Empowering marginalised communities through food: the impact of FoodLab Sydney

3 April 2023
How can organisations meaningfully engage in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals? We hear from Master of Sustainability candidate Emma Holland on her capstone research focusing on measuring and communicating the impact of FoodLab Sydney.

By Emma Holland, SEI Content Editor and Communications Officer, and Master of Sustainability candidate

Food is a powerful way to connect and to tell stories of diverse cultures and backgrounds. FoodLab Sydney recognises this with a vision for creating bustling cities run by thriving refugee, migrant, women-led and First Nations food entrepreneurs.  

It provides support for their members to grow and formalise their food businesses through providing affordable kitchen space, technical assistance, mentoring and sales opportunities. By empowering those most vulnerable to participate in a ‘good food network’, it places equity at the foundation of its mission.1

Impact measurement and the SDGs

Measuring impact is key to ensuring ongoing progress towards such an ambitious mission, but this can be challenging and overwhelming, particularly for small for-purpose organisations with limited resources.

All organisations understand that effective impact measurement and reporting is vital for funding, growth, and telling meaningful, beautiful stories that communicate impacts on the broader community. For FoodLab Sydney, this challenge became absolute as it transitioned from a funded research project pilot supported by the Sydney Environment Institute into a charitable entity seeking funding and partnerships.

At the same time, the vision of FoodLab Sydney speaks into an imperative to transform our food systems on a much larger scale. The global food system contributes to widening gaps in inequality and is a key driver of the climate crisis2 – urgent, transformative action and food systems change is essential. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) present a valuable impact measurement framework across 17 goals for a more sustainable and inclusive future globally,3 and driving food systems change supports all goals.4

The SDGs became a useful framework to evaluate the impact of FoodLab Sydney as it enhances multiple aspects of such change by promoting inclusive social and economic opportunities and championing environmentally responsible business.

Engaging with the SDGs in practice

So, how can a small organisation effectively engage with the SDGs?

For the Master of Sustainability capstone project, my research aimed to answer this question by evaluating the impact of FoodLab Sydney within the SDG framework. I worked with FoodLab Sydney to translate research and data into a compelling story of its impact, and my research also supported the creation of a social impact measurement framework and sustainability strategy. The process of my project involved translating research and data into understanding, purpose and real-world action.5

First, I conducted a literature review on food systems change, SDG engagement and criticisms, and local policy including the City of Sydney’s Social Sustainability policy.6 I also investigated how similar models measured their impact and whether they engaged with the SDGs. Interestingly, they often didn’t. This research informed the selection of three SDG priority areas7 across economic, social and environmental considerations: SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) and SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), with identified targets within each goal.

From here, I mapped FoodLab Sydney’s existing data within SDG targets to understand current impact and identify any gaps. It was important to measure impact at the target level to ensure meaningful SDG engagement beyond simply mapping impact to an overarching goal. Working with the FoodLab Sydney team, I then gathered additional data across diverse impact areas, from business revenue and pro bono support in dollar figures, to inclusion as part of a supportive community, or the motivation to create more sustainable business plans.

Finally, the findings were synthesised and translated into a social impact report to communicate the diverse stories and success of the FoodLab Sydney community. As a result of this research project, FoodLab Sydney can clearly demonstrate progress towards the SDGs and understand how to enhance future impact.

Through this project, FoodLab has been able to solidify a robust theory of change, social impact measurement framework and sustainability strategy. These are three instrumental developments that can be an almost impossible task for an organisation of our size, so we are incredibly grateful. We have used the outputs of this project in pitches to corporate, government and philanthropic donors and could not have experienced a greater level of impact and timing for a project of this design.
FoodLab Sydney Managing Director Jamie Loveday

Now, as FoodLab Sydney prepares to move into its own commercial kitchen and training facility from April and May, allowing its entrepreneurs access to a shared-use kitchen and adjacent urban farm, they have the frameworks and systems to measure social impact at scale.  

More broadly, this research supported the creation of a model for deeper SDG engagement and measurement on a local level. It emphasised the importance of a systems approach as various targets within the SDG framework will always overlap – for FoodLab Sydney this was clear in the interconnections between issues such as gender equality, economic empowerment and stability, environmental resilience, and sustainability education.

While global progress on the SDGs is slow and criticisms point out the inherent trade-offs of the goals,this research revealed how valuable measuring progress within a holistic framework is for advancing sustainability outcomes at an organisational level.

As we integrate research into real-world action and understand impact in a meaningful way, there are greater opportunities to break down the silos that stand in the way of a more inclusive, sustainable food system.

To support the work of FoodLab Sydney, hire its food entrepreneurs for catering opportunities.

1. Elkharouf, O, Cox, K, Schlosberg, D, Mann, A & Perroni, E 2021, ‘In the land of the “fair go”: global food policy lessons beyond the charity model’, Local Environment, vol. 26, no. 10, pp. 1192–1204, DOI 10.1080/13549839.2021.1970727; also see Raworth, K 2017, ‘A Doughnut for the Anthropocene: humanity’s compass in the 21st century’, The Lancet. Planetary Health, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. e48-e49, DOI 10.1016/S2542-5196(17)30028-1.

2. Rockström, J, Edenhofer, O, Gaertner, J & DeClerck, F 2020, ‘Planet-proofing the global food system’, Nature Food, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 3-5, DOI 10.1038/s43016-019-0010-4; Fanzo, J, Davis, C, McLaren, R & Choufani, J 2018, ‘The effect of climate change across food systems: Implications for nutrition outcomes’, Global Food Security, vol. 18, pp. 12-19, DOI 10.1016/j.gfs.2018.06.001; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2018, Sustainable food systems: Concept and framework, FAO,

3. United Nations 2022a, Sustainable Development Goals, UN,

4. Kretschmer, S & Kahl, J 2021, ‘Sustainable Development Goal Drivers in Food Systems’, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, vol. 5, article no. 536620 [no pagination], DOI 10.3389/fsufs.2021.536620; United Nations 2019, Food Systems Summit 2021: Food Systems Summit x SDGs, UN,

5. Rowley, J 2007, ‘The wisdom hierarchy: representations of the DIKW hierarchy’, Journal of Information Science, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 163-180, DOI 10.1177/0165551506070706.

6. City of Sydney 2019, A City for All: Towards a socially just and resilient Sydney: Social Sustainability Policy & Action Plan 2018-2029,

7. In SDG impact reporting, an effective strategy is to focus on the most relevant SDGs as priority goals. See Price Waterhouse Coopers 2019, SDG Challenge 2019: Creating a Strategy for a Better World, PwC,

8. United Nations 2022b, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022, UN, p. 3,; Biermann, F, Hickmann, T, Sénit, CA, Beisheim, M, Bernstein, S, Chasek, P, Grob, L, Kim, RE, Kotzé, LJ, Nilsson, M, Ordóñez Llanos, A, Okereke, C, Pradhan, P, Raven, R, Sun, Y, Vijge, MJ, van Vuuren, D & Wicke, B 2022, ‘Scientific evidence on the political impact of the Sustainable Development Goals’, Nature Sustainability, vol. 5, no. 9, 795-, DOI 10.1038/s41893-022-00938-0.

Emma Holland is Content Editor and Communications Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. She has an editorial and communications background, and has worked in roles across Sydney, London and New York. Her work has included environmental communications in the public sector, content marketing, and editorial positions in arts publishing. Emma holds a BA Media and MA Publishing, and is completing the Master of Sustainability program at the University of Sydney. She is passionate about communicating environmental issues, with a particular interest in how we can transition to more sustainable, equitable and healthy food systems.

Header image: Dishes by Alick Matewa of African Food Feasts. Photography by Jasper Avenue.

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