Evaluating the sustainability and resiliency of urban food systems

Grantham Scholar Nicole Kennard now works as the Assistant Director for Community-Engaged Research at the Georgia Tech Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems. At the Grantham Centre Nicole researched agriculture in relation to urban food systems in the US and the UK, with an interest in Covid’s impact.


Nicole Kennard at COP25 where SDGs are hugely important
Nicole Kennard at the UN’s COP25

With a growing and increasingly urbanised global population, there are increased stresses placed on providing food, water, and energy resources to people in an equitable and safe manner. The issues of food security and food access are being exacerbated by climate change and urbanisation, as current agricultural land is becoming unsuitable for farming. Thus, there is a need to farm in ways that protect our natural resources while also finding innovative ways to increase food production, such as farming in places where food generally would not be grown, i.e., in urban areas.

Weaving food production into the urban fabric is becoming a common practice in cities across the world, as this aids in food self-sufficiency and increases healthy food access. Our research group is interested in developing low-input, closed-loop urban growing systems.

The project

My research specifically looks at agriculture in relation to urban food systems.

My first project is conducting sustainability assessments, using lifecycle assessment methods, on a wide variety of vegetable farms in the UK and US that supply cities. Specifically, I compare the environmental impacts of farms of different sizes (small vs. large), management practices (organic vs. conventional), and different distances to the consumer (urban vs. rural farms) to see which factors most influence the sustainability of farms on a local scale. Also, I work with farmers to help them identify which practices on their farm produce the most environmental impacts, and what changes could reduce these impacts. I work with farms both in Georgia, USA, (where I am from) as well as farms across England. The farms I work with range from city farms that are 5000 square feet in size, to farms that are over 6000 acres!

My research also focuses on the resiliency of urban food systems, and this is especially interesting to analyse within the COVID-19 pandemic. I am trying to understand people’s experiences of food insecurity during the pandemic, their coping strategies in terms of accessing food, and their experiences accessing food from different sources.

In the future I will look into analysing the environmental and social benefits (ecosystem services) that come from producing food in cities. This could include analysing how urban agriculture regenerates the soil and contributes to services such as flood mitigation and erosion control. Plus I’d like to explore how urban agriculture can be used for education and engagement with nature.


Nicole Kennard fieldwork
Nicole Kennard doing fieldwork on a no dig site.

I have gathered 500 soil samples across 10 vegetable farms in the UK to analyse how management practices affect soil health and sustainability. Ultimately, I want to understand how soil quality differs based on different types of farms (urban vs. rural, conventional vs. organic). This research will also bring to light the environmental services and benefits that farms can bring to their surrounding ecosystems, depending on management practice.

Outreach and engagement

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

In 2021 Nicole completed a 3 month fellowship with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), parliament’s in-house research service. From this fellowship came a parliamentary briefing on pesticides, health and post-Brexit regulation. Find out more: Nicole Kennard research fellowship in Parliament.

Nicole Kennard
Nicole Kennard during her fellowship at POST.

Nicole was interviewed by CNBC about the future of food in August 2021. In the interview, Nicole draws on her urban agriculture expertise to explain the role it can have in mitigating climate change. Further, she talks about the role urban food production has in bringing communities together.


In Sheffield, I volunteer at the Foodhall Project, which is a social eating space and community hub in the centre of Sheffield. We aim to tackle the combined issues of social isolation and food waste by making communal meals from surplus food in a café setting on a ‘contribute what you can basis.’ The Foodhall Project aims to bring people together around food and is managed for the community, by the community.

Foodhall: feeding Sheffield during lockdown. Watch Nicole and fellow Scholar Philippa explain how Foodhall fed Sheffield during lockdown on our YouTube channel.

To find out more about Nicole’s work at Foodhall, you can read our interview with her.

Social Pickle

I helped start a new project called Social Pickle with other Foodhall volunteers during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.

We saw a need to find ways to further preserve surplus food that couldn’t be cooked right away in the Foodhall kitchen. We began experimenting with the art of food fermentation and preservation, and Social Pickle was born! Social Pickle aims to use food fermentation and preservation practices to bring people together to learn from one another, share food cultures and traditions, and find new ways of preserving and utilising surplus foods.

We run bi-weekly glut clubs, which are experimental sessions where we come up with ways to preserve excess food at Foodhall, as well as surplus produce gleaned from farms in Sheffield. We sell our creations in some independent shops in Sheffield, as well as at Foodhall on a contribute-what-you-can basis. We hosted our first Pickle Fest in 2021, where we had a community-judged pickle and fermented food competition, where we got to samples jarred creations from around the community.

To find out more about upcoming events, follow us on Instagram @social.pickle or visit our website socialpickle.co.uk.

National Food Service

I also volunteer for a larger network of similar community food organisations which Foodhall is part of, the National Food Service, which has similar aims of eliminating food insecurity and social isolation by creating a network of social eating spaces across the UK.

Landworker’s Alliance

I am also involved in other movements to support farmers and food sovereignty in the UK, especially supporting the Landworker’s Alliance, which aims to create a food and land-use system based on agroecology and food sovereignty that furthers social and environmental justice.

Bija Foundation

Nicole Kennards publication is based on her research - this image shows her in the field
Nicole doing fieldwork in a local allotment

Additionally, I am a volunteer at the Bija Foundation, a non-profit based out of Oakland, California, which works to support locally based sustainability projects. I serve as the Community Outreach and Agricultural Education Coordinator at Bija, working on a project called Code Green, which aims to teach K-12 students computer science by coding sensors to automate hydroponic growing systems. This project is being spearheaded in Atlanta, as many students in the south of Atlanta do not have opportunities to learn computer science in high school and also live in food desert areas. In this way, students will be able to use practical computer science skills to help them grow fresh, healthy food, tackling the combined issues of education and food access.

Annual Symposium 2020

Nicole spoke about her research and her work with Foodhall at our Annual Symposium 2020. During this talk she explained the impact of the pandemic on food insecurity in Sheffield. You can find more in this write up: Symposium ’20: Racial justice, Covid and the SDGs.

Springer’s Encyclopedia of the SDGs

Grantham Scholar published in Springer’s Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Nicole Kennard writes 2 chapters for Springer’s Encyclopedia of the SDGs.

Nicole Kennard’s publications

Kennard, N. & Vagnoni, C. (2021) ‘Pesticides and Health’, POSTbrief 43, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, UK Parliament. https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pb-0043/.

Kennard, Nicole (2020). “Comparing resource use for tomato production on urban, peri-urban and rural farms in Georgia, USA,” Urban Food Systems Symposium. https://newprairiepress.org/ufss/2020/proceedings/17

Kennard, N., Stirling, R., Prashar, A., & Lopez-Capel, E. (2020) ‘Evaluation of Recycled Materials as Hydroponic Growing Media’, Agronomy, 10, 1092. https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy10081092

Kennard N.J., Bamford R.H. (2020) Urban Agriculture: Opportunities and Challenges for Sustainable Development. In: Leal Filho W., Azul A., Brandli L., Özuyar P., Wall T. (eds) Zero Hunger. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69626-3_102-1

Kennard N.J. (2019) Food Waste Management. In: Leal Filho W., Azul A., Brandli L., Özuyar P., Wall T. (eds) Zero Hunger. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69626-3_86-1

Blogs & articles

Lockdown in the UK allowed Nicole to volunteer more regularly at Foodhall. Foodhall is a community kitchen in Sheffield which transformed itself into a food delivery service for the most vulnerable during the COVD-19 pandemic. Find out more about Foodhall and Nicole’s work there.

Why are communities most affected by research often the last ones involved?
Saporta Report, Guest Columnist (May 19, 2019).

Exploring Sustainable Education and Development Projects in Chihuahua, Mexico” Georgia Institute of Technology, Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain (April 22, 2019).

Nicole published her Masters work while she was at the Grantham Centre. Though this work was not from her time at the University of Sheffield, it focused on an interesting aspect of hydroponics – the need for a sustainable growing media. As our special project in Zaatari refugee camp uses hydroponics, we wanted to find out more about Nicole’s work. Read: Evaluation of Recycled Materials as Hydroponic Media.

Public speaking

“Activism as a Grantham Scholar”, Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures Annual Symposium (Sheffield, UK; November 2019)

“Agriculture & Climate Change”, Food, Farming, & Climate Justice March (London, UK; October 2019)

“Agriculture & Climate Change”, Chevening Scholar Reception (Sheffield, UK; June 2019)

“Urban Food Production in the U.S.”, Tinsley Urban Farm Launch Event (Sheffield, UK; May 2019)

“Social-Emotional Learning & Values”, Youth Social-Emotional Workshops with the Living Lab / Center for Dialogue and Transformation, Inc. (Chihuahua, Mexico; March 2019)

“Code Green – Tackling Education & Food Access in Atlanta”, Global Conference for UN Regional Centres of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development (Cebu, Philippines; December 2018)

“Optimising Resource Use in Agriculture”, Incredible Edible Agroecology Workshop (Todmorden, UK; August 2018)

“Building Sustainable Communities through Urban Farm Design”, Georgia Environmental Conference (Savannah, GA; August 2017)

Social media & research profiles

Nicole recently joined Twitter, and you can find her here.

LinkedIn page