Focusing on the city of Birmingham, the Mandala Consortium brings together internationally renowned teams from the universities in Cambridge, Birmingham, Warwick, Exeter and London.
It aims to transform the urban food system and its relationship with its regional economy in the West Midlands.
Mapping the local food system will determine the most powerful levers for system change. These are likely to include new ways of procuring healthier and more sustainable foods in the public sector, and developing online systems to help businesses find and use more locally grown food.
In this proposal we set out our vision for five years of research that will help bring about important changes in the food system. The changes aim to make food healthier, more affordable, less harmful to the environment, but still acceptable to businesses.
The work will involve many different types of researcher who do not usually work together, as well as commercial companies, a city council, and civil society organisations. Our findings will influence local and national governments, food companies and other organisations that play important roles in bringing healthy, affordable and sustainable food to communities.
The research will focus on Birmingham, a large English city with a diverse population. The work will be divided into six closely connected work packages. The research team will work together on each of the work packages and share their findings regularly. This will help to ensure that our work achieves effective food system change in Birmingham and that other places can draw on our research.
In the first work package, we will work with communities and people from the local council and food businesses to create a map of the current food system. This will show the different types of businesses and other organisations involved, what they do and how they work together to deliver food to communities. We will explore how money and food flows through the system. We will have meetings with community members and people from the relevant organisations to ensure we properly understand the whole food system.
We will use our ‘system map’ to work out what information we can use to measure how the food system works. Where possible, we use previously collected data creatively and efficiently. When necessary, we will collect fresh data using new methods. We will look for ways to bring different types of data together so that it can be used to measure changes in the food system over time and in response to new policies or programmes. We will analyse the information to see what it tells us about how the food system works.
Once we have a map of the food system and an understanding of how it works, we will help Birmingham City Council develop plans to change the food system. The aim of changes will be to make food more healthy, more affordable and better for the environment without negatively affecting businesses. The plans will include actions that are practical, affordable and compatible with other national and local policies. Possible actions might include changing business rates to encourage sale of healthier foods, or developing online systems to help local businesses find and use more locally grown food.
The next stage of the research will be to implement the plans and explore which of the actions work best to achieve our aims – both singly and in combination. Because the programme of work will only run for five years, we will not be able to study the long term impacts of actions. Instead, we will build a computer model to predict how the tested actions are likely to affect health, the environment, the economy and food business in the future. The model will also provide a useful tool for local councils and food businesses in other places to explore how different actions might impact differently on health, the environment, the economy and businesses. The results will help make plans for changing the food system in other cities and regions.
Throughout the five years, we will talk regularly to other scientists and people in food businesses, the council and the community. We will share our thinking and findings and seek their views on how our work is evolving. We will develop a number of attractive ways to share this information, including films and blogs, newspaper articles and scientific papers.