Social enterprise as a catalyst for sustainable and healthy local food systems

Lead Research Organisation: Middlesex University
Department Name: Business School


The scale of change needed to transform UK food systems for health, social justice and environment requires new ideas, organisational models and collaborative approaches that can meaningfully engage individuals and communities. Existing top-down approaches to the challenge of sustainable food provision and diet have failed to tackle the crisis of poor dietary health and sustainable food production. Our proposed research will focus on the distinctive role of social enterprises as an integral part of a more diverse system, exploring and enhancing their unique contribution to food systems that are more inclusive, sustainable and healthy.

Social enterprise are organisations that are trading with a core social and environmental purpose, and make up 9% of the business population. Initial work by the project team and partners reveals how social enterprises and their community engagement around food and wellbeing can occur through a variety of activities, including community growing spaces and distribution schemes, leisure and fitness centres, children's nurseries and other community-based services. The proposed research will examine the extent to which such 'bottom up' approaches that build on local understandings, networks and capabilities have further unrealised potential to engage diverse communities and other organisational actors (private, public and civil society), and thus catalyse the expansion of sustainable and healthy local food systems across the UK.
To this end, our transdisciplinary team, led by researchers who are part of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, brings together expertise from the natural, social and policy sciences, with specialisms in social enterprise, sustainable consumption, nutrition and environmental life cycle assessment. This team will work with six partner social enterprises in England, Scotland and Wales and six support/policy organisations all of whom contribute to the research design at all stages. This will ensure the potential for transformational impact on policy and practice is maximised.
The research will include the following main elements:

-Analysis of the range and types of social enterprise involved in developing local food systems and connecting people to growing spaces and other green areas.
-Examination of the scientifically measurable outcomes of the interventions on the supply chain, environment and nutrition, and identification of good practice in measuring such impacts.
-Case studies of social enterprises focused on food and community wellbeing to examine how they engage their communities, their ownership/governance structures, partnerships and innovative practices, the challenges they face and their support needs.
-Exploration of the different understandings of sustainable food and diets within diverse communities.
-Mapping the wider food network, key stakeholders and supportive ecosystem in each case study locality.
-Exploring how transformational change can come about from scaling up social enterprise activity and policy change.
Central to the project is the active participation of our social enterprise partners, their staff and community members, with particular attention to developing their research skills and capacity, as well as those of the academic researchers to enable participatory research.
The research findings will be used to co-design resources and toolkits to support the scaling-up or replication of successful models and innovations and the sharing of good practice across the country. This is not without its challenges and the project will examine the various barriers and constraining factors and how they can best be addressed. In addition to good practice guides for social enterprises and other organisations across the country, policy briefings will be prepared, focusing on the different levels of local, regional and national policy making.


10 25 50
Description Food Possibilities-finding food justice within planetary boundaries 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The 7th event in our Nature of Prosperity dialogue, explored how community level innovations tackled health, affordability and sustainability in our food systems.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023
Description Online Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A panel discussion, hosted by the Oxford Martin School, bringing together representatives from the advertising and food industries, from social enterprise and academia to explore advertising, food, desire and the question of ecological limits.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022