Plan for 2019-2020 does devote p52-55 to “wellbeing” which includes the development and delivery of a childhood obesity strategy to the West Midlands.

We concluded the section of our 2015 Report with the following couple of paragraphs pertinent to the complexity of the food supply chain described in the previous blogpost in this series, The space between farm gate and food outlet.

note: Given the huge risks to our food supply system, we are suggesting in our response to the Call for Evidence that there is a funding body to help socio-political decision-makers ‘see’ as-yet unimagined supply system structures; see #16: A “Future Food Systems UK funding body?


Previous blogposts in this National Food Strategy series are:

#10: The space between farm gate and food outlet

#9: Three scenarios and their risks to the supply chain

#8: Supply chain permutations are endless

#7: A simplified fresh produce supply chain map

#6: UK resilience to global risks to food supplies

#5: Global risks to UK food supplies

#4: The irreconcilables

#3:  The global competition for safe, nutritious food

#2: Responsibility, resilience and ethics

#1: The brief

A link to our submission is here.    A list of all the blogposts in this series is here.


attribution: The photograph above is of The Spirit of Jarrow by Chris Downer:,_the_Spirit_of_Jarrow_-_ .org.uk_-_595991.jpg

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