Blog: Hungry for more: scaling up community food enterprises for public benefit

Published: 10 Oct 2019

Author: Joanna Heywood
Blog: Hungry for more: scaling up community food enterprises for public benefit

Many pressing problems in our country today relate to food production and consumption: half of adults are overweight and obese; healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy food and about of a third of the food we produce goes to waste. Current food production processes are unsustainable and is contributing to climate change. Community food enterprises could be part of the solution.

Earlier this year, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship. In May, I travelled to Bolivia and Peru to explore how community-owned food businesses can be successfully scaled up for public benefit. To mark Social Enterprise UK’s #BuySocial week, a time to raise awareness of the brilliant social enterprises out there, here are the key things I learnt from my Fellowship.

Joanna Heywood pictured with two men at a social enterprise in Asia

Joanna (centre) pictured at the Alto Huallaga Cocoa Cooperative in Peru with its general manager (left) and president of the producers association (right)

The impact of community food enterprises

Community food enterprises are organisations that are run by communities for their benefit. They’re primarily involved in at least one part of growing, harvesting, processing, distributing, selling and serving food. They may also be involved in the sustainable disposal of waste food. Those involved are likely to be committed to local food as a way of ensuring quality and sustainability in the food chain. 

On my fellowship, I interviewed 10 community food enterprises in the UK and 20 in Bolivia and Peru, as well as 8 finance and support providers in the UK and 11 in Bolivia and Peru. I explored the people behind these enterprises, the communities they serve and the challenges they face in growth.

Two women baking in a kitchen

Chefs making the cooperative's award-winning chocolate

I found exciting examples of enterprises tackling food problems in the UK, including: 

  • Sutton Community farm, which produces better food while improving community cohesion.
  • HISBE supermarket, a shop that improves access to ethical and sustainably sourced food.
  • Snact, which produces healthier, affordable snacks from fruit that would have gone to waste.
  • Our Kitchen, providing nutritious and affordable ready meals to low income households. 

Although promising, such enterprises tend to be small and only 2% turn over more than £1 million, which limits their social impact and financial viability.

I discovered similar barriers to scale across all the enterprises I spoke to in the UK and in South America: 

  • Access to markets.
  • Leadership and governance.
  • Access to patient capital and support.
  • The challenge of retaining a community focus.
  • Access to land.

 A cocoa farmer pictured in the Amazon in Peru

A cocoa farmer in the Amazon of Peru

What we need to do to improve and grow community food enterprises in the UK 

In Bolivia and Peru, I found several examples of community food enterprises that are successfully growing without losing their community focus. They combine good leadership, the right finance and support, and an absolute dedication to quality and to finding the right buyers. 

Having studied the secrets of their growth, I concluded that the following three actions are needed to improve and grow community food enterprises in the UK: 

1) The Buy Social movement should be sufficiently resourced to emulate the Fairtrade movement, connect the ecosystem better and get social enterprise products into supermarkets and companies. 

2) A programme of support should be set up to help community food enterprises have better leverage over food buyers, especially supermarkets – or to help them partner with them to develop better food products. Programmes such as Social Investment Scotland’s retail academy with Asda should be replicated. 

3) Supermarkets should be showing the way, building on the Ethical Consumer ranking of the ethical and environmental record of 22 supermarkets. Best in class supermarkets like HISBE should be replicated across the country. The Co-Op should “go social” again and source only fair trade organic and local food as well as promoting the Buy Social campaign. 

Joanna will be presenting the findings from her Fellowship at the RSA in London on Tuesday 12 November at 2pm. If you’d like to attend, please email Joanna.

Read Joanna’s report 

Visit Joanna’s blog for more updates about her work with small business and social enterprises