Food projects and how they work

Pauline McGlone, Barbara Dobson, Elizabeth Dowler and Michael Nelson

The Government programme to reduce health and social inequalities in the UK is encouraging communities to develop sustainable initiatives to address local problems.

Local food projects are examples of such initiatives and include food co-ops, community cafe's, 'cook & eat' sessions, and partnerships between retailers, local authorities and communities.

There has been little research on how such community projects work. This report discusses why some food projects are successful while others fail. Drawing on the experiences of 25 projects, it explores what factors lead to the establishment of sustainable local initiatives and what hinders their development. But it also explores the general lessons learned about working with local communities, which extend beyond food-related issues.

Summary

Summary

The Government programme to reduce health and social inequalities is encouraging communities to develop sustainable initiatives to address local problems. One example of this is local food projects. To date there has been little systematic research on how they work. This study draws on the experiences of 25 food projects to give a better understanding of how these projects work, what they can realistically be expected to achieve and, most importantly, how they can help. A team of researchers from three institutions found that:

  • Local food projects can do many things: improve access to food; enhance cooking skills; increase confidence; and offer social support. They provide common ground for local people and professionals to work together in innovative ways.
  • There are many different types of food projects yet none was found to be more sustainable than another. Two key factors influencing sustainability were funding and community involvement. Also critical were: professional support; the ability to reconcile differing agendas; shared ownership; credibility; the presence of dynamic workers; and the project's capacity to respond to the needs of all those involved.
  • Setting up a food project takes considerable time and effort. Most of the projects studied took up to two years to become established and integrated into a community.
  • While short-term and one-off funding are essential to projects setting up, funding structures mean that projects struggle to find ongoing running costs. Many either tried to reinvent themselves to meet new funding criteria or devoted significant time and energy to chasing small sums of money. Insecure funding also led to difficulties in planning and development.
  • Both volunteers and professionals involved need support and training as many are working in new and challenging fields.
  • The researchers conclude that:
    • social gains for individuals and communities are intrinsic to projects achieving nutritional and health benefits. Projects should be evaluated on the increase in skills, confidence, changes to shopping and eating behaviour, as well as on longer term nutritional and health outcomes;
    • food projects are only part of the solution to health inequalities. They do not provide comprehensive coverage or integrated solutions and are often confined to the periphery of regeneration initiatives.

Community food projects

Local food projects have great potential for improving the lives of all those who participate in them. At the most basic level, food projects help address problems of physical and economic access to food. In many places the poorest have to pay high prices for even basic foodstuffs because good shops are few and far between, and good quality fresh foods become unaffordable luxuries. The reality is that people have to pay bills and rent before buying fruit. Local food projects offer the chance of obtaining good food at low cost: whether ready prepared, as in food provision or cafes; raw ingredients through food co-ops or gardens; or improving skills and confidence to try new foods or dishes through 'cook and eat' sessions.

In practice 'food projects' are about more than just food. They function best when nutritional advice, cooking skills or food provision are placed in a context or setting that local people can identify with. For this reason they include many activities, operate in a range of environments from inner city estates to small towns and villages, and bring together a mix of professionals and local people. Food projects adopt a variety of approaches and differ in terms of management structures and organisation.

Projects vary in their degree of professional and local involvement, and most also include non-food-related activities, such as providing advice. All the projects in this study work with people with low incomes, most of whom live in areas with multiple needs.

This study found that no single formula could guarantee the success of a food project or prescribe which type of project works in any given situation. Food projects are specific to the communities in which they are based and no one type or structure of project appears to be more successful than another.

Project development

Projects go through three stages in their evolution:

  • a period of establishing (the project is getting off the ground and gathering together the appropriate information and people);
  • a period of consolidating (the people involved work out their roles, territories are defined and the project either becomes stronger or weaker);
  • and a third stage of adapting (the project alters in some way, possibly because of changes in agendas, location, or key personnel, whether professionals or volunteers).

At each stage the same factors appear to determine whether the project is sustainable; what varies is the relative importance of different factors.

As a project moves from one stage to another, the possibility of losing support from both professionals and community members appears to increase. Most projects go from the 'establishing' to the 'consolidating' stage, but only some move to the 'adapting' stage. Those that do, have recourse to sufficient 'facilitating factors' (see Table 1) to enable change. In other projects change is imposed; priorities or circumstances alter and a response is essential for survival. Indeed, 'adapting' can mean a new project is set up, and the process begins again.

Table 1: Factors affecting the sustainability of food projects
Facilitate Hinder
Reconciling different agendas Opposing agendas
Funding Instability of funding
Community involvement Meeting limited needs
Professional support Lack of support
Credibility Changing agendas
Shared ownership Exclusively owned
Dynamic worker  
Responsiveness  

Project sustainability

Table 1 lists the factors affecting the sustainability of food projects. The more facilitating factors a project exhibits, the more likely it is to thrive rather than struggle.

Reconciling different agendas

Many factors interact as individuals and organisations attempt to reconcile different responsibilities, objectives and agendas. The way in which these issues are handled affects the sustainability of the project, either fostering good working relationships between all those involved, or alienating individuals and organisations. Local food projects work best when all involved, professionals and local people, feel that their concerns are being addressed.

Many projects in this study have explicit aims and objectives about things other than food, for example to provide a place to meet and an opportunity to make friends. How these non-food-related aims are reconciled with nutritional issues is important in determining the project's success and sustainability.

Finding common ground so that each group can achieve what they need or want often proves difficult. The key people involved in a project need a pragmatic approach to meeting their own agendas. Aims and objectives have to be prioritised, and those involved have to accept that not all can always be met, or acknowledged.

Funding

Secure funding is a critical factor in determining whether a project is sustainable. This study suggests that local food projects need two types of funding: money to help them set up and funding to cover running costs. Both are equally important but many projects find funding for running costs very difficult to obtain. As a result, projects have constantly to reinvent themselves so that they qualify again for set-up funding. Some projects are trapped in this cycle; this is not only time-consuming but hinders the natural development of the project.

Local community projects take time to set up and to become established. Many projects feel that it is only as their funding is running out that they really 'get going' and work well. While it is important that funding should be available to new projects, existing projects continue to need financial support. The challenge to the current funding system is to find a way to reward success by continuing some level of funding rather than penalise it by stopping or reducing funding.

Community involvement

An important facilitating factor is the genuine involvement of local people as active participants and equal partners whose concerns and experience are intrinsic to the project's success. The level of community support determines whether a project becomes established, how quickly and successfully it consolidates, and how it responds and adapts to meet changing needs. It is therefore important that involving local communities starts at the planning stage, when decisions are being made about what type of project is required.

"I think [what makes a project work is] support from the local community; ... because if it's something that they need and they want and they desire, and they're involved in the practical issues, I think that you can keep it going, ... some people who I'm listening to ... are very passionate about it, they don't want it to dissolve and disappear."
Cafe: Health Development Worker

Professional support

Professionals can play a number of different roles in food projects, all of which require trust and good working relationships with local people and other professionals. In order to establish good rapport professionals need time, resources and authority to invest in a project. Flexibility is critical in the way professionals interpret their own and others' roles and in the activities they and the projects undertake.

Food projects require multi-disciplinary working which often means that professional boundaries are crossed, for example health professionals have to work using a community development approach. People have to acquire new skills and expertise to meet these challenges. They take on new roles and responsibilities and these have to be recognised as legitimate.

Furthermore, community-based work seldom happens quickly, nor to order. Working constructively with communities, so that they are viewed as part of the solution and not only as the problem, takes time and trust. These elements have to be incorporated into professionals' job descriptions. Professionals also need realistic targets (at national and local levels) and timetables that allow for a flexible approach.

Credibility

A project has to be seen as plausible in terms of ideas and activities, structure and organisation, by all those who come in contact with it. Without such credibility it will lack support and fail to obtain funding.

Shared ownership

Where project ownership is exclusive, those in control are less likely to respond positively to the needs and ideas of the wider group. This can have a long-term impact on project sustainability. For example, projects 'owned' by an individual or clique almost invariably experience personality clashes:

"It went with everybody falling out with everybody else, and it just wasn't worth it, so we just let it go and started a new one".
Food Co-op: Community Development Worker

Dynamic individuals

In most projects, one or more dynamic individuals are crucial because they generate enthusiasm and support. In some instances this is enough to compensate for the absence of other factors. These individuals can either be professionals or community members.

Responsiveness

To maintain interest and support, projects have to be responsive to the changing agendas and needs of users, volunteers and professionals. This means ensuring that the activities provided address local needs, and that all those involved with the project - volunteers and professionals - have the skills they require.

Networking or building partnerships

Projects that build links with different organisations are more likely to be sustainable. They support and learn from each other, and are able to exploit others' agendas, for example, for new funding opportunities.

Local networks also provide opportunities for regular, practical support tailored to local issues and needs. Volunteers, paid workers and professionals all initiate, maintain and value these connections. The links tend to be between projects of similar types (e.g. food co-ops, community cafes) or between projects attached to common institutions (e.g. run by health visitors). National networks are mostly used by professionals, either for specific training or to be able to contact other projects of a similar nature.

Measuring success

Food projects can help to overcome social isolation, give people a sense of worth and increase feelings of well being. They can also help in raising levels of skills and training, enable individuals to take more control of their own health and welfare, as well as promoting healthier eating. These aspects of community food projects, which contribute to raising 'social capital', are easily overlooked when measuring their success.

Conclusion

An important finding from this study is that food projects should not be judged solely on whether they produce changes in nutrition or health outcomes measured over the long-term - such as changes in blood vitamin levels, or reductions in mortality, important though these are. They should also be seen as contributing to changes in short-term nutrition indicators, such as skills and confidence to use a wider range of foodstuffs than before, or to improved food purchasing or eating patterns through access to cheaper food.

Food projects are clearly not the only answer to addressing health inequalities but they can be part of a wider strategy to improve health. They require a facilitating policy environment that recognises their potential but is realistic about the problems facing those who live where food projects are found. The researchers conclude that the following are key to making food projects work:

  • flexibility;
  • community ownership - where local people are regarded as equal partners in the project;
  • patience;
  • committed back-up;
  • training and support;
  • access to funding that is not short-term or only focused on innovation.

About this study

This study worked with 25 food projects throughout Britain. A mix of quantitative and qualitative methods were used to collect information from all those involved with the projects. The study was conducted by researchers from Kings College London (Pauline McGlone and Michael Nelson), London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (Elizabeth Dowler) and the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University (Barbara Dobson).

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