Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Food system trials to encourage healthy, sustainable diets

Apply for funding for a research team to co-design innovative food system research trials, working closely with government partners. The aim of this research is to encourage and enable the take up of healthier and more sustainable diets.

You must be based at an organisation eligible for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding.

This funding is for the co-design phase of the programme. Applicants successful at this stage are expected to apply for delivery phase funding in March 2023.

We will fund one project. The full economic cost of the co-design phase of your project can be up to £450,000. ESRC and its partners will fund 80% of the full economic cost.

All timings following the September 2022 co-design phase application closing date are indicative and may change.

Who can apply

We are seeking a research team based at institutions eligible for ESRC funding with expertise in:

  • trial design
  • health
  • the food system.

Eligible UK research organisations include:

  • UK higher education institutions
  • research council institutes
  • NHS bodies
  • eligible public sector research establishments
  • UKRI-approved independent research organisations.

The team must be led by a principal investigator based at an eligible UK research organisation. That organisation will be responsible for submitting the grant application to UKRI.

Investigators may be from more than one research organisation, but the principal investigator must be from the organisation that will administer the grant. The principal investigator will:

  • take intellectual leadership of the project and manage the research
  • be the contact person for ESRC correspondence.

The research team will be required to co-design trials focused in England due to the remit of government partners, but all UK-based research organisations that are eligible to receive ESRC funding are invited to apply for this opportunity.

Organisations ineligible for funding are eligible to act as a project partner or subcontractor.

Co-investigator eligibility

Co-investigators can include:

  • UK academics
  • international co-investigators
  • those from business, third sector or government bodies.

Business, third sector or government body co-investigators based in the UK can also be included on research grant proposals.

For more information read the guidance on including co-investigators from business, third sector or government bodies.

Any academic researcher (holding a PhD or equivalent) from an established international research organisation of comparable standing to an ESRC-eligible UK research organisation will be eligible to be listed as an international co-investigator under this scheme.

Read more about the inclusion of international co-investigators on proposals.

What we're looking for

We wish to appoint a research team to develop an ambitious programme of research trials in the English food system, to gather robust evidence about the effectiveness of interventions aimed at encouraging and enabling healthier and more sustainable diets for all.

The independent National Food Strategy for England highlighted:

  • how our food system, and the way in which we currently produce and consume food, damages the environment and threatens food security
  • stark socioeconomic and place-based inequalities in the food system, with households on low incomes and living in more deprived areas more likely to have diets that are low in fibre and high in sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates, and fats. This drives significant health inequalities.

The report recommended new research to understand what changes in practices within the food system would bring about a shift towards healthier, more environmentally sustainable diets for all. This recommendation will be met through this programme of research, as detailed in the GOV.UK: government food strategy.

This opportunity is for an initial co-design phase of five months to support a research team in working with government partners and developing a:

  • detailed proposal for an innovative programme of robust research trials in the food system to encourage and enable the take up of healthier and more sustainable diets
  • consortium of delivery partners for the programme.

The research team that receives funding for this opportunity will:

  • need to start their co-design phase by the end of January 2023
  • apply for funding in March 2023 to proceed to the delivery phase of the programme.

During the co-design phase you will be expected to work closely with the following government partners:

  • Defra
  • FSA
  • DfE
  • DHSC.

Co-design phase objectives

We expect the research team to:

  • lead the co-design of an innovative programme of trials within the English food system that will:
    • transform the evidence base on approaches to reducing geographical and socioeconomic dietary inequalities and encourage a shift towards healthier and environmentally more sustainable diets
    • inform policy and practice in the UK food system
    • result in publications and other knowledge exchange activities that contribute to the work of the wider national and international research community
  • champion interdisciplinary research to provide actionable solutions by bringing together a range of expertise in areas that could include:
    • behavioural science
    • economics
    • environmental science
    • evaluation science
    • health (including public health)
    • population studies
    • psychology
  • apply to lead the delivery phase of the programme.

Co-design phase requirements

During the co-design phase, your research team will be required to:

  • work with government partners to develop a detailed proposal for a programme of research trials that will test the effectiveness of different food system interventions (both in isolation and combination) aimed at encouraging and enabling healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets
  • build a consortium of partners during the co-design phase that will enable the successful delivery of the programme. You are expected to:
    • test a minimum of 10 interventions in the food system aimed at encouraging individuals and groups to take up healthier and more sustainable diets, with a particular focus on designing randomised controlled trials
    • involve a range of food environments in the programme. This could include, but is not limited to:
      • supermarkets (online and in store), takeaways and restaurants
      • schools and universities
      • GP surgeries and hospitals
      • community food networks
      • food banks
      • community food growing initiatives
    • ensure your programme of work includes:
      • appropriate management and governance with effective monitoring and evaluation
      • a clear equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and environmental sustainability plan, covering how the research team itself operates and how it will embed these considerations in the design of the programme
      • a stakeholder engagement plan that allows for input into the design and development of the programme and the rapid mobilisation of research findings.

The co-design grant should commence no later than 31 January 2023.

Long-term goals

The long-term goals for the research team are to:

  • provide leadership on new approaches to supporting healthy and sustainable diets that catalyses and accelerates collaboration between:
    • researchers
    • government
    • the food industry
    • other key stakeholders interested in reducing health inequalities
  • lead the delivery of the food system trials programme by successfully applying for delivery phase funding and build the evidence base on effective approaches to supporting healthier and more sustainable diets. Trial results should inform strategies to:
    • help meet the UK’s 2050 net zero target and broader environmental and sustainability goals
    • support policy and spending decisions on public health and reducing health inequalities in the UK. This includes rapidly and effectively disseminating findings that help decision makers to understand:
      • the cost effectiveness of different interventions
      • the relative effectiveness of interventions at reducing socioeconomic and geographical inequalities in diets
      • the feasibility of scaling different interventions as part of a national rollout.

What we will fund

This programme is supported by an award from the Evaluation Accelerator Fund and financial contributions from Defra and FSA (see the ‘additional info’ section).

The full economic cost of your project can be up to £450,000. ESRC and its funding partners will fund 80% of the full economic cost. Your organisation must agree to fund the remaining 20% of the full economic cost.

Funding can be used for:

  • a principal investigator who will serve as the Research Director
  • co-investigators who together with the principal investigator will form the research team’s leadership
  • a project manager
  • administrative support
  • research assistance
  • estates and indirect costs relating to staff employed by the research team
  • funding for travel, subsistence and venue hire for workshops or meetings with key stakeholders
  • the cost of any external communication, including website development.

Funding for co-investigators from business, third sector or government bodies

Co-investigators from business and third sector bodies can receive 100% of justified costs, however the project costs associated with these types of co-investigator contributions must not exceed 30% of the overall cost of the grant (at 100% full economic cost). The costs cannot be claimed by government bodies.

Co-investigators are not permitted from:

  • Defra
  • FSA
  • DfE
  • DHSC
  • Cabinet Office
  • HM Treasury.

Refer to the guidance on including co-investigators from business, third sector or government bodies.

Funding for international co-investigators

International costs must not exceed 30% of the full 100% full economic cost of the grant. The total of international co-investigator costs and the costs for UK co-investigators in business, civil society of government bodies must not exceed 30% of the full 100% full economic cost of the grant.

Refer to ESRC’s international co-investigator policy for more guidance.

Delivery phase funding

The research team that successfully receives funding for this co-design phase (stage one) will be invited to apply for funding for the delivery phase of the programme (stage two).

The delivery phase should run until March 2025. The full economic cost of the delivery phase of the programme can be up to £5.5 million. ESRC will fund up to 80% of the full economic cost, providing the research team’s application is approved.

This funding includes all necessary delivery costs of the trials. While the principal investigator and wider research team are expected to lead and oversee the delivery phase of the programme, other organisations can be sub-contracted to deliver elements of the programme in line with UKRI funding rules.

How to apply

You must apply using the Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system.

You can find advice on completing your application in:

  • the Je-S handbook
  • Je-S guidance for applicants document in the ‘additional info’ section.

We recommend you start your application early.

Your host organisation will also be able to provide advice and guidance.

Submitting your application

Before starting an application, you will need to log in or create an account in Je-S.

When applying:

  1. Select ‘documents’, then ‘new document’.
  2. Select ‘call search’.
  3. To find the opportunity, search for: Food system trials to encourage healthy, sustainable diets (2022).

This will populate:

  • council: ESRC
  • document type: standard proposal
  • scheme: research grants
  • call/type/mode: food system trials to encourage healthy, sustainable diets (2022).

Once you have completed your application, make sure you ‘submit document’.

You can save completed details in Je-S at any time and return to continue your application later.


ESRC must receive your application by 20 September 2022 at 16:00.

You will not be able to apply after this time. Please leave enough time for your proposal to pass through your organisation’s Je-S submission route before this date.

You should ensure you are aware of and follow any internal institutional deadlines that may be in place.

All other timings following the 20 September 2022 co-design phase application closing date for this opportunity are indicative and may change.

For in-depth information about the application process, refer to the Je-S guidance for applicants in the ‘additional info’ section.


In addition to the Je-S application you must include the following mandatory attachments:

  • case for support (maximum of eight sides of A4)
  • justification of resources (up to two sides of A4)
  • data management plan (up to three A4 sides)
  • CV (up to two sides of A4 per named person).

Other attachments may be required based on your current circumstances. For more information, refer to the Je-S guidance for applicants in the ‘additional info’ section. If a letter of support is needed, be aware that the following cannot provide letters of support for applicants:

  • Defra
  • FSA
  • DHSC
  • DfE
  • Cabinet Office
  • HM Treasury.

Case for support

This is the main body of your proposal. You must include the following sections:

  • a detailed vision for the research team in line with the requirements of this funding opportunity. This section should demonstrate your knowledge of inequalities related to diets and the food system as well as the policy, social, environmental, and economic context within which the programme will be delivered
  • a detailed description and justification of the approach you will take to design the food system trials programme. You are not required to provide specific details of the trials you will deliver. Successful applicants will receive funding to develop a detailed proposal as part of the delivery phase of the programme and be expected to work closely with government partners. However, your co-design phase application should include details of:
    • the approach the research team will take to leveraging interdisciplinary expertise and designing a robust programme of trials
    • potential interventions, food environments and associated trial design options that could be included in the programme of trials, with appropriate justification (for example, priority evidence gaps and feasibility)
    • plans for stakeholder engagement and consideration of lived experience in the co-design phase of the programme. This could include engaging:
      • organisations, individuals, or groups within the research and policy community
      • public services
      • industry
      • community and consumer groups
    • identification of key risks and potential mitigations
    • management and governance plans, including effective working with ESRC and government partners (see the ‘additional info’ section for details about the Programme Board) and effective monitoring and evaluation. This should also include details of any formal advisory groups that the research team plans to establish or draw upon
  • evidence of your skills, expertise and experience in designing and delivering research trials particularly using experimental or quasi-experimental methods. You should include examples of prior successes and past lessons learnt from running complex programmes in multiple settings
  • details of how equality, diversity and inclusion and environmental sustainability will be placed at the core of the proposed programme.

Your case for support should be a self-contained description of your proposed work in designing the programme, with relevant background and references. It should not depend on additional information that assessors are required to access via external links.

Assessors are advised to base their assessment on the information contained within the application and are under no obligation to access any such links. This means that links should not be used to provide critical information.

Justification of resources

Your justification of resources should state that the resources you are requesting are appropriate to undertake the activity described in your case for support.

It should also explain why they are appropriate, taking into account the nature and complexity of your proposal. It should not simply list the resources required, as this has already been done in the Je-S form.

Where you do not provide an explanation for an item that requires justification, it will not be funded.

Data management plan

The data management plan is a compulsory attachment and should be a maximum of three sides of A4. The data management plan should outline the project’s approach to managing data.


You must include a short CV (up to two sides of A4) for the principal investigator and for each named person in the research team. This should contain, as appropriate:

  • relevant academic and professional experience
  • experience of project management
  • a summary list of any relevant publications.

COVID-19 guidance

We acknowledge that it is a challenge for applicants to determine the future impacts of COVID-19 while the pandemic continues to evolve. Applications should be based on the information available at the point of submission and, if applicable, the known application specific impacts of COVID-19 should be accounted for.

Where known impacts have occurred, these should be highlighted in the application, including the assumptions or information at the point of submission.

There is no need to include contingency plans for the potential impacts of COVID-19. Requests for travel both domestically and internationally can be included in accordance with the relevant scheme guidelines, noting this COVID-19 advice.

Reviewers will receive instructions to assume that changes that arise from the COVID-19 pandemic, post-submission, will be resolved and complications related to COVID-19 should not affect how your application is scored.

Where an application is successful, any changes in circumstances that affect the proposal will be managed as a post-award issue.

Third party data protection

You must ensure that you have obtained the permission of any other person named on the proposal form (for example any co-investigators or project partners) for the:

  • provision of their personal information to UKRI
  • processing of their data by UKRI for the purpose of assessing the application
  • management of any funding awarded.

How we will assess your application

This funding opportunity is the first stage of a two-stage process. A separate opportunity specification and research grant will be issued for the delivery phase (stage two).

Assessment process for the research team (stage one, programme co-design phase)

All applications will be assessed by a shortlisting panel of interdisciplinary academic and non-academic experts in October 2022. Shortlisted applicants will be invited to attend an interview with a subgroup of panel members in the week commencing 31 October 2022. Representatives from the funders will participate in the panel.

Applications that do not detail how they will deliver the objectives of the opportunity will be rejected. ESRC reserves the right to modify the assessment process as needed.

Assessment criteria for the stage one

Applications will be assessed against the following criteria:

  • fit to the opportunity’s objectives, including an effective, well-articulated vision and strategy for how funded time will be used to develop a robust programme of trials in the UK food system. A commitment to co-design and robust methodology and research design should be at the centre of proposals to aid reproducibility of research findings
  • feasibility of proposed approach, including appropriate management structure and time commitment from the research team and plans to engage relevant stakeholders
  • knowledge of the food system and ability to identify challenges and opportunities associated with delivering a programme of trials in today’s policy, social, environmental, and economic context
  • evidence of skills, expertise, and experience in designing and delivering research trials particularly using experimental and/or quasi-experimental methods
  • approach to working respectfully and collaboratively with diverse stakeholder groups
  • approach to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and environmental sustainability, covering how the research team itself operates and how it will embed these considerations in the design of the programme
  • appropriateness of management and governance arrangements, including working with ESRC and government partners
  • value for money and potential to inform national policy making and practice in the UK food system.

The successful research team will be invited to apply for additional funding to proceed to the delivery phase of the programme. That stage will be a closed funding opportunity. Only the successful research team in stage one will be eligible to apply.

UKRI recognises the relationship between research assessment and research integrity, and supports the San Francisco declaration on research assessment (DORA).

Contact details

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Additional info

Background to the programme

This programme is a partnership between ESRC and multiple government departments, including:

  • Defra
  • FSA
  • DHSC
  • DfE.

It is part funded by a successful bid to the Cabinet Office’s Evaluation Accelerator Fund (EAF) that was led by Defra.

Announced by the Chancellor at the autumn 2021 budget, the EAF is aimed at addressing nationally important evidence gaps by supporting research activity that could inform future policy and spending decisions. The EAF is particularly targeted at supporting research using experimental and quasi-experimental methods.

This funding opportunity is also made possible by financial contributions from Defra and the FSA.

This programme is a unique opportunity to contribute to the following policy areas:

  • the Levelling Up white paper, which outlines aims to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy between local areas where it is highest and lowest by 2030, and increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035
  • the government food strategy which reiterates the government’s commitment to halve childhood obesity by 2030 and reduce the proportion of the population living with diet-related illnesses, and encouraging a national shift towards healthier and more sustainable diets
  • increasing the sustainability of food production and consumption, which is a core component of the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, in line with targets to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and biodiversity commitments.

Defining the food system

For the purposes of this funding opportunity, the ‘food system’ refers to the range of actors and activities involved in the:

  • production
  • marketing
  • processing
  • sale
  • purchase
  • consumption
  • disposal of food.

The food system is made up of a range of sub-systems and food environments.

We are interested in a programme of trials that specifically look at encouraging individuals and groups to switch to consuming healthier and more sustainable foods alongside understanding the policy, societal, environmental, and economic context that are critical to scaling effective interventions.

We welcome a ‘food systems approach’ that considers how interventions at specific points in the food system might relate to each other. The findings from this programme, which are focused on changing consumption patterns, will contribute to a wider body of evidence on the health and environmental aspects of the food system.

Defining a healthy diet

For the purposes of this funding opportunity, a healthy balanced diet is defined in line with the NHS eatwell guide.


The research team will be expected to engage with government partners and ESRC throughout the duration of the grant via a programme board that will oversee and support the team’s work. The programme board will also continue to oversee and support the delivery phase of the food system trials programme.


We held a webinar on 18 July to outline the aims and objectives of the opportunity. The recording is available below.

To receive the webinar slide deck and a frequently asked questions document, contact

View the webinar recording via Zoom.

Supporting documents

Je-S guidance for applicants (DOCX, 235KB)
Equality impact assessment (PDF, 141KB)

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