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23/24 Application Development Award - The health impacts of dark kitchens and rapid grocery delivery services


Published: 07 March 2023

Version: 1.0

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The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme is accepting straight-to-Stage 2 applications to this funding opportunity for underpinning development work on the health impacts of dark kitchens and rapid grocery delivery services (RGDS) or similar business models. 

Poor diet is responsible for a substantial proportion of the burden of non-communicable diseases globally and in the UK, to an extent that is comparable to smoking. Diets are partly determined by the immediate food environment, and the availability and affordability of unhealthy foods within that environment. Disadvantaged areas tend to have a disproportionately greater number of businesses selling unhealthy foods, which has a negative impact on diet, with greater exposure and access to cheap, low-nutrient but energy-dense foods.

The recent exponential growth of online food ordering and delivery services has reshaped the restaurant and traditional grocery services industries. There are unknown public health and land use implications, which may be undermining existing interventions that seek to promote a healthier food environment on the high street, in residential neighbourhoods, or close to schools and colleges.

Dark kitchens and RGDS are two business models (there are other models) operating in this space, providing easy access to fast food or groceries, primarily delivered to customers by delivery drivers through a variety of transport modalities. A report commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has identified a range of food services providers operating within a new and rapidly changing complex digital ecosystem.

Dark kitchens (also known as cloud kitchens, ghost kitchens or virtual kitchens) are delivery-only commercial kitchens. They can be found mainly in commercial or prefabricated units, in various locations but typically in town centres or industrial estates, many of which are located close to residential neighbourhoods to maximise the customer base. There are commercial advantages to operating dark kitchens. Tenants renting kitchen space might include take-away businesses wishing to expand their offer, and food entrepreneurs responding to increasing demand without the burden of restaurant overheads. Dark kitchens may be (inappropriately) operating outside relevant regulatory frameworks.

There are various types of online RGDS. Unlike traditional supermarkets with a high street presence, RGDS often operate from centrally-located warehouses/logistical facilities also known as ‘dark stores’, which are not open to the public. Customers typically use mobile apps to browse and order fast food and groceries from dark kitchens and RGDS.

A recent study that explored the online food environment in one London borough found that most businesses that were renting space in dark kitchens were ‘virtual restaurants’ selling fast food. The study found that local RGDS sold a variety of items, with a focus on pre-packaged foods high in fat, salt, and sugar, as well as alcohol and tobacco. These items were also those that were most likely to be advertised to consumers on mobile apps via non-monetary promotions such as cover images and recommendations.

The PHR Programme recognises that the evidence base relating to dark kitchens, RGDS, and other similar business models is still emerging and could benefit from further underpinning development work.

This funding opportunity is for applications in the region of £50,000 up to a maximum of £150,000, for work lasting no more than 6 months. The aim of this Application Development Award (ADA) is to provide funding for underpinning development work that will add to the current knowledge base and that will ultimately support and inform a subsequent application – either to an NIHR commissioned call on this topic, or to the PHR Programme’s Researcher-led workstream. The primary outcomes of any subsequent application that results from this ADA must be health related.

Possible areas of work for this ADA may include (but are not limited to):

  • Work to understand what data on dark kitchens and RGDS are collected (such as scale and location of operations) by central or local statutory bodies such as local government planning or environmental services, or the FSA.
  • Secondary analyses of existing data, for example relating to freight or transportation patterns within the logistics industry, or consumer data from online platforms.
  • Underpinning research with an epidemiological focus. For example, work to understand the scale, distribution, and type of the potential health effects of dark kitchens and RGDS in specific populations defined by socioeconomic status, geographical region, age group, or other characteristic.
  • Development of networks or partnerships to support the development of interventions that address the health impacts of dark kitchens or RGDS – for example, networks across or within particular geographical areas.
  • Analysis of how interventions designed to modify the food environment may be applied to, or take into account, business models such as dark kitchens and RGDS, including possible new approaches.
  • Identification of, and engagement with, relevant stakeholders. These might include specific population groups and communities; staff/workers; environmental health and/or trading and food standards organisations; interest groups; local and national decision-makers; business and service providers.
  • Development work to support a feasibility study proposal on this topic.
  • Underpinning work on community-level interventions that seek to improve health by acting to increase the degree of choice and agency for (potential) dark kitchen and RGDS customers.
  • Underpinning work relating to planning and licensing powers to manage land use or limit online access to harmful products sold by dark kitchens and RGDS (for example the sale of alcohol or tobacco products to children).
  • Exploratory studies investigating the potential impacts that an increasing presence of online food delivery services has on, for example, town centre/building use and the relationship (which may be at the micro level) with local place. This might include the impact on high streets, convenience stores, transport infrastructure, road safety, or carbon emissions.
  • Research related to the public acceptability of research methods that might be used to collect personal data on individuals’ use of – for example – mobile and digital platforms related to online food delivery services.
  • Research into the feasibility of collecting private sector data on sales and purchasing.
  • Development work on methods that could be applied to future evaluative research related to dark kitchens and RGDS or similar business models.
  • Analysis of the costs and benefits to public health and the wider economy from dark kitchens and RGDS or similar business models – including on, for example, employment, regeneration, and economic development.

Applicants should note that:

  • The PHR Programme will consider funding more than one study team for this ADA.
  • Proposals need not be limited to the research areas of interest identified above.
  • Applicants can focus on a single component, or combination of components, as preferred.
  • The PHR Programme welcomes applications that propose innovative approaches, as well as applications that demonstrate how researchers from outside the disciplines that are usually associated with public health will be engaged in the research.

Applicants to this ADA should ensure that their proposed work demonstrates a clear link to future possible evaluative research into interventions that address the health impacts of dark kitchens and/or RGDS, or similar business models. With this in mind, the PHR Programme is predominantly interested in evaluating interventions that are likely to have impact on populations at scale, and that address health inequalities and the underlying wider determinants of health. The PHR Programme recognises that interventions are likely to impact different (sub)populations in different ways, and encourages researchers to explore such disparities in their study design. Of particular importance to the PHR Programme is understanding and addressing inequalities related to different ethnic minority groups in the UK.

The PHR Programme funds only evaluative research where the primary outcomes are health-related (or as with this ADA – underpinning development work to inform such research). The Programme will accept other outcomes as long as the link to health is clearly justified.

Research teams who feel they are already in a position to submit a proposal to evaluate interventions relating to the health impacts of dark kitchens, RGDS, or similar business models are welcome to do so directly via the Researcher-led workstream.

If you have specific questions about this funding opportunity, please contact:


Commensurate with the level of funding available for this ADA, this is a direct-to-Stage 2 funding opportunity. Applications will be assessed by a sub-committee of the PHR Programme Prioritisation and Funding Committee. Applications will be assessed for importance to public health, scientific quality, feasibility, and value for money. Successful applicants will be expected to begin the work within two months of the funding decision being communicated. Successful applicants will be expected to produce a final report. Any other outputs (e.g. journal articles) must be accessible in line with NIHR’s Open Access policy.