A spoonful of community action

The British are not famous for their cuisine. The seaside city of Brighton & Hove is probably best known for its ‘rock’ – a hardboiled sweet.

But this reputation appears to be unwarranted. The city was the first in the UK to create a city-wide food strategy, for which it has won a slew of domestic awards and gained international recognition. The Brighton & Hove Food Partnership leads this work with a wide range of partners from across the city.

Early on during the pandemic, Brighton & Hove, like many cities, recognised an emerging pattern: longer queues at food banks, and more families and individuals having to make difficult financial choices. Years of groundwork meant the city was well placed to respond to the challenge.

The city’s Affordable Food Network offers, “a next step on from emergency food provision for people experiencing long-term food insecurity.” The work of the network represents a food system in transition.

Community at its core

Helen Starr-Keddle, Food Policy Coordinator for Emergency Food, Brighton & Hove City Council, enjoys her work helping the City Council to link and include different people. “A lot of what we’re working on now sprung up during the pandemic,” explains Starr-Keddle. “People organised via WhatsApp groups for example, where neighbours were in touch to see what each other needed. It could just be some shopping. We were talking with many people at the time, trying to work out how we could help people get affordable food, and that’s when we decided on the membership model. Local businesses chipped in, and it all just got underway.”

Now, the Affordable Food Network is helping 1,000 adults and 500 children ensure they have good food on the table. For example, BrightStore, setup in September 2020, helps feed around 750 people each week. Everything the store offers is high quality food, including vegetables purchased from local farmers at full price. Members help to run the store, which they plan to be able to run independently given time, luck, and slightly better circumstances. Nonetheless, the model has already been deemed a success, with a franchise set up more recently in Hove.

One notable outcome of the initiative to date has been that people report feeling more connected to their community, and 60% of participants say they are now eating more vegetables.

Advancing local food chains

The city got involved, explains Starr-Keddle, to link up different initiatives that were already operating in the city, and help connect “people that don’t necessarily need a food bank, but definitely have some problems struggling to afford food.”

The local projects aim to become sustainable by asking people to pay a weekly membership – “something very small, like £4.50 or £6. Then, typically, a family might walk away with £20 worth of food,” says Starr-Keddle.

The membership fees are used to pay for produce from an organisation called Brighton Food Factory that sources food from local farms. Of the nine current projects that form the Affordable Food Network, five also work with a local bakery.

A lot of people are actually getting good quality food and trying new things that they probably would have been completely excluded from before
— Helen Starr-Keddle, Brighton & Hove City Council

“It’s really lovely, because it means that a lot of people are actually getting good quality food and trying new things that they probably would have been completely excluded from before, and we’re supporting the local economy,” explains Starr-Keddle.

Tackling Food poverty

Not everything has gone well, however. Financing the initiative has been a major hurdle, with the projects relying on a lot of input from volunteers in order to become more stable.

Local children’s centres have been running a crisis-based food bank throughout the pandemic, where families receive pre-made emergency food parcels, which, due to budget constraints, has recently become handing out food vouchers instead. Now the City Council is trialling a pilot affordable food scheme in one of the children’s centres.

“Adopting a membership model, is one way of helping people who cannot afford food while keeping down costs,” says Starr-Keddle.

“I think the other tricky thing that we’ve had to deal with,” says Starr-Keddle, “is that the food we get from the food factory is more expensive than what you might get in some supermarkets or on wholesale, because it’s organic and supports regenerative farming.”

Spaces of hope

In order to support the local food economy, the City Council had organised for Brighton Food Factory to use an old golf course building which was part of a rewilding project. This allowed for supply and distribution to develop in the network, but it is something that will have to change in the longer term.

“Going into the winter, we’re still registering about 220% higher need for food services than pre-pandemic,” says Starr-Keddle, who believes that food affordability is going to remain a challenge for quite some time to come.

Going into the winter, we’re still registering about 220% higher need for food services than pre-pandemic
— Helen Starr-Keddle, Brighton & Hove City Council

Nonetheless, the idea for the Affordable Food Network, has always been to operate alongside crisis response, to relieve some of the pressure, and offer that next step. The approved recommendations from a recent committee report bring a lot of support to the wider emergency food and policy work.

“The City Council has to consider what it can keep going, and what will build long-term resilience in the city and its people. There was central government funding during the pandemic, and now longer-term plans need to be defined locally – of course we’re very keen that food remains a priority” says Angela Blair, Food Policy Coordinator, Brighton & Hove City Council.

With its ongoing commitment to re-imagine how its food systems are managed, it seems certain that Brighton & Hove will ensure that these projects have a place in the local community while they are needed.

Brighton & Hove was a runner up in the Eurocities Awards 2021, for the ‘farm to fork’ category’.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer