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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


7 May 2020 – Prince of Wales Fellow Caroline Lee considers the role of the food retail sector in supporting communities through the Covid-19 crisis, and looks ahead to the challenges and opportunities supermarkets and grocers may continue to face.

The physical and social characteristics of our communities can enable or disable, promote or discourage health and healthy behaviours. How we participate in our local communities can influence how much control we feel over their lives and, in turn, our psychosocial well-being.

The current Covid-19 situation has brought into even sharper focus the centrality of food retailers to community wellbeing. From meeting basic physiological needs, to social interaction, infrastructure and employment, its role as part of local social and economic ‘systems’ is beyond simply distributing food from farm to fork. Local grocery stores’ responses to the crisis offers an unexpected lens through which to take account of engagement activities. New questions are emerging. “How do existing infrastructure and processes for engagement facilitate (or not) a local response?  What features of local community engagement might buffer against shocks such as Covid-19? What role do food retailers play in supporting mental health?” Current strategies such as charity partnerships, support to local causes, facilitation of networking, and involvement in local support networks and volunteer coordination could prove instrumental in the longer term, as well as the immediate crisis.

Community as a locus for action, and the mobilising of local resources and ‘assets’ to support health and wellbeing[i] has received a surge of attention in recent years from UK public health policy makers, practitioners and researchers seeking to reduce social inequalities. This comes against a backdrop of increased public service cuts, loss of community buildings, economic, social and cultural services and resources over the last ten years, which have disproportionately affected the most deprived communities and areas.[ii] [iii]

Concurrently, there has been a political shift towards ‘localism’[iv] – devolved decision-making, for example, in land use planning and housing through Local and Neighbourhood Plans, or in health and social care with the introduction of health and wellbeing boards and clinical commissioning groups – which was billed to result in services that are more responsive to local needs.  Yet the narrative has been dominated by that of public sector institutions working together with voluntary and community sector partners. The role of business, and how it can contribute positively to community wellbeing, is largely underexplored, but has huge potential. I have the opportunity now to look at community engagement by the retail sector, and its role in ‘social inclusion’ through an exciting three-year Fellowship with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

Groceries and supermarkets have a strong track record of societal contributions, from the founders of the cooperative movement in 1844, (the original Rochdale Pioneers, who thought that customers should be treated with respect, share profits, and have a say in the business), to ideas of ‘shared value’ (for business to support positive social value, and for social activity to support positive commercial impact) (Schifferes, 2014). [v] The relationship between wellbeing and retail is not yet well articulated, however. Through this research, I hope to better understand the pathways to positive social impact for retailers and develop an evidence base to guide investment decisions and collaborative localised action.

As well as Covid-19 introducing an unexpected slant to the research, there is an opportunity to learn what can be achieved through community engagement when the system is tested by a crisis, and where gaps and weaknesses are found. As the 2020 update of the Marmot Review[ii] amply demonstrates, many people and communities across the UK do not enjoy an equal share of health, wealth and wellbeing. How, where, and for whom is resilience demonstrated, vulnerability supported, and disadvantage addressed?

There will be new challenges and opportunities for retailers as well as for partner organisations within and outside the sector. New collaborations and mutual aid groups are springing up; resources being mobilised, processes and communications adapted and innovated. Appreciation and respect for unsung ‘key workers’ in society is being found, even if the ‘superhero’ narrative has been accused of distracting from governmental responsibility[vi]. In the same way, adopting a preventive ‘whole systems’ approach[vii] can allow us to identify where there is embedded disadvantage, as well as where there is promise to intervene for sustainable, equitable, growth.

Find out more about Caroline's research into the impact of retail organisations on community wellbeing, support by ASDA.


[i] Kretzmann, J., McKnight, J. P. (1996). Assets-based community development. National Civic Review, 85(4), 23-29

[ii] Marmot, M., Allen, J., Boyce, T., Goldblatt, P., Morrison, J. (2020) Health equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 years on. London: Institute of Health Equity;

[iii] Gray, M., Barford, A. (2018) The Depth of the cuts: the uneven geography of local government austerity. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 11, 541–563

[iv] Department for Communities and Local Government (2010). Decentralisation And The Localism Bill: An Essential Guide. London: DCLG.

[v] Schifferes, J. (2014). Shopping for shared value. London. RSA.

[vi] Mathers, J., Kitchen, V. (2020). NHS ‘heroes’ should not have to risk their lives to treat coronavirus patients. The Conversation, April 20. Accessed. 06/05/2020

[vii] Egan, M., McGill, E., Anderson de Cuevas, R., Er, V., Lock, K., Popay, J., ... Petticrew, M. (2019). NIHR SPHR Guidance on Systems Approaches to Local Public Health Evaluation. Part 1: Introducing systems thinking. London, U. K.: National Institute for Health Research: School for Public Health Research.




About the author

Caroline Lee LB

Caroline Lee is the Prince of Wales Fellow in retail organisations engagement activities and community wellbeing supported by ASDA. She is a Senior Research Associate with over 20 years’ experience in project and programme evaluation and research across a variety of policy areas, including public health, mental health, employment, education, and childcare. With experience across the range of research methodologies, she favours qualitative approaches, and is interested in participatory methods.
Caroline has recently been conducting a review of on community-based initiatives in support of mental health of older adults at times of psychosocial stress; and contributing to a participatory review of community involvement in place-based decision-making. Caroline is also co-leading a realist informed case study in this region for a national project on local authorities approaches to improving public health and reducing inequalities in the context of austerity.


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


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