Forgotten voices at the heart of new UK food research project

Disadvantaged communities left behind by the traditional UK food system will have a bigger say in how healthy and sustainable food is produced and distributed through a new research project involving academics at the University of Plymouth.

The project unites researchers and food industry representatives with charity leaders to reimagine how food policy, products and supply chains can be developed.

It will focus on working with disadvantaged communities to jointly imagine new solutions to address a lack of access to healthy, sustainable food.

The work is one of four interdisciplinary research projects to have received a total of £24million funding through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF).

It will develop a framework to ensure food is affordable, desirable and fits with the complex demands on people’s lives. This means regular consumption of a nutritious diet, produced in a way that is good for our planet, will be an attainable aspiration for all members of our society.

Preliminary work has shown that people living in disadvantaged communities have the desire to eat a healthier diet and are aware that good nutrition is closely linked to good physical and mental health.

Dr Clare Pettinger, Lecturer in Public Health Dietetics

Dr Clare Pettinger, Lecturer in Public Health Dietetics

The project is being conducted by a partnership including Dr Clare Pettinger, Lecturer in Public Health Dietetics, and colleagues at the universities of Reading, Cranfield, Sussex and Kent. She said:

“I am thrilled to be part of a collaborative project which brings together four very diverse communities [alongside a range of other key partners], putting their voices at the heart of more democratic decision making to transform our food system. In Plymouth, a city with very high levels of disadvantage, we have seen worsening inequities in food access, particularly in our more disadvantaged communities, which affects both physical and mental health. This project bring enormous opportunities to our city offering our communities, and the organisations that serve them, a greater active say in how we can transform our food system to support both human and planetary health gains.”

The Plymouth element of the project, which will directly receive around £600,000 funding, will build on Dr Pettinger’s previous work examining how food poverty is impacting vulnerable people across the city.

This has included research in tandem with disadvantaged groups and community initiatives, and resulted in a film – Food: On the Margins in Plymouth, produced with media company Fotonow CIC thanks to funding from the Sustainable Earth Institute's Creative Associates programme – designed to shed light on the impact of food poverty within the city of Plymouth.

For the new project, she will be using her expertise in public health nutrition as part of a local and national benchmarking exercise to understand the diets of disadvantaged communities.

She will then also work with the Food Plymouth CIC to establish a team of community food researchers, whose work will include helping industry partners to improve the content healthiness and sustainability of food products.

As the project progresses, Dr Pettinger will also help to evaluate the impact of new products on choice and public health and then develop new community food policies.

Away from Plymouth, the project will focus on sharing knowledge and learning from working with people from a variety of disadvantaged communities (Whitley, Berkshire; Brighton and Hove, West Sussex; Tower Hamlets, London) as well as small and large food businesses and policy makers.

Communities will co-create policies to prevent food loss from 'mainstream' supply chains, and identify where increased sustainable production of primary food ingredients is needed.

Professor Carol Wagstaff, from the University of Reading, is the overall project lead. She said:

“People who are currently struggling to put healthy, sustainable food on their tables each day are at the heart of this new project. Many struggle, not because they lack aspiration or knowledge about food, but because of the real impact of financial or time poverty. The project will give a voice and power to those who are so often left behind when food systems, food policies and novel products are designed. The work will be jointly carried out between our researchers, people in disadvantaged communities, policy makers and food producers to find new ways to tackle systemic issues around food inequalities. Together, we will help to give everyone access to a diet that meets their health needs and which is produced in a way that is good for our planet.”
Professor Guy Poppy, Programme Director of the Transforming the UK Food Systems SPF Programme, added:

“Never before has the role that the food system plays in both environmental and human health been so centre-stage. Major issues facing humanity such as addressing climate change and building back better post-Covid will be essential in improving health and wellbeing. I am really excited by the ambitious and transformative projects we have selected for funding – every single person in the UK could benefit from this research and we will ensure that the best evidence is generated to answer and offer solutions to the questions which matter and the decisions which need to be made in Transforming the UK food system.”

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Nutrition is integral to life and health; it influences growth, development, maintenance of health, and can be used to treat disease. We are working to further understand the relationship between nutrition and health. 

Our Dietetics, Human Nutrition and Health research group encompasses all these aspects of nutritional research and collaborates across professions and with other institutes, promoting inter-disciplinary research between the area of nutrition.

Find out more about our nationally and internationally renowned research and expertise at the University of Plymouth – Dietetics, Human Nutrition and Health research group.


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Image: Sustainable Earth Institute Creative Associates (Andy Hughes)

Image: Sustainable Earth Institute Creative Associates (Andy Hughes)