Bristol’s sustainable and healthy food system through local food environment and consumer choices


In May 2021, Bristol was awarded the status of Gold Sustainable Food City by the UK’s independent Sustainable Food Places Board. This recognises the positive work undertaken across the city’s food system, seeking to solve social, environmental and economic issues.

Bristol was awarded Gold for its innovative approach and continuing commitment to:

  • Reduce food waste
  • Grow the city’s good food movement
  • Address food inequality
  • Increase urban food growing 
  • Improve catering and procurement
  • Tackle the impacts of our food system on public health, nature and climate change

Bristol is only the second city in the UK to achieve the status, with Brighton and Hove awarded it in 2020.“Our Gold award is a testament to the whole city rallying together and taking action, from citizens and organisations to policy-makers. More than ever, there is collective energy calling for food that is good for people, communities and planet to be available to everyone in Bristol.” Councillor Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor, Bristol City Council and Chairperson of the Going for Gold Steering Group.

Key insights

  • A food system that is good for both people and the planet requires addressing underlying social, environmental and economic issues.
  • The food programme in Bristol is based on a decade of solid partnerships across the city between city networks, leading food organisations, food outlets and citizens.
  • Partnering in diversity is key to creating a thriving food system that is at the heart of recovery from the pandemic.

Context and objective

“How we produce, trade, eat and waste food influences the most pressing issues facing us today: from climate and ecological breakdown to human health and wellbeing, from poverty and justice to animal welfare. Food matters.” Joy Carey, Director of Bristol Food Network and Strategic Coordinator of the gold bid.

The global food system is facing crises on a range of issues. With estimates suggesting that nearly 80% of all the food produced in the world is consumed in urban areas,1 cities especially have a crucial role to play in developing more sustainable and climate-friendly food systems.

Bristol is one of the leading food cities in UK. Included in its One City Plan is the aim to develop healthy, nutritious diets city-wide – and yet the city identified that several disadvantaged communities were not benefiting from its activities. Challenges across the city, but particularly in such communities, included an upsurge in obesity, leading to an increase in the number of cases of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, with impacts also on mental health; low levels of physical activity; poor nutrition; and problematic meal habits.

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has tested food supply chains to their limits, and thousands of people across the UK – including in Bristol – have found themselves in need of emergency food support. 

Issues were identified in four areas:

Health: Even before the pandemic, the NHS was under severe strain from diet-related ill-health, with poor diet and excess weight strongly associated with deprivation, resulting in both hunger and unhealthy diets.

Environment: Agriculture relies on healthy ecosystems; meanwhile, unsustainable agricultural practices contribute significantly to the wide-scale loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and a large carbon footprint from wasted food. 

Economy: Local shops and restaurants are the visible faces of a web of food businesses, including growers, producers, manufacturers, processors and delivery firms. Customers, owners and suppliers deeply felt the closure of many of these during successive lockdowns. 

Inclusion: The number of people living in poverty had increased even before 2020, but the pandemic forced many more households to choose between buying food, paying rent or heating their homes. Structural inequalities make it harder for people to eat a healthy balanced diet in a food system that makes unhealthy foods so accessible. 


The action needed

Cities are becoming aware that humans can influence the food system for better or worse through the way we spend money, feed ourselves, manage our land and resources and change our wasteful habits. Cities have powers of purchase, planning and partnerships that can be mobilised to shape their food systems. Meanwhile, households spend a significant proportion of their income on food. 

Bristol believed that it could move to a more sustainable and healthy food system through its local food environment and consumer choices. As a result, Bristol has been a pioneer in terms of thinking about how to feed a city and reduce inequalities and the impacts of health, nature and climate change. 

At a City Gathering on 10 January 2020, representatives from across Bristol chose to work towards becoming a Gold Sustainable Food City as a city-wide priority. As far as we know, no other city anywhere has gone this far in galvanising the entire city to co-create a sound food system. 

An unanticipated background to this effort was the Covid-19 pandemic. However, despite the challenges, the pandemic has driven a positive shift in how people think about food. Support for local food systems has increased dramatically. Our own health and wellbeing, the planet’s health, local economies and justice for all are the four pillars of a sustainable food system. They are also central to a pandemic recovery that creates a better and more resilient world than the one we lived in before Covid-19. This framing was brought into the way the bid was created.“Despite this most challenging of years, we’ve seen extraordinary altruism and a continued fight to resolve not just the issues caused by the pandemic but broader pre-existing social and environmental issues.” Councillor Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor, Bristol City Council and Chairperson of the Going for Gold Steering Group.

Actions taken

Bristol received the Silver Sustainable Food Cities Award in 2016. This recognised that the city had, over many decades, been a place that took food seriously, with a strong culture of commitment to environmental issues among its citizens. 

When Bristol chose to become a Gold Sustainable Food City in early 2019, there was a powerful focus on reversing negative trends emerging from unsustainable food system practices, in the areas of health, environment, economy and inclusion. This became even more important in the context of the pandemic. 

Health: Everyone needs access to good, affordable food, the skills to cook healthy food from scratch and the space to grow food ourselves if we want to. Before 2020, there was already a focus on these solutions; when Covid-19 hit, they became integral to the emergency response – and to our resilient recovery.

Environment: Resilient recovery depends on a shift to a food system that places true value on food that gives back to the environment and sustains and enhances producer livelihoods and people’s wellbeing.

Economy: A resilient recovery from Covid-19 must focus on our local food economy, encouraging local, ethical and sustainable sourcing, and championing the economic and social value of our independent food sector. 

Inclusion: By recognising and celebrating the ethnic diversity at the food system’s core and inviting those whose lives are most affected by inequalities to speak out, Bristol can help build a fairer food system and society and a truly resilient recovery.

Bristol’s bid for Gold entailed a continuing commitment to:

  • Reduce food waste
  • Grow the city’s good food movement
  • Address food inequality
  • Increase urban food growing 
  • Improve catering and procurement
  • Tackle the impacts of our food system on public health, nature and climate change

Bristol’s Gold campaign was a bid to make big and lasting improvements to the city-wide system. The effort to be recognised as a Gold Sustainable Food City mobilised the whole city to take collective action. Leading food organisations and city networks, including Bristol City Council, created the Going for Gold partnership to work together to embed these positive changes through policy and practice. 

Bristol had already identified the need to ramp up interventions in disadvantaged communities. The city had already won Silver, and the move to campaign for Gold made sense for Bristol as a progressive and green city. Partnership with the private sector was already in place. For example, in 2017, Bristol decided to make sure no child would go hungry in summer school holidays. The central government refused funding, leaving the city with less than two weeks to get the plan into action. Within 48 hours, the private sector had stepped up to the plate, coming up with over £100,000. 

Many initiatives were unrolled as part of the campaign, including healthy schools programming and efforts by local organisations to help communities, especially in disadvantaged areas, grow and cook food in more sustainable and healthy ways.

The impact of Covid-19 midway through the campaign led to significant changes to the approach. A number of the original ambitions had to be put on hold. Instead, the focus turned to what had originally been named “community action.” This developed into a new area of work: Growing the Good Food Movement. 

The campaign found a home online during Covid-19 and became more flexible; the language, tone and focus changed to reflect the needs of the city as the different phases of the pandemic manifested themselves. 

The submission contained three main sections that aligned with the criteria for a Gold Sustainable Food Places award: 

1. Evidence that Bristol’s food partnership and programme is embedded and will be sustainable over the long term. 

2. Exceptional achievement in two areas of food-related activity (Growing a Good Food Movement and Towards Zero Food Waste). 

3. Evidence of significant continued action and outcomes across each of the six key issues. 

Seven main case studies were selected for the way they connected different food action areas, for their innovative and future-focused approaches and/or for their effectiveness and potential for scale of impact. Many more brief examples illustrated the richness of Bristol’s Good Food Movement. The city was awarded Gold Sustainable Food City status in May 2021, recognising that Bristol is committed to creating a good food system that is central to the health and wellbeing of people and the planet, and that is at the heart of our recovery from the devastating impacts of the pandemic.

Who is involved

The range of members and sponsors of the Going for Gold Steering Group demonstrates the eagerness there was to form partnerships to take action. 

The award announcement followed the work of city-wide initiative Going for Gold, led by coordinating partners Bristol Food NetworkBristol City CouncilBristol Green Capital Partnership and Resource Futures.  

Organisations, citizens and food outlets across the city logged over 1,900 positive actions on the Bristol Going for Gold website as part of the bid process.

The bid to achieve Gold Sustainable Food City status was supported by sponsors, Essential TradingGenEco and Lovely Drinks.“Bristol is brimming with people who are passionate about doing better when it comes to food and it has been our job to do all we can to support a joined-up and holistic approach to food in the city.” Joy Carey, Director of Bristol Food Network and Strategic Coordinator of the Gold bid.

Enabling factors

The effort to be recognised as a Gold Sustainable Food City mobilised the whole city to take collective action. 

Networks across sectors are creating transferable and adaptable approaches to tackling issues central to creating a good food system. Independent food, retail and hospitality businesses support a diverse web of other businesses, and can use their purchasing power to influence sustainability practices across their supply chains. Bristol has a strong culture of commitment to environmental issues among its citizens. Meanwhile, Bristol’s diversity is reflected in its food culture, which offers a way for different communities across the city to share stories and foster understanding. Across Bristol, there are now at least 45 religions, 187 countries of birth represented and 91 main languages spoken. These foundations have been tested to their limits by Covid-19 and found to be solid and enduring. 

Difficulties faced

An unanticipated background to this the bid was the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the campaign to make significant changes to its approach. However, the campaign was able to adapt to respond to the pandemic and to focus on an approach to build a city that is more resilient than it was before Covid-19 hit.

Impacts to date

Individuals, communities, organisations and food businesses are working together for a more sustainable, fairer and healthier food system that benefits people, communities and planet. 

Examples of initiatives included in the successful bid are Grow Wilder, an education centre and growing site empowering people to bring about positive change through sustainable food-growing and wildlife-friendly practices in Stapleton; the efforts of the University of West of England and the University of Bristol to take action to transform institutional food culture, including sustainable sourcing, redistributing surplus food, plant-based menus and gardening projects; The Children’s Kitchen, a programme established across the city to explore eating and growing fresh produce with children; and FOOD Clubs, which are a partnership project between Family ActionFeeding Bristol and FareShare South West, with 16 clubs across the city providing nutritious food to families at a fraction of the normal cost.

Bristol Bites Back Better, a prominent campaign established in the wake of the first lockdown, seeks to empower Bristolians to create a food system that will nourish the city into the future and to draw out and amplify voices from the diverse communities within Bristol. The outcomes so far, including more than 160 blogs and eight short films from diverse voices across the city, formed a significant part of the application for Gold Sustainable Food City status.

“Bristol is a place where people break food together and eat together. Where businesses source local food. Where the charitable sector teaches people to plan and cook healthy meals. This is key to building community-level resilience. Last summer without any national funding, our partners and city funds ensured that no child went hungry in our city.” Councillor Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor, Bristol City Council and Chairperson of the Going for Gold Steering Group.

Additional information

Bristol City Council was an early signatory to the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration. The mayor signed on behalf of Bristol to coincide with the Declaration’s initial launch in December 2020. The Declaration was presented 

at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) on 6 November 2021. 

This Declaration is a commitment by sub-national governments to tackle the climate emergency through integrated food policies. It is also a much-needed call for more sustainable food systems, presenting a welcome opportunity to place food, and particularly policy and local action, at the heart of the global climate response.  

Bristol’s signature of the Declaration followed two other major city strategies in the same year under the One City Approach:

  • Bristol’s One City Climate Strategy (February 2020) sets out the action needed to achieve the city’s ambition to be carbon-neutral and climate-resilient by 2030. Food is integrated as one of 10 key themes within this.
  • Bristol’s One City Ecological Emergency Strategy (September 2020) recognises the equally urgent need for nature recovery by reducing our consumption of (food) products that undermine the health of wildlife and ecosystems around the world.

The One City Approach brings together a huge range of public, private, voluntary and third sector partners within Bristol. They share an aim to make Bristol a fair, healthy and sustainable city.

The city’s first One City Plan was launched in January 2019,as a first written attempt to set out the challenge and bring the city together around its common causes. The third iteration of the One City Plan from 2021 is now available.1


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