Using food to create local economic resilience

Community food enterprises are a success story of local collective action. Mark Walton of Shared Assets sets out the keys to making them work

Community food enterprises offer employment, training, and education, create new economic opportunities, contribute to vibrant local high streets, and shorten supply chains in the local food system.

Despite these successes the sector faces barriers to realising its full potential. Very low food prices make it difficult for community food enterprises to increase their income, and so many of them focus on reducing the costs of growing food, such as access to land. Local authorities can be critical partners in helping to achieve these cost reductions by providing access to land and creating a supportive planning environment.

In order to explore the barriers facing community enterprises, and the opportunities to create stronger, fairer and more resilient local food systems, Shared Assets undertook a two year action research project with three leading community food growing organisations, Ecological Land Co-op, Kindling Trust, and Organiclea.

Using food to build local economic resilience
Using a model developed by the New Economics Foundation, we worked with our project partners to identify how they each contribute to different to the different elements of a resilient local economy.

Ecological Land Cooperative secure land to develop affordable sites for farming, forestry and other rural enterprises, and opportunities for ecological land-based businesses. They provide the sites, infrastructure and business mentoring to enable growers to develop their businesses.

Kindling Trust support new organic growers in Greater Manchester through their FarmStart training programme, and have established and support a cooperative of growers and buyers and a worker owned organic box scheme. They are one of a group of organisations managing a disused local authority plant nursery, transforming it into a community hub linking up inclusive community gardening, social prescribing and commercial growing.

Organiclea run an organic market garden, a veg box scheme, provide training for new growers in London, and help them access land and set up new enterprises. They manage two former local authority plant nursery sites, and provide a market for growers through their retail and wholesale activities.

Local authority officers stressed the need for evidence of the impacts community food growers were making in order to secure support and access to public land for growing. As a result of the project we have been able to suggest a range of ways in which community food enterprises can provide this, often using data they are already gathering for other purposes. These are set out in our guide: Local economic resilience: the role you play.

How councils can be collaborative partners
Community food enterprises often rely on a range of support from local authorities. The project identified some key ways in which local authorities can provide effective support on limited resources. These include:

  • being a facilitator and offering to share knowledge and connections,
  • offering access to land through appropriate tenure, which might include a licence to operate or lease as well as asset transfer and freehold ownership, and
  • providing leadership by being clear about the wider objectives and strategies that food growing can help to achieve and securing buy in from the different departments needed to take it forward such as estates, finance and legal.

How planning can help develop small scale agriculture
In rural areas in particular, community food enterprises need to build dwellings to enable them to develop a sustainable livelihood but, frequently, applications for dwellings associated with smallholdings are rejected. Ensuring that local plans reference the need for sustainable and resilient local food systems can help provide an enabling policy framework. It is also important for both applicants and Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to understand the underlying principles that inform planning policy in this area, and the material considerations that are relevant to them. The project has created guidance for LPAs and community food enterprises on how the planning system can enable low impact development for small scale agriculture.

The need for local systems
Our research identified that local food economies require the establishment of networks or ‘clusters’ of collaborative enterprises, organisations and networks delivering complementary functions.

An individual community food enterprise may play multiple roles that each contribute to their diverse incomes streams and their multiple social impacts. The research identified the importance for organisations working at a local and national level being able to understand their role in the system and to be able to identify gaps that need filling. It is also important for local authorities and other stakeholders to recognise that, while individual community food enterprises may be small in scale, they are often critical elements in a wider system that supports an array of small growers, distributors, processors and retailers that together make up a resilient local food economy and a wider sustainable food system.

  • The full series of guides for community enterprises and local authorities exploring these issues in more detail can be found here, and we are keen to hear from local authorities or local food partnerships who would like to explore further how they can develop more resilient local food economies.
  • Please get in touch at


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