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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

the role of supermarkets in mitigating food insecurity

The affordability and accessibility of nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate food is influenced by access to good jobs, welfare support and transport (amongst other determinants), and strongly linked to physical and mental health and wellbeing outcomes. Collaborative efforts to improve food insecurity is therefore a top priority for place-based action. CISL recognise that food retailers are an integral part of the country’s food as well as wider social systems.


About the project

Currently supermarket actions targeting food insecurity typically feature two strands (or models) of activity, namely:

  • Emergency support to residents in food poverty (the more common),
  • Indirect support to third sector organisations engaged in supporting people in need.

Our recent work suggests there may be room for an additional strand of activity, based on some ad hoc examples of practice across the UK, going beyond the above measures, towards leveraging stores ‘everyday’ positioning in communities to reach marginalised groups, co-locate support services/agencies in-store, promote inclusion and offer immediate pragmatic support.  As such, there may be benefits to explore around mobilising the ‘anchor positioning’ of stores towards multiple social goals tackling food insecurity more holistically.


Impact and relevance

In the context of the ongoing cost of living crisis in the UK and reliance of increasing number of people on food banks, this study responds to food retailers’ strong presence in communities and integral role in current food systems.

It is important to understand what kind of investments by supermarkets, such as in campaigns and grant-funding, are of value to place-based partnerships addressing food insecurity and its drivers in local communities. Understanding how to be more effective with such investments is crucial, including engaging with the right networks and organisations to support capacity and sustainability of preventive actions in the long term. 



Through locality-focused fieldwork, the proposed project will identify the likely pathways to impact on food insecurity from typical and more innovative actions by supermarkets, as well as the cross sectoral collaborations and supporting infrastructure needed to make a difference at different levels of ‘Place’. We will undertake engagement at two levels of ‘Place’: the city or local authority footprint; and the ‘hyper-local’, (neighbourhood level). We will investigate collaboration at both these levels, on drivers of food insecurity (e.g. economic and physical access, nutrition and health, national drivers, stigma), and aim to identify the system levers and resources that supermarkets do and could mobilise as part of area-wide strategies to reduce food insecurity amongst priority neighbourhoods).

The research will be undertaken under the following work packages:

1. Strategic area-level. We will identify the system levers and mechanisms that supermarkets do and could engage with as part of area-wide strategies to promote greater resilience, for example reducing food insecurity amongst priority communities.

2. Neighbourhood level. We will focus on neighbourhood collaborations for action on food insecurity, where and how supermarkets do or could contribute positively, identifying opportunities and challenges.



We will work with the stakeholders who engage in the research to identify desirable outcomes from the research and preferences regarding dissemination of findings. However, we anticipate developing actionable outputs for stakeholders to:

  • Identify the types of investments deemed of value to place-based work on food insecurity.
  • Identify enablers and barriers to effectively engaging in place-based partnerships tackling food insecurity (from the point of view of the community, local food system partners, and supermarkets).
  • Offer a framework to guide investments at a place-based level to improve drivers of food security, identifying levers of change and supportive infrastructure applicable to statutory and VCS stakeholders as well as supermarkets.


Collaborators and funding

This work is supported by a philanthropic gift from Sainsbury’s plc.


This project builds on the research undertaken on supermarket initiatives to support community wellbeing which was recently concluded through the Asda Fellowship.

Caroline Lee

Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellow


Twitter: @cazzerlee