City Research & Enterprise Review 2011
  1. Health & Wellbeing
  2. Cultural Heritage
  3. Processes & Systems Improvement
  4. Government & Society at Large
  5. Effective Use of Energy
  1. The Centre for Food Policy
City Research & Enterprise Review 2011

The Centre for Food Policy

City’s Centre for Food Policy is the only university-based team in the world dedicated to examining the policy frameworks that span the entire food supply chain in the developed world.

The Centre for Food Policy (CFP) was established at the University in 2002. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise results positioned it as the number one UK academic research unit working in the area of food policy.

The Centre is led by Professor Tim Lang, CFP Director, and Professor Martin Caraher. Professor Lang served as Land Use and Natural Resources (Food) Commissioner to the UK Government's Sustainable Development Commission from 2006 to 2011. He is also the inventor of the term 'food miles', now used internationally.

Food policy is the term referring to decision-making that shapes the food system. The academic study of food policy focuses on the many decisions which inform how food is grown, processed, distributed and consumed. The modern analysis of food policy includes the impact and implications of food for health, the environment, society and the economy. To this end, the CFP researches, develops and comments on food policy both nationally and internationally, highlighting the key issues faced by countries, communities and families in the light of changes in the wider global economy, as well as the specifics of the food system's internal dynamics.

On the basis of both its academic activities and its involvement in policy-making, the Centre is widely recognised as the champion of integrated public health thinking for food. It is credited as being the first group to put some difficult issues on the public agenda; for example, how we define sustainable diets and how to resolve contradictions in current advice given to the public such as eat fish for health but reduce consumption in order to maintain fish stocks.

The CFP has also led an entire strand of research and debate on the role of cooking in society, namely whether, why and how to teach children to cook (Seeley, A., Wu, M. and Caraher, M., 2010. Should We Teach Cooking in Schools? A Systematic Review of the Literature Of School- Based Cooking Interventions. Journal of the Home Economics Institute of Australia, 17), including advising the Jamie Oliver team on the Channel 4 programme 'Jamie's School Dinners'.

Research that puts food policy in a global context

These are interesting but complex times for the clarification of food policy. Food is often a sensitive indicator of wider economic troubles. The rocketing global food commodity prices between 2006 and 2008 and again in 2011 have initiated global debates about rising hunger, land use (food versus biofuels), futures trading and food insecurity as well as rising levels of household food poverty. A question still troubling the food policy community is whether this state of affairs is permanent, signifying altered power relations, or whether the long 20th century progress in producing more food more cheaply might be resumed. The CFP takes this picture as the backdrop for its work.

Research undertaken by the CFP resulted in shaping the remit of the UK Prime Minister's Strategy Unit project on Food and Food Policy. Following on from this, the team was involved in helping the three devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales shape their food policies. They also played an important role in developing several of the regional food strategies in England (Barling, D., Sharpe, L. and Lang, T., 2010. The Re-emergence of National Food Security on the United Kingdom's Strategic Policy Agenda: Sustainability Challenges and the Politics of Food Supply. In: Lawrence, G. et al. eds. Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainability. Earthscan).

Cooking up a storm

The work of the CFP has helped place restrictions on the advertising of food to children in the UK, Sweden and Ireland. It has also influenced the response of UK local authorities to the location of fast-food outlets in the vicinity of schools and the development of nutrient-based standards for school meals.

The study titled 'A Tale of Two Cities: A Study of Access to Food, Lessons for Public Health Practice' (Caraher, M., Lloyd, S., Lawton, J. et al., 2010. Health Education Journal, 69) reported that the number of fast-food outlets in some London boroughs was greater than the number of other retail outlets. This and other CFP studies led to a project funded by Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust and conducted with Tower Hamlets Council. Fish and Chips with a Side Order of Trans Fat. The Nutrition Implications of Eating from Fast-food Outlets: A Report on Eating Out in East London (Lloyd, S., Lawton, J., Caraher, M. et al., 2010. Centre for Food Policy, City University London) lays out the project's findings and makes several recommendations on the regulation of fast-food outlets in the Borough, particularly near schools.

Professor Caraher says: "Even three meals a week from fast-food outlets can account for up to 25 per cent of your estimated average requirement for energy for the whole week as well as being high in saturated fat and salt. While a number of national chains now have healthy options and have reduced the amount of fat, salt and sugar, the fact remains that if you are eating at a fast-food outlet you are ceding some control over your diet. There is clearly a need for action to support take-away outlets to provide healthier alternatives and to help young people and parents understand how the diet choices they make are impacting on their health."

Following on from this, in June 2010 the High Court ruled that councillors should take into account the public health implications of such businesses when granting planning permissions. Since then an appeal against refusal of planning permission in Tower Hamlets has been upheld, but in response to this the local authority is now developing a borough-wide policy taking account of the results of a survey of residents, who support greater restrictions. The current government is changing planning regulation to give more weight to the opinions of local residents and this additional development will provide evidence to support any further cases where it is considered that fast-food outlets should be limited.

The power of food to lead regeneration

A speech on the enormity of the food challenge given by Professor Lang in 2007 at a conference on climate change, inspired Pam Warhurst CBE, Chair of the Forestry Commission, to launch what has become Incredible Edible Todmorden (www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk). This is a now celebrated community-led project which corrals public space for growing food and is encouraging a depressed region to rebuild its identity around food growing. The Incredible Edible project now embraces 20 such towns, united by the same integrated thinking. This was and is a model of community-led cultural renaissance around food skills and sharing, developed in advance of the 'Big Society' theme. It has received wide support, praise and interest, not least from the Prince of Wales, and has also helped boost local tourism. Professor Lang has continued his connection with the project, speaking on the food challenges of today and tomorrow at the Incredible Edible Todmorden London conference in October 2010.

More research outcomes from City University London.