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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

This public webinar attended by an audience of 70, focused on what food deserts are, why they exist and what the solutions might be.

Our chair, Dr Jagjit Singh Srai, introduced our very experienced panel: Professor Carol Wagstaff, Dr Megan Blake and Leon Ballin.

Megan Blake began by explaining that a food desert is a low income area where households struggle to access affordable fresh fruit and vegetables. One of the UN FAO’s four dimensions of food security is economic and physical access to safe and nutritious food that meets people’s dietary needs for an active and healthy life. According to the Food Foundation tracker, in January 2024 15% of UK households experienced food insecurity. 

Food deserts come about for a multitude of reasons.  The term describes a lack of nutritious food supply to consumers in a given location. Households with limited resources (in terms of both time and money) prioritise food that will fill everyone up, has a long shelf-life, is easy to transport and that appeals to all tastes.  These tend to be ultra-processed convenience foods, rather than traditional fresh fruit or vegetables that require cooking from scratch. Over time these traditional foods that were once normal parts of diets are forgotten and demand diminishes or even disappears.

In terms of supply-side motivation, shops selling food will be influenced by demand and profitability; without demand for perishable food like fruit and veg, these types of products will progressively be de-stocked.

Food deserts have also come about because urban planning has focused on dwellings.  So large housing estates often incorporate few shops.

Paradoxically, food deserts can therefore arise in food systems that promote market-exchange, but supply-demand dynamics can inadvertently lead to prioritizing volume over quality for those on low incomes.   Recent history has thus seen, at a system level, profit drivers prioritised over collective health. 

Megan Blake ended her presentation by saying that we must remake the market and bring food back into places where it’s absent. Please find further information on the topics Megan Blake discussed here:

Carol Wagstaff’s work focusses on people in top 20% of indices of deprivation.  Her presentation at this event focused on the FoodSEqual’s project Fresh Street. She explained that that food aid in the UK conventionally relies on surplus and waste food from commercial food supply chains; this means that people in receipt of the food aid can’t plan their diets.

Her research has focused on breaking down barriers to access and affordability of fruit and veg, for example by supporting community hubs, run by communities to meet their own needs.  Central to this is the need for people to choose what they eat, rather than what is cheapest, or free.  As one person involved in this project said, ‘I want to get to a point where price comes after my nutrition needs.’

She argued that we can’t continue to consign people from disadvantaged communities to eating end-of-life, poor quality food.  We must re-examine how supply chains work; both commercial and food aid.  It’s the lack of agility in the commercial food supply chain, with its complex logistics and long lead-times that for example, creates the waste that supplies the food-aid supply chain.  If we can use logistics companies’ skills in surplus food redistribution it would be transformational, but we need to incentivize them to do so, either through government policy or fiscal incentives.

Leon Ballin’s presentation focused on solutions to the food deserts problem through examples taken from the Sustainable Food Places (SPF) network, in five categories:

Collaborative working. Without a systems approach to changing the food system, addressing an issue in one part of the food system just moves it to another part of the system rather than solving it. Instead we have to work together on the system as a whole.

SFP members work across public private and community sectors and within them, impacting positively across the whole food system.  For instance, when a food bank works for the hospital procurement management manager or a public health person connects with planning and a market garden. No one person, organization or local authority department can tackle food poverty on their own.

Move from food poverty to food justice by addressing issues such as stigma around food aid, which can stop citizens exercising their rights. The move to a dignified approach can lead to active food citizens who feel agency in challenging their situation. An example of this is My Food Community (Blackburn).

Create alternatives to unequitable food supply chains, for example, Community Supported Agriculture and Regather in Sheffield supplies boxes of locally grown food and employs 16 people.  Not all of these initiatives have a food aid element but most have alternative governance structures that are more resilient and equitable. They are creating an alternative food economy that employs people and keeps financial services within the local economy.

Better public sector food procurement can be a game-changer. One way for change to happen is to put standards into contracts. If local suppliers are used, it can be a game changer for the local economy, given the amounts of food involved. Cost isn't always a big issue, for instance, a meat-free Monday can pay for better meat for the rest of the week in schools. One example of this is the Food For Life Served Here Scheme.

Another way to manage this risk in procurement is to take small steps with a bit of funding; test and learn. A good example of this is bean meals, which is a collaboration between UKRI, the universities of Oxford and Warwick, Leicestershire schools, local farmers and the Leicestershire food partnership.

Finally Leon Ballin advocated policy change; a change in planning legislation or in minimum standards for public sector procurement at a national scale. Our current food supply chains and policies prioritise profit over healthy and sustainable food. Change can happen; we can no longer have a national policy of ‘leave it to Tesco’.  June 19th is the SNP’s day Day of Celebration and Action in Westminster  

Following the panelists' presentations Jag Srai chaired a lively Q&A session, spanning questions on what the various stakeholders, including supermarkets, can do to solve the food deserts problem; how should academics go about exploring interventions in complex food systems ensuring they draw on real-world experiences of producers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers; what we have learnt from existing innovations aimed at addressing food poverty such as the role of social supermarkets and pantries.


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Global food security is a major research priority for UK and international science.

Cambridge Global Food Security is a virtual centre at the University of Cambridge. We promote an interdisciplinary approach to addressing the challenge of ensuring all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life. 

Please contact the Programme Manager D.ssa Francesca Re Manning to request information, share information, or join our mailing list.