Food Ladders: A multi-scaled approach to everyday food security and community resilience

Everyday food insecurity is more than just a lack of access to food based on income.  Poverty creates a hole that has emotional and nutritional effects, as well as implications for community cohesion. Food insecurity as it intersects with poverty also materialises in places to produce landscapes where food availability and the social connections it enables are scarce (for an open-access paper see Blake 2019).  Poor foodscapes contribute to vulnerabilities to the shocks associated with limited food choices, which in turn reduces the resilience of places and people by producing want, poor health, social isolation, and fear and distrust of one’s neighbours.  The Food Ladders approach seeks to overcome these place-based aspects of vulnerability by developing positive engagements through food and ultimately aims to help communities become the places where people want to live, raise their children, and grow old. 

Finding innovative interventions for building food secure communities

Food Ladders is a novel, evidenced-based approach for creating household and community resilience by capitalising on the capacity of food to bring people together.  Food Ladders is not like existing household food insecurity approaches that focus on the lack of good food within households and then feeds that gap. Instead, Food Ladders activates food and its related practices progressively to reduce local vulnerability to food insecurity and its knock-on effects.

Specifically Food Ladders advocates for:

  • Mobilising the more than nutrient, calorie and commercial aspects of food, such as its capacity to bring people together to foster shared understanding and collaboration;
  • Creating safe and inclusive spaces for experimentation and interaction with food;
  • Using a positive language of empowerment around food;
  • Building place-specific levels of support that enable the recognition and enhancement of locally based assets to create transformations in communities.

What is the Food Ladders approach?

Food Ladders are community-scale interventions aimed at building local level resilience in the face of food insecurity. The approach was developed for low-income communities to address the wider effects that poverty has on health, wellbeing, and community cohesion. However, all communities can benefit from Food Ladders. The approach is not intended to replace national-level campaigns, but instead complements those campaigns and may even foster locally based activism.  Food Ladders works with the specificities of places to enable three levels of intervention.  These include:

Rung 1: Catching.  This first rung provides a starting point for those who are in crisis.  Such interventions might include emergency food aid, mental health support, access to social services, etc.  Catching enables the ability to cope with a shock, whether that be the loss of a job, an unexpected large payment, debt, longer-term illness or relationship breakdown.

Rung 2: Capacity building to enable social innovation. This second level supports those not currently in crisis, but who may be struggling to afford and/or access good food.  Activities include training programmes, shared cooking and eating activities, food pantries, children’s holiday clubs, and voucher schemes.  Done in a manner that celebrates difference and is not stigmatising, activities provide residents with accessible choices that relieve the stresses that co-exist with low-incomes, expand skills, and enable the recognition of personal and local assets.  These interventions connect people together by creating networks of trust and reciprocity through shared activity around food.  This sort of intervention enables people and communities to be more adaptable by expanding their pool of assets.

Rung 3: Self-organised community change. This third rung supports communities to realise goals through self-organised projects that capitalise on local assets. Projects meet community needs as communities themselves identify them.  Examples include developing a social enterprise based on community cooking knowledge that provides employment, community story-telling that leads to activism, cooperative food growing and food procurement that increases the local availability of good food, regular social cooking and eating activities to overcome loneliness, cross social divides and create intergenerational knowledge transfer.

What is the role of the local authority and food alliance for building Food Ladders?

For Food Ladders to work there must be a process that enables local learning and an expectation of movement from Rung 1 to Rung 3.  It may be that interventions provided by local authorities or community organisations will be quite intensive at Rung 1 and 2, with a more facilitative role at Rung 3. What specifically is achieved at Rung 3 must incorporate local voices and build on locally held assets, although programme delivery at all stages is best when informed by the experiences of those who are using the service.  Local authorities can help develop local community organisational capacity to be able to see where they fit into the ladder and then support developments that ensure there are people working across the ladder in local places.

Local authorities and local food networks can develop Food Ladders by doing the following:

  • Map services and community organisations to identify support deserts at each level.
  • Identify food partners and other organisations to support local activities.
  • Act as a connecting agent helping to facilitate mentoring networks across communities to share good practice.
  • Participate in national networks of communities seeking to achieve similar goals (e.g., the Incredible Edible network and/or Sustainable Food Cities) and pass learning on to communities.
  • Review the language that is used about residents of local communities and consider how this can be reframed to de-emphasise deficits and negative associations that reinforce stereotypes.
  • Identify and make available existing infrastructures such as council-owned land and buildings that can be used as community food spaces.
  • Review existing policies to understand where council processes are creating barriers to community self-organisation and success.

How can community organisations build Food Ladders into their services? 

Often when we see someone in distress our first response is to try to fix the problem for them. This approach, while helping with the immediate problem, which is important, does not enable people and communities to have the capacity to envision a future for themselves. It also does not reduce the risk of future shocks.  Food Ladders acknowledges the need for immediate help but also encourages community organisations to reflect on the degree to which their interventions are only addressing the first rung on the ladder and to consider ways that they might provide opportunities that operate on rungs two and three. This involves also working with communities members to identify and develop the assets that already exist within their communities and consider how outside sources may be mobilised to support the mobilisation of those assets.

Specifically, community organisations could:

  • Undertake an evaluation of what the organisation is doing in the community to see where projects are intersecting with the ladder.
  • Consider how what the organisation is doing might intersect with projects from other locally-based organisations and determine where there are gaps in local support.
  • Review how community organisation employees and volunteers are talking about those whom they serve and identify ways to speak to and with their community members in ways that emphasise what is good and where they would like to head, rather than focus on what is missing or wrong.  Think also about how you are framing your communications–are you reinforcing unhelpful stereotypes or are you speaking in a way that supports your objectives?  The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has produced a very helpful toolkit on framings.
  • Undertake a community asset review with community members.  This can be done through a shared meal or another food-based activity.
  • Find ways for community members to give what they can.  Everyone has something to give and finding ways to facilitate this enhances individual feelings of self-worth and builds community cohesion.
  • Undertake a theory of change activity that helps the organisation envision where it would like go and then identify how progress can be documented and measured.  Being able to measure the impact of community-based work is not only helpful for securing financial support, but it also enables the telling of stories of successes within communities that build a collective sense of accomplishment.  The NCVO offer excellent support for developing theories of change.
  • Join in with your local food alliance or participate in a food network.  If there is not one in your area then help start one.  Both Sustainable Food Cities and Incredible Edible offer models and support for doing this and more information about what is going on in a particular area.
  • Identify how the organisation uses food.  Food is more than calories and nutrients, it has connective capacities.  We all eat and food is a fantastic way to bring people together.  If food is only being understood as fuel, these capacities are being under-utilised. Activities on Rung 1 of the ladder tend to focus on the biological aspects of food, but there is a lot of creative scope for using food at Rungs 2 and 3 to achieve organisational and collective ends.

What can the food industry do to support Food Ladders?

In the simplest terms, the food industry can provide surplus food either directly or in collaboration with surplus food redistributors to community organisations that help meet the needs of community food activities.  Food gets people to the table and supporting community organisations to access this food and understand how it can produce the best social good is a key support intervention.  Retailers may also be able to provide space and know-how to communities to help them achieve their goals, as well as financial resources and donations. Food surplus redistributors can support connectivity and learning across their networks of food using organisations by providing insight on good practice and skills development alongside access to good food.

What is the role of national campaigns in Food Ladders

National Campaigns are very important for shifting public understanding and for changing national level policy.  In Food Ladders, national policy is a key determinant of the size and depth of the hole that individuals, households, and communities must climb out of in order to be more secure, have better health outcomes and achieve a greater sense of satisfaction and wellbeing.   Food Ladders considers national campaigns as a complementary aspect to the place-based intervention that it proposes. Food Ladders recognises that national policies that reduce population-level vulnerabilities also reduce the need for Rung 1 interventions and free up resources for activity at Rung 2 and 3.

The research behind the Food Ladders approach

Food Ladders focuses on shared social practices.  Social practices consider what people do and say as those doings and sayings are situated within wider institutional, cultural, political, technological and infrastructural configurations.  Within Food Ladders, there is a strong emphasis on considering how activity is framed as we talk and think about it.  For more on how framings matter see the work of The Framing Institute.  See also Project Twist-it, which is co-developed and championed by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  If you would like to understand more about Asset Based Community Development, Nurture Development provides excellent resources and tools.

Food Ladders was developed through a series of research projects funded by the ESRC, MRC, and The N8 AgriFood Programme (see also Blake 2019). This interdisciplinary work is a collaboration with a wide range of partners including local authorities, food industry actors, national charities and community organisations across the UK, which enabled a better understanding of what is working in communities and where different levels of resources and challenges are situated.  A special mention goes to Gary Stott (Community Shop and Incredible Edible) and Samantha Siddall (ECO), Rupert Suckling (Doncaster Metropolitan Council), and the teams at Greater Manchester Poverty Action and FareShareUK.

If you would like to know more about Food Ladders please contact: Dr. Megan Blake, University of Sheffield, email: or Twitter: @GeoFoodieOrg

The Food Ladders approach is recommended by Greater Manchester Poverty Action (see: and is featured on the Sustainable Food Cities website: 

2 thoughts on “Food Ladders: A multi-scaled approach to everyday food security and community resilience

  1. Pingback: Talking with BBC Radio Sheffield about #JustFood19, Social Eating, Surplus Food and other cool things. | GeoFoodie

  2. Well thought out and well said. I love the inclusive approach of the Ladder: It is always more effective to do things with the people affected, rather than to them or for them. The Food Ladders approach has a built-in forward moving energy about it. Rather like teaching a person to fish instead of giving him a fish. Such an important lesson.

Comments are closed.