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Children's health and food Urban health

Urban Food Futures

18 May 2021
5 min read

Changing the fate of our food environments

What will the food environment in inner cities be like in 2035? What will have changed or remained the same? Will the factors affecting our access to nutritious food help address childhood obesity, or further increase the inequality gap?

And whatever the forces of change are, what can we all do to prepare, or to shape them for the better? Are we focusing our efforts and resources in the right direction, or are there new opportunities for innovation? 

We commissioned this project with SOIF and Shift to explore these questions, their impact on childhood obesity and to explore how to change things for the better. We’ve undertaken future analysis, community research, and engagement with those working in and around the food system.

We hope that by visualising what a better urban food future could look like and putting forward a roadmap to get there we can collectively change the fate of our food environments and move toward a preferred food future that works for us all. 

Laptop with a screen saying 'Welcome to 2035'

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See what our food environments could look like in 2035.

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Where are we heading?

Explore a reimagined urban food future

No one knows for sure how the food environment will evolve over the next 15 years, but analysis of multiple, interconnecting trends can show us what’s likely to happen. The probable future involves starker inequalities. Families living on lower incomes will spend more of their income on food, be more vulnerable to food system shocks, and have less access to affordable, nutritious food. In this future childhood obesity is even more entrenched, and the socio-economic food divide becomes wider.   

Research with families living on low incomes in Lambeth and Southwark shows they have a clear vision for a more equitable future food environment in which access to healthy, tasty, convenient, affordable food is a right, not a luxury. But they are sceptical that businesses and policymakers are committed to building this future.

How can we create a better urban food future?

Download the Urban Food Futures report

We don’t have to accept the urban food future that is likely if things continue on their current trajectory.  We can focus our efforts now on shaping a more equal, less obesogenic 2035 food environment. 

Our research has identified that socio-economic inequality will continue to be a key driver of childhood obesity. We can’t solve inequality directly, but we can address key aspects of the broader food system that will help to make a difference. 

Our preferred future for 2035 is of a food environment that has citizens and place at its heart. An urban food future that recognises and respects an important role for the private sector but holds it to a higher account and balances its power and influence with the interests of communities.

Improving the food environment will require a set of changes that create a positive reinforcing loop. This is built on four evidence-based intervention points or ‘platforms for change’ we’ve identified, that we can start to act on today to shape a better 2035:

Better food environments

These four platforms for change provide a shared ambition for businesses, policymakers and charities to align around. They are evidence-based mechanisms to mobilise parts of the system that support a better food environment and damp down the parts of the system that don’t. 

1) Enshrine access to healthy food as a right

Access to healthy food is currently a luxury only affordable to the more affluent in our society. Parents we spoke to want a future where access to affordable food and nutrition is a right, not a privilege based on wealth. In 2035, it will be even more of a luxury unless we make a change. As a society we acknowledge the importance of ensuring everyone has access to healthcare and water, regardless of their income, but we leave access to healthy foods to market forces.

The universal right to healthy food matters because the consequences of poor nutrition and obesity ultimately affect us all. The NHS estimates that the social costs of obesity will reach nearly £50 billion in the next 30 years

2) Enable local communities to demand better and play a part in change

Charities, government and businesses have a key role to play in improving the food environment, but success relies on citizen participation. Social change happens most effectively, and most in line with citizens’ needs, when people are supported to organise and campaign for what they want to see happen.  

Citizens and small local businesses often have a vision of a healthier food environment and are deeply invested in a better future for them and their family. However, their voices are not prioritised and they lack the power and mechanisms to influence or demand change.

We need to find better ways to listen to communities and act on their priorities in a way that gets new voices in the food system – influencing discussions and shaping what happens.

3) Support and promote values-led actors in the food system

Historically, the food sector has been dominated by businesses driven primarily by profit, with limited regard for public health or the societal costs of the products they sell. This needs to change.

Values-led businesses consider health and social impact alongside profit, resulting in a very different contribution to the food environment. Instead of treating health and wellbeing costs, like childhood obesity, as an externality, they factor it into their business model and innovate accordingly. This results in more accessible, affordable, healthy food options.  

4) Raise the regulatory floor to set better parameters for a better urban food future

 We need to use regulation to more effectively address the market failures and false externalities of the food system. Currently, market failures mean the food system can operate without factoring in external costs to health, society or the environment to its business and operating models. The goal is to raise the regulatory floor and disclosure requirement, so there is less ambiguity about whether increasing access to healthy options is an ‘opt in’ decision for businesses. Regulation also enables businesses to go further because it levels the playing field. 

Read the 'Urban Food Futures' report

Help change the urban food future for the better

What we’ve seen from this piece of work is not altogether surprising. In broad terms, without a concerted cross-sector effort, inequalities will widen. People with less money available will continue to have worse food options than others as a result of market failures.

However, as this work demonstrates, this future is not inevitable. We can influence change for the better through our choices and actions now. To shape a better urban food future for our food environment, we need to come together around a shared agenda, with a clear role for businesses, charities and policymakers, and a clear voice for communities.

We invite all actors within the food system, and with influence over it, to engage with this research and roadmap to create a preferred future food system for all. 

Work with us on our children's health and food programme

Do you have ideas to improve the future of food? Get in touch with our Programme Director, Becka Sunter.

Contact Becka