Demos Daily: British Aisles


Food shopping has taken on a new resonance for many of us recently. From accusations of panic-buying, or booking an online delivery slot nearly a month in advance, to wondering if chocolate counts as an essential item I can just nip out for, coronavirus has changed how we think about our immediate food provision. Thankfully, the supply of most items is now back to normal and new processes for doing the supermarket shop are becoming routine. Things may have settled down for most of us, but it’s a different story for some. The first few weeks of lockdown restrictions saw a massive spike in food bank use, with the Trussell Trust network reporting an 81% increase in need compared to the same period last year. Food banks across the country are continuing to meet this new surge in demand.

Food banks in one form or another have a long history, but back in 2014 the rhetoric about food poverty and its causes escalated in response to a substantial increase in their use. Between then and now, food banks have become a familiar presence in our society, but they were never designed to be a long-term solution to food poverty. Our 2015 report British Aisles made the case for community supermarkets as a more sustainable solution to chronic food poverty: outlets that can offer year-round access to affordable (rather than free) food. With food poverty on the rise once again, it’s time to think about longer-term solutions.

Read an extract below (pages 61-63), or read the full report here

Food programmes in the UK

Demand for affordable food is not a post-recession phenomenon. A review carried out in 2007 paints a picture of a burgeoning, pre-recession community food landscape. It describes such initiatives as ‘in vogue’, regarded as somewhat of a panacea for a variety of social ills, from poverty to obesity. Public (local authority) funding for them was therefore readily available – though less often accompanied by the requirements (e.g. evidence of financial sustainability, ‘theory of change’, outcomes measurement process) that have, with the squeeze on local authority finances, become prerequisites for commissioning. As a result, the authors of the review observed that initiatives showed a tendency towards ‘mission creep’; under pressure to reinvent themselves to fit new and rapidly changing funding agendas. This reportedly had a negative impact on the reception of projects within communities and, consequently, on their longevity. (1) Finally, the study found that providers’ and users’ perceptions of projects were sometimes at odds, with users seeing them simply as a way of feeding themselves and their families, ignoring any wider stated aims.

More generally, the 2007 review found that initiatives with ‘exclusive’ models of ownership tended to be less effective and shorter lived. The same was true where schemes were not user led, had an air of being ‘parachuted in’, a ‘focus on fulfilling professional agendas’, and were powered by short-term funding. By contrast, the most likely initiatives to be successful (after government initiatives) were those characterised by clear aims and objectives and ‘based on sound principles of community involvement and needs assessment’, including consultation, ongoing involvement or ownership, scope for reconciling different agendas, and ongoing funding. Furthermore, whether initiatives are popular, grow and continue may be the most important outcomes to those who use food initiatives. (2) Initiatives that had been allowed time to establish themselves also tended to be more successful than others.

Future directions

The economist Amartya Sen argues for a view of food poverty based less on access than on ‘entitlement to access’. (3) Thus, a solution to food poverty needs to have in its sights longer-term changes to the economic structures that have put this entitlement out of people’s reach. Underlying the 2007 review is a suggestion that in ploughing resources into local food initiatives the Government has been distracted from its inaction in some of the spheres that drive food prices – business, for example, regeneration and planning. A true solution to food poverty needs to be – to borrow an agricultural metaphor – ‘sustainable’ rather than at ‘subsistence’ level. It has to do two things:

Support people in food poverty to do more than just ‘subsist’.

It must address the long-term nature of food poverty, which is more than just the sum of families’ crises. A sustainable programme should have wider aims – looking to the effects of food poverty (e.g. malnutrition, social isolation) as well as its causes (e.g. unemployment, low financial capability). The most successful programmes may well be coproduced by users themselves.

Involve initiatives which are sustainable in themselves.

Food banks tend to rely on volunteers and donations of one kind or another (whether directly from retailers, or more widely sourced from the local community). They are therefore restricted to a model that conforms to very narrow expectations of the role of the ‘giver’ and the ‘receiver’, and has limits on how far they can grow. Successful alternative initiatives will be ones that allow growth and continuation, tapping into innovations in sourcing and ownership and proving their worth by creating wider social value – thereby making themselves financially sustainable if not in the short then in the longer term. These two requirements lead to a set of six practical challenges:

  • pass on affordable prices to customers
  • reach those most in need
  • address underlying drivers
  • achieve the right operating scale
  • find a sustainable source of food
  • be or become financially sustainable.


(1) Caraher and Dowler, ‘Food projects in London’.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Cited in Caraher and Dowler, ‘Food projects in London’.