News &

Social Innovation: Case Study 2 – Community Food Enterprises

Mark Walton

We are conducting a research project looking at social innovation, how it scales and how it retains or grows its social impact. Here we look in more detail at the history of community led food growing. We’re keen to get feedback on this work as it develops. Please take a look and leave a comment.

As part of our research into how different social innovations have scaled, and how this has affected their social value and impact, we are using five social innovations as case studies. They are: development trusts, community food enterprises, community HIV health services, community energy enterprises and community recycling programmes.

We have undertaken desktop research into each of these innovations, and are now conducting semi-structured interviews with key people working in each field. We are keen to hear from other people working in our case study fields, and with people engaged in social innovation in general. To facilitate this debate, we will be sharing our summaries of each innovation based on our desktop research.

This second case study tackles the history and proliferation of community-led food growing. Please take a look at our summary, and let us know what you think in the comments section.

Community food enterprises are enterprises that produce and distribute food at a local level, while also providing ‘multiple outcomes’ such as environmental sustainability, local economic development and encouraging greater community cohesion.[1]

Many different sociopolitical agendas have contributed to the growth of community food enterprises. The growth of the localism and sustainability agendas, combined with concern about the lack of transparency and accountability in the food chain brought about by food scares such as the foot and mouth disease outbreak and the horse meat scandal, have been key drivers behind this sector.[2]

Support programmes such as Making Local Food Work (a 5 year programme completed in 2012) and the Big Lottery’s Local Food Programme have supplied millions of pounds of grant funding to this sector. This is a young and growing sector, but currently community food enterprises tend to be small in scale (half have a turnover of less than £20,000[3]) and rely on outside funding and dedicated volunteers.[4]

While this sector has clearly grown in recent years, the type of scaling it experiences in the future will be largely dependent on the motivations and goals of an increasingly diverse range of stakeholders. Some see community food growing as a vehicle for community development, but many also see it as the beginning of an alternative food structure.

Stakeholders who see food growing as primarily a means to foster community development may be happy to see small, low turnover enterprises proliferate to new communities. However, stakeholders interested in creating local food networks to challenging the hegemony of the global agricultural system will wish to see local ‘food hubs’ develop. These hubs could join up disparate local food enterprises, and create economies of scale and allow for local food to move through all stages of the food chain.[5]  For example, currently, many meat producers have to send their meat hundreds of miles to an abattoir for processing. Some commentators have suggested local ‘hubs’ could include resources like mobile abattoirs, to create local supply chains.[6]

So far, this sector has grown more from ‘demand-side pull’[7] rather than  ‘supply side push’.[8] Local producers and consumers have formed co-ops, farmers markets and other enterprises to meet demand for locally produced food. So continuing demand-side pull should be enough to encourage ‘uncontrolled diffusion’[9] of enterprises like these into new communities. However, a policy and fiscal ‘push’ will be required to make local food hubs a reality.

Are you engaged in a local food enterprise? If so, what is your vision for the sector: small-scale production across many communities, or a linked up local food economy?

This research is funded and supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.


[1] Cardiff University for the Making Local Food Work Programme (2012). ‘Prospects for the Future: Scaling Up the Community Food Sector’

[2] Illbery, Brian and Maye, Damian (2005) ‘Food Supply Chains and Sustainability: Evidence from Specialist Food Producers in the Scottish/English Borders’ Land Use Policy, 22 (4): 331-344.

[3] SERIO (2012) ‘The Value of the Community Food Sector-An Economic Baseline of Community Food Enterprises’ Plymouth University.

[4] White, Rebecca and Stirling, Andrew (2013) ‘Sustaining Trajectories Towards Sustainability: Dynamics and Diversity in UK Communal Growing Activities’ Global Environmental Change, 23 (5): 830-837.

[5] Mount, Phil (2011) ‘Growing Local Food: Scale and Local Food Systems Governance’ Agriculture and Human Values, 29 (1): 107-121.

[6] White, Rebecca and Stirling, Andrew (2013) ‘Sustaining Trajectories Towards Sustainability: Dynamics and Diversity in UK Communal Growing Activities’ Global Environmental Change, 23 (5): 830-837.

[7] Mulgan et al. refer to demand ‘pull’ factors such as: ‘recognition of needs that are not being adequately met’ by social entrepreneurs and campaigners, who then seek to address these needs. We call such actions ‘demand-side pull’ for simplicity.

Mulgan, Geoff et al. (2007). ‘In and Out of Sync: The Challenge of Growing Social Innovations’ NESTA.

[8] Founded in Mulgan et al.’s concept of ‘effective supply’ or ‘push’ factors, we conceptualise ‘supply-side push’ as a mirror of ‘demand-side pull’: social entrepreneurs and campaigners are encouraged by funders and policy-makers to meet needs through a particular innovation.

Mulgan, Geoff et al. (2007). ‘In and Out of Sync: The Challenge of Growing Social Innovations’ NESTA.

[9] Mulgan et al. define ‘uncontrolled diffusion’ as: ‘ spread by communication through the media, books, conferences or word of mouth, and through professionals and other networks. Diffusion can be accelerated by self-appointed champions and ambassadors, who may or may not have a link with the original innovators. The less the controlled the diffusion, the more likely it is that the innovation will adapt in different ways according to local conditions.’

Mulgan, Geoff et al. (2007). ‘In and Out of Sync: The Challenge of Growing Social Innovations’ NESTA.

Enjoyed this article?

If so you can sign up to the Shared Assets newsletter for free and we'll send you an email once a month with our latest news and thoughts. Don't worry though - we'll never clog up your inbox with spam or pass your details onto other companies - we hate that stuff too.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.