The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
It has been particularly depressing in the past weeks to read about the implications of the Ukraine war on malnutrition (among other things). It raises the question: why have we not learned from past experience to create greater nutrition resilience? A naïve question of course, but reflective of the frustration that we already know so many of the solutions - and yet the problems remain. As a commentary published this week in Nature Food pointed out, experiences of previous crises show that when food prices rise - which the Ukraine war is further exacerbating - people's diets suffer. Needed are robust social protection programmes, continuation of basic nutrition interventions, resources for humanitarian support - and over the long-term, food systems that are "more resilient and sustainable, and that support people's consumption of safe, nutritious and affordable diets."
The frustration that solutions are known but not yet sufficiently delivering change struck me equally forcefully when in the Western Cape Province in South Africa last week. We were visiting the sites involved in The Nourished Child project, where stunting is stubbornly high, child death from severe acute malnutrition is at numbers not seen for awhile, and obesity rising. It's a classic case of malnutrition in all its forms - in a country with plenty of resources, and where actions to make things better are being taken.
But being in the spaces where these burdens are being experienced made it blindingly clear why known solutions are struggling to have impact. Mums cannot pay the fees to send their kids to state-funded creches (which provide food) when the agricultural work they rely on disappears for the season. Education on breast-feeding provided through local clinics is undermined by social relationships which put mums under pressure to listen to conflicting advice from grandma, shaped historically by advertising. Absent fathers pay for formula as a form of control. Babies die when immigrant populations are unable to access the clinics. Kids buy cheap sweets and snacks as one of the few things that are accessible, enjoyable and affordable in their day (this video tells the story from a child's-eye view).
Talking with women trying to do something about it (they were all women) likewise makes it obvious. With limited capacity, a local health leader told us she has no choice but to focus most of her time and resources on managing the most severe cases of malnutrition. A local foundation leader told us that while she is absolutely dedicated to improving the quality of creches, she only can afford to focus her time on improving a limited number. The head of a small creche we visited - herself living in poverty - was doing an extraordinary job of looking after children in frankly abject circumstances, while also nurturing a garden at home. But with only a couple of pans and a single gas stove in a tiny 2-room shack, she has to feed the kids donated packages of heavily sweetened instant porridge. We met another amazing community leader who has done astonishing things to navigate power hierarchies to engage local youth in a safe space for better food and nutrition - but issues of poor infrastructure for the delivery of energy, water and sanitation are way out of her hands.
While the outcomes of the hard work of these unsung women are necessarily limited by conditions not of their own making, what I saw in them was real leadership: a passion for their social purpose (the leader of the creche was driven by her love of children, the community leader by her belief in young people), amazing persistence in adapting in the face of hardship, clever ways to somehow subvert the norm to get things done, lifting others up to effect change, listening, reflecting and learning, taking voice and speaking out, and connecting with others for collective action.
I was left with the feeling, as I so often am when talking with women on the ground, that this leadership operating in the relatively hidden spaces of so many women's working lives, is the real type of leadership we need to see. It's the type of leadership that the Next Gen(D)eration Leadership Collective is trying to make more visible through our publication of Achieving A Well-Nourished World: A Manifesto for Leadership last month.
The Manifesto describes eight practices (shown on the figure) we believe can help lead through challenges so pervasive in our space - the economic, political and institutional imperatives that prevent commitment being converted into action; the power hierarchies holding back transformative ideas and innovations; the diverse perspectives that give rise to conflict; and the fragmented governance and siloed ways of working that gets in the way of aligning solutions.
At the launch event for the Manifesto (online here) we heard from many inspiring women about how they are practicing leadership to drive change . Like the women I met in the Western Cape, examples abound. In a story that showed such courage, Maisha Hutton shared with us how she used the practice of connecting for collective action to drive forward a regional movement for healthy food environments in the Caribbean. Tilly Karupaiah showed how deviating from the norm helped her and colleagues tackle power hierarchies in Malaysia to shift the whole nutrition agenda. Jemimah Njuki highlighted how other women lifting her up had enabled her to power forward change. Michelle Grant brilliantly illustrated the power of reflection, Camila Corvalan the importance of taking time to listen with curiosity, and Katie Pereira-Kotze the thought and planning it takes to communicate openly. There were many more stories, all from women who are taking power to redefine leadership in nutrition and food systems, the kind of leadership that, if rewarded, would help us progress further faster towards a well-nourished world.
The trouble is, this type of leadership is not being sufficiently rewarded. It is not being sufficiently lifted up to ensure we are all learning from experience, listening to what is really happening on the ground, and providing the resources and capacity to act accordingly. Thus emerges the frustrating situation that change is just not happening fast enough.
Thus the call to action of the Next Gen(D)eration Leadership Collective: that everyone who works in nutrition and food systems should integrate the eight courageous leadership practices into the way you work - including and especially those with the power to allocate capacity and resources. Singing the praises of women leaders on the ground or in any professional role in not enough; they need to be listened to, learned from, and provided with the resources and capacity to really make the difference.
How do we know that the more widespread integration of these leadership practices will really make a difference? That they will mean that ten years from now the learnings from Ukraine and all the other experiences will lead to change? Well, we don’t. But we at least owe it to those who are trying to make things happen. Having been yet again inspired by women in far more difficult situations than my own (and that’s a massive understatement), I certainly plan to try to do better. For starters, doing more to connect with others for collective action, and, perhaps most importantly of all, to lift others up to lead. As Liz Ogutu put it so marvellously in the story she shared during the Manifesto launch, it's not just about sending the elevator down to lift others up, but about getting in to the elevator, enabling others to get in - and then doing everything possible to make sure it's actually going up. Thank you, Liz, and the many women I have the good fortune to encounter, for the inspiration.
More information about the Next Gen(D)eration Leadership Collective is on our website. I'd like to thank the many women who have engaged in the Collective and my colleagues who formed the team who wrote the Manifesto - Shu Wen Ng, Rebecca Namara, Kathryn Backholer, Elaine Borazon, Namukolo Covic, Ana Clara Duran, Purnima Menon, Carmen Torres Ledezma and Anne Marie Thow, Thanks also to the fantastic team in South Africa working on The Nourished Child project.
Last week I had the pleasure of spending half a (virtual) day with students and staff in the Program in International Nutrition at Cornell University (USA). As part of their seminar series, I was there to talk about my recent work (and that of my team and collaborators) on systems-based but people-centred approaches to addressing dietary inequalities. It was my usual message: embrace complexity to find pragmatic solutions that work. Embed yourself in human realities. Don’t expect linear relationships between A and B. Make decisions about what to do based on a systems understanding and don’t shy away from making those decisions.
While I welcomed the opportunity to share and engage with this incredible group of international scholars, I also worried (as I often do) that I was messing with their heads a bit too much. This is not a comment on their evident intelligence and ability to grasp these things—but on my ability to explain it. I struggled to answer their smart and sharp questions about how to engage with policymakers with systems thinking and doing; I found myself wondering whether I’d really got any answers at all. Nevertheless, it’s vital this next generation of students learn how to navigate our complex world where there are so few simple solutions, where “black and white thinking” is positively dangerous, and where no-one has all the answers (especially those who think they do). So I tried the best I could.
The last question they asked of me was a relatively simple one: what books would I recommend they read? I offered up a couple of titles I’m currently reading—but then my head went blank. Afterwards, though, I carried on thinking about it: if I was struggling to articulate the practical implications of complexity, what were the books that could? I found myself going back to what I was reading at around that age, the books that influenced me to ditch the temptation of binary thinking and embrace curiosity over certainty. Here are the two I think had the biggest impact back then—plus the two more recent books I’m reading now. I acknowledge, of course, that they are hugely limited in geography, culture, and ethnicity. More diverse voices must be read and heard, too.
First, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz (1985). This was the first book I read about Britain and slavery, the extractive nature of colonialism, the extremity of class relations in my own country, and the economics of globalization (it still shocks me how little I was taught about this stuff in school). What I learned most profoundly from this text is how deep transitions in what the world eats happen when forces from within (in this case aspiration for status and pleasure) combine with macro forces from without (the pursuit of economic power). Or, as Philip McMichael brilliantly articulates in an article I read much later, “when outside meaning and inside meaning converge.”
In short, it’s not one or the other. People drive change as they attempt to navigate the realities of their lives; in so doing they are profoundly shaped and influenced by economic and political forces. It’s when these changes converge that big change happens. It’s a lesson any nutritional professional who cares about improving people’s diets needs to take on board. Focusing only on changing outside forces without trying to understand why and how people react, respond and engage with those forces is too limited. So is simply focusing on targeting people themselves. It is binary thinking that the lessons of history in Sweetness and Power show won’t get us very far.
Second, with its central theme of colonisation, is Changes in the Land by William Cronon (1983). This story—from a leading environmental historian—is about what happened when the British landed in New England and started eviscerating Native Americans. In analysing the ecological, economic and human transformations that took place, the book problematises all kinds of dualistic understandings—the notion that humans are separate from nature, that environments are separate from choices (and choices from environments), that ecological, nutritional and economic transitions are isolated from each other, and that ways of seeing can be separated from our history. He shows that breaking things down into “extractable units” (as the colonists did), putting boundaries around things, is the first step to destruction. In taking this more interconnected view, Cronon shows us that it is in the interactions between things where we need to look to find the deeper solutions. While this has challenging implications for how to improve nutrition, it opens up exciting new possibilities of how to make change.
A far more recent book is Marcia Chatelain’s Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America (2020). The book weaves a fascinating story of how McDonald’s has navigated African American communities for its own ends—while also serving those communities. It shows these things are an “and” not an “or.” Empowerment and exploitation can have the same source. Fast food and its companies present themselves as solutions to structural problems while also being part of those structural problems. Chatelain helps us hold these different, apparently conflicting, perspectives in our heads at the same time, so helping us be better systems thinkers. This is why the book is so instructive for international nutrition students—indeed for anyone in the food and nutrition world. Even though it is set in the United States and is largely not about nutrition at all, it highlights something universal—that designing an intervention based on a singular understanding of why it might work rarely has deep impact. Attempting to remove all the messy stuff that gets in the way just isn’t possible.
Finally, Monarchy of Fear by Martha Nussbaum (2018). Although I have only just started it, it feels like a book I’ve long been waiting for. It’s not about food—nutrition only gets a mention when Nussbaum notes it is vital for a good society. Instead, the book is about the relationship between emotion and politics in an era of extraordinary division, polarisation, and inequality. The book shows us how fear shapes control, exclusion, envy, and our current social and political moment. From what I can tell so far, it’s a call to step back and think, a call to engage with the emotional experience raging beneath the surface of what seems so bad, encouraging us all to look to places we often fail to look. The message is, I think, that it’s only by understanding these different dimensions of what is going on that we can hope to intervene in a way that will lead to positive change. That’s a message important to all those of us working in food systems and nutrition.
Ultimately, these books tell us about how change happens and why. They shine important light on how change could happen—and why it means we should embrace the complexity that defines the world for what it is, rather than the simpler world we would often prefer it to be.
After a very busy couple of months, I’ve been enjoying catching up on the huge number of reports flowing out of various international organisations. So much material to help make decisions about what to do for better nutrition and food systems. Here are some of my favourites.
The Global Nutrition Report this year includes some super-useful tables on how diets diverge from both health and sustainability. While the dire state of the global diet is well-established, the report packs a punch by setting out the figures in black and white (or, rather, shades of orange) across different foods and regions. There are some pretty shocking numbers here showing exactly how far we are away from where we need to be.
The Food Systems Policy Tool, published by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, is designed to help governments identify what to do to address this divergence. Set up as a series of questions, it encourages users to focus on identifying the diet problems at hand, what is causing them, and where the food systems solutions lie. I hope governments refer to it, even if just to help structure their decision-making about where to take action in their context.
The Foodscapes report from The Nature Conservancy provides the environmental context for such decision-making. It maps what it calls ‘foodscapes’ - terrestrial and aquatic food production areas with distinct biophysical attributes and management patterns. The report identifies a total of 80 (such as semi-arid grazing systems and intensive grain/oilseed systems) pointing out the environmental challenges each present and the nature-based solutions that can fix them. Such solutions, it suggests, can also help achieve nutrition goals, a notable example being diversifying landscapes towards nutritious foods rather than stripping down to cereals, oilseeds or sugar.
Indeed, one of the striking things about this new crop of reports is how they bring together nutrition and sustainability. The WWF Food Manifesto for COP26 goes further by highlighting the “missing ingredient” needed to ensure both are considered: a "food systems approach" which integrates food consumption as part of the solution to climate change as well as changes to production. A clear call for integrated action across food systems. While not the first nor only time this point has been made, it is notable to see the importance of systemic thinking front and centre in a manifesto of such a large and influential NGO.
Next up is the World Inequality Report 2022. This report doesn’t mention food at all. But it speaks volumes for what needs to be done to address dietary inequalities from both a health and sustainability perspective. If, as it shows, “the share of income presently captured by the poorest half of the world’s people is about half what it was in 1820,” then we haven't a hope of getting food systems working for everybody. Such appalling inequalities prevent too many people from acquiring healthy and sustainable diets, even where food systems are doing a good job producing them. Turning this vicious cycle into a virtuous one - by tackling structural inequalities - has to be central to the agenda. To add insult to injury, it is the rich, confirms the report, not the poor, who are causing the climate crisis.
I was glad, therefore, to see the ability of vulnerable households to access healthy diets in face of shocks (like climate change) highlighted in the FAO’s State of Food and Agriculture 2021. The report, Making Agrifood Systems More Resilient to Shocks and Stresses, takes readers through resilience issues in production, food supply chains and consumption. In doing so it shines a light on the point of least resilience in food systems made apparent by COVID-19: households vulnerable to economic shocks. Thus efforts to build food system resilience – defined as the dynamic capacity to continue to achieve goals despite disturbances – must include as a priority “guaranteeing economic access to a healthy diet.” Identifying how to do so while considering resilience across the whole system, the report concludes, requires an understanding of "how systems function and interact,” coherence between policies, and the involvement of “government institutions across all relevant sectors and different layers."
Enter the OnePlanet Network’s report National and Sub-National Food Systems Multi-Stakeholder Mechanisms: An Assessment of Experiences. Taking as its starting point the need to “embed a holistic food systems approach into policy-making processes,” the report delves into the workings and contributions of 10 existing food system multi-stakeholder mechanisms of different types and scales. This lengthy tome makes evident that rethinking food systems governance and institutional arrangements is essential to address the interlinked problems of nutrition, environment, resilience and inequalities in livelihoods set out in this range of reports. Food systems multi-stakeholder mechanisms can contribute by providing the space for a wide range of food systems actors to come together, for the networking and connecting between them, and for the leadership needed to balance the power relations and navigate the inevitable conflicts towards solutions.
The most critical challenge to emerge from these reports is how to put the numerous recommendations they provide into practice. This is where I see two things missing.
The first is capacity: inadequate human and leadership capabilities on the ground are holding back the ability to implement real change. Greater human resource for implementation is essential at the local, national, regional and global levels, with needs being particularly great at the all important local level where there is so much unrealised potential for action. Let's hope the US$27bn committed by government and private sector donors at the recent Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit will provide some of this basic sustenance needed to get the job done.
Second are the skills to think and act systemically. While all the reports point to the need for a systems approach, if no-one is there with the ability to embrace the complexity and help implementers work their way through it, these calls will likely come to nothing. Part of the secret to success will, I think, be in ensuring the skills and capacity are there to make the necessary connections, to identify what lies beneath the implementation challenges, and to engage the right people (in the right way) on the pathway of change.
It’s the UN Food Systems Summit on September 23, 2021 and the preparation process has certainly proved an interesting one. Innumerable conversations. Many, many, meetings. Scores of dialogues. Protests. Thousands of ideas for what needs to change. People from different spaces and sectors gathering in Zoom rooms.
Will the Summit fulfil its vision of driving action to transform food systems towards the achievement of the SDGs? That, I think, will depend on what happens afterwards. As a recent paper put it, transforming food systems is essentially a process of governing change - a “governance effort to alter undesired emergent properties of the system into desired properties” (such as from unhealthy diets to healthy diets, from negative impacts on nature to positive ones). The pre-summit process has not just brought significant positive steps forward - but also provided some important clues about what governance needs to look like post-summit to ensure it's impact continues to build. Here are three lessons I took away from the pre-summit process about what the governance of change needs to do.
Invite and encourage diversity of action
The first clue comes from the attempt to bring together the diversity of action across the food system. There are hundreds of possibilities for change across food systems; indeed, the challenge is knowing where to stop. The pre-summit process invited people to submit the actions they think really mattered - which they did in spades. 2,200 ideas were received by the five Action Tracks alone, most of them building on experience of actions already being taken. It was a way of meeting people where they are across the broad scope of food systems, accepting they all have a place. Actions were also discussed at the national food systems dialogues and 850 independent food system dialogues (involving 41,000 people) – which concluded that this diversity needs to be valued (read more in this excellent report). The “global conversation” envisioned by Summit Envoy Dr Agnes Kalibata had clearly been well and truly sparked among people taking action in different parts of the system.
Things got a lot more difficult, though, when trying to narrow down the hundreds of ideas into a smaller number of “game changing” actions for impact at scale. Coming to agreement about a short list of the most important actions proved tough. The lesson I take from this, rightly or wrongly, is that accelerating action into the future means actively encouraging diversity as the way forward, not trying to narrow it down. It means governance needs to provide a home for them all. At the country and sub-country level, that means capturing and building on the diversity of all the things that are already going on, identifying the “leverage points” and new innovations needed to maximise impact, and “conducting” them all to play to the same tune.
What we have now is kind of like a large orchestra tuning up. Amazing players testing out their tunes to themselves using a diversity of instruments. The big governance challenge thrown up by the Summit process is how to ensure the diversity of action begins playing to the same tune. That surely would be the real gamechanger. Innovation in governance will need gifted conductors.
Develop a shared understanding of the problem and a common language to talk about it
Conducting the orchestra won’t be possible unless there is a shared score. This soon became apparent (in the best possible way) when working with colleagues to develop an Action Coalition (one of the expectations of the Summit) on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. While kindred spirits with a shared agenda, we were coming to the problem from different entry points - from obesity/non-communicable diseases, from undernutrition, sustainability, food safety and local food cultures (to name but a few) - and we talked in different ways about what is essentially the same problem. Each of these representations of the problem are important and valid. The challenge is that the solutions they imply are not yet in tune.
For example, those entering the problem from a sustainability angle understandably talk about consumers transitioning to more sustainable consumption patterns as core to the solution. The implication here is that people need nudging to reduce excessively high levels of meat intake or to choose products with lower carbon footprints. Rightly so in some contexts. But it does not really apply to (and does not intend to) desperately poor people eating largely starch-based diets with a bit of meat gravy and milk thrown in if they are lucky. The solutions talked about here are more about supporting populations to consume a greater diversity of nutritious foods, through, amongst other things, stronger social protection programmes like cash-based transfers and school food programmes (both featured in the pre-summit process). In other spaces, meanwhile, it's all about government regulation to keep unhealthy foods out of schools, more about reining in the vested interests of large businesses producing ultraprocessed foods. In others, it’s about solutions to unsafe food (which include food processing and packaging), about managing food safety in the informal sector, about the safety of food traded across borders. Yet in still others, the language focuses on keeping food local, recognising there are local cultures that already support healthy diets, produced from systems that might not need the kind of food safety regulation necessary for larger global food chains.
All of these diverse solutions are needed to achieve the shared vision of healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Yet the way we talk about solutions (which we typically do in separate spaces) shows that without a common language about the nature of the problem, our solutions will remain out of tune, a cacophony played by disparate communities seeking to change different things in different ways, not even realising they are working towards a shared goal. We will continue talk at cross purposes, advocate for our “own” solutions over others, quietly (sometimes loudly) seeing each other as a threat - rather than working together to reach a crescendo finally loud enough to generate real impact. The governance of change should thus not simply push forward a diversity of action, but also enable us to play from a common score so we all understand our roles and responsibilities in the orchestra.
Manage the politics and power of pluralism
Valuing diversity implies pluralism - and pluralism inevitably involves entities with different levels of power. The reality of imbalanced power relations was at the core of the various protests against the Summit by its many detractors. Let’s take this as a cue that part of the job of governance is to balance these differing levels of power and interests. Without it, the diversity of action becomes warped, subverted, bent out of shape. Experimental innovations with promise remain just that while well-resourced technical solutions win-out and actions that undermine shared goals continue. It’s a familiar story. If we want diversity to fit together, we have to ensure that some instruments aren’t drowning others out, making noise not music. It’s not about exclusion but managing inclusiveness, harnessing rather than dampening the passion so many have shown in the pre-summit process.
I expect Summit day will be full of calls for “urgent action” and the need to “act now.” That’s good. But if the Summit’s promise of accelerating bold action for transformative change is to be realised, let’s learn the lessons from the pre-summit process: these calls will not lead to much without the governance needed to align and integrate the diversity of action the Summit has done so well to bring together. My own experience has highlighted a few things about what this governance needs to do to achieve that. There are doubtless many more. Whatever they are, the success of the Summit arguably depends on it.
In the month since I wrote my last blog, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the first item on the food systems wish list I shared – women’s leadership. I’ve had a second preoccupation this month too: the basil on my windowsill.
My preoccupations with the basil started a few weeks back when I planted several pots dotted around in the room where I work at home. Watching the plants grow has stimulated a mix of emotions. The basil I placed at the end of the room germinated fast; the first flush of tiny green emerging from the soil was an exciting moment in grey days. But then the seedlings grew spindly and crooked; it seemed that straining towards the light from the skylights above in the dark British spring made their stems tall but weak, lacking enough energy to grow leaves. Now, the plants that survived are permanently stunted.
On my (indoor) windowsill, though, the seedlings flourished, growing more slowly, still leaning towards the light, but with sturdier stems and larger leaves. It’s been a small pleasure between Zoom calls to stand up and turn the pots around so that the plants straighten up as they move direction and grow again towards the light.
Yet even here I’ve seen some of the seeds grow shorter than the others, crowded out by those that seem unstoppable. With my inexpert hand, I must have sowed the seeds at different depths, and spaced them unevenly, rushing rather than taking my time. I did not give them the fair conditions they needed to grow.
Now, in an attempt to help the smaller plants grow better, I moved a few into their own pots, not entirely successfully. This morning, I took more desperate measures, cutting the larger plants down to a size like the smaller ones, hoping that those crowded out now might stand a better chance. I recognise it probably won’t work - by snipping off the already stronger plants above the smaller shooting leaves below, the already taller ones will likely simply grow back bushier and stronger.
As I’ve been trying to course-correct the basil, I’ve been pulling together shared ideas on leadership into a paper with my colleagues in the Next Gen(d)eration Leadership Initiative. A new collective designed to create a leadership movement towards a well-nourished world (I first wrote about it in September last year), our working hypothesis is that while women dominate the world of nutrition and food systems, the strengths they have in leading through complexity, conflict and across sectors to effect and sustain real change are not being leveraged.
To that end, kudos to Jemimah Njuki, IFPRI’s Director for Africa and Custodian for Gender and Women's Empowerment for the UN Food Systems Summit for her recent proposal for a “Global Food Systems 5050.” As she wrote in a blog a few weeks back, the idea is that “hundreds of organizations working in food systems … make commitments to elevating women’s voices and representation, achieving gender parity in leadership, and gender equality both in their organizational cultures and their policies and programs.” It builds on the excellent Global Health 50/50 report that has done so much to highlight the need for global health institutions to walk the talk on gender representation in leadership.
The questions we are exploring are: How could leadership be better practiced? How can we unleash the power of women to leading change towards better food and diets for all? These are issues we raised in the first of a series of “ChangeMaker Connect Forums,” initiated this past April, where around 100 women came together to discuss their experiences of leadership, talking frankly about their perspectives on type of leadership they’d like to see. It was a wonderful experience, feeling such energy and connection with women across the globe. But it was also concerning, albeit not surprising, that so many women said despite their desire to stand tall, to act with ambition for nutrition, when they tried to reach higher, they felt crowded out. The issue was a sense of being limited, a sense that the way they wanted to practice leadership was not being rewarded, neither for them nor for the purpose of effecting the changes we all want to see.
It reminded me of those smaller basil plants, the ones for whom conditions limited their growth, the ones somehow not able to stand as tall as they wanted, but nevertheless, in whatever position they found themselves in, were still doing everything they could to reach towards the light, to take agency to make the best of imperfect conditions. It struck me more than ever that for real change in the journey towards better food, we must change the conditions in which leadership is seeded early on, and then continue to pay attention to unleashing the agency lying latent. If we want leadership to grow, we need the right conditions to put the power women already have to work.
Thanks as ever for the inspiration from my Next Gen(d)eration colleagues for shaping and influencing the thinking in this blog. More on the initiative and Forums can be found here.
What are the policies and actions that could bring radical improvements to food systems? And who has the power to get them done? This is one of the big questions being asked in the global food systems conversation. It’s a controversial question. What is needed to effect change in one place differs from another. No one action can change things on its own and will only shift the system, not “fix” it. And, of course, perspectives on what will actually work contrast and conflict.
Yet there are surely some big ticket items that could universally bring about change, things that just need to happen, things where it is relatively clear who needs to do what to unleash positive ripples across the system. Here are a few on my wish list. They are inspired by a vision of people taking action to do things differently, a vision of food systems full of leadership, diversity, dignity and celebration.
1. All institutions concerned with food systems break down the barriers in their contexts to placing women in leadership roles. Given women are fundamentally involved in food from farm to fork, why not let them lead? This is not only a way to better represent the voices of the millions of women who work throughout food systems, but to ensure that the leadership practices needed for food systems change can thrive.
2. Presidents/Prime Ministers and city and local government leaders appoint (into their offices) a food system champion with the task of developing and delivering a coherent food policy for the nation or city/locality. Achieving coherence across the food system is not an easy task; there is much to consider, many conflicting interests and actors. A champion with authority can at least engage across government to identify what is already happening, what needs to change, and who needs to do what, emerging with a shared vision of change. Cross-learning between countries and cities could enable lessons to be shared on how to get it done in solidarity .
3. Relevant leaders in the public, private and third sectors take training courses and educational programmes in food systems thinking. It’s hard to lead transformative change without understanding the systemic nature of the problems, the different perspectives on how to solve them, and the entry points for effecting change. Universities need to step up to provide these courses (as they increasingly are). Forgive the blatant plug but feel free to check out this MSc Food Policy and short course that aim to do just that.
4. Ministries of agriculture, industry and skills correct policy biases against small- and medium-sized businesses. Entrepreneurial farm businesses, smaller traders and distributors, food hubs and outlets offering healthier, more sustainable food cannot compete when they face red tape rather than the infrastructure and finance they need. Much can be done to unleash their economic potential and inject greater diversity into food systems. Donors and development partners need to consider this when funding private sector development projects.
5. National governments and international agencies revise laws and invest in infrastructure to enable a more diverse array of producers to access markets for public procurement (as well as restaurants, etc.). These markets provide stable and structured markets for smaller producers, farms using agroecological and nature-friendly methods, small- and medium sized manufacturers and women/minority-led enterprises. Infrastructure, cooperatives, aggregators and laws to unshackle procurement rules are needed to make this possible.
6. International, regional and national trade bodies redefine the purpose of agri-food trade and cross border commerce from promoting competitiveness to improving food systems. There is no question that trade policy has transformed food systems over past decades. It has brought benefits for some, yet all too often crowded out the diversity of actors we need. Now it’s time it caught up with the food systems conversation. There are no clear answers about how global, regional and bilateral trade agreements can support nutrition, sustainability and livelihoods. But a new mindset that puts trade at the service of food systems — rather than the other way around — could start a conversation about how it might be achieved.
7. Food businesses ensure that their employees - and the employees in their supply chains - can afford to feed themselves and their families. It’s morally troubling that anyone involved in food production, processing, distribution or retailing are themselves malnourished and unable to afford and access a healthy diet. It’s encouraging to see that one large company has already committed to paying a living wage to all its employees and all who directly provide them with goods and services. If that’s too burdensome for smaller companies, they could provide healthy meals or give employees vouchers to spend on nutritious foods.
8. Finance ministries allocate a sufficient budget year-on-year to social safety net programmes, providing cash or other forms of support to low-income households that enable them to buy enough nutritious foods. No food system anywhere can be seriously transformed if the majority of the world’s population cannot afford to eat healthy foods produced by people who are paid properly to a standard that protects and promotes nature. It’s especially important for infants and young children given around 75% eat substandard diets. Given the cost of these programmes, development partners need to weigh in, too, building on existing commitments.
9. Ministries of education (or whichever relevant ministry) allocate sufficient human and budgetary capacity to school authorities and/or local governments to make children’s centres and schools spaces where children learn to love and value good food. Few disagree that schools should offer young children and adolescents healthy sustainable food along with education, skills and support so they can become food literate for life. Yet given schools and children's centres have little budget and other things to worry about, capacity and funding are needed to ensure it is done, done well, and adapted to local context.
10. Media platforms and other commercial marketing channels replace unhealthy food promotion with celebrations of the power of good food. This is perhaps wishful thinking indeed. But just imagine if all advertising and other forms of commercial promotion for unhealthy junk was replaced by messages about good food, creating aspiration for foods like vegetables and legumes, with positive stories about food, planet and people. The platforms that carry promotions - such as Google, You Tube, TV channels, supermarkets, owners of outdoor billboards, etc. - have the power to refuse the unhealthy and unsustainable and incentivise the good. Regulation, investor pressure and civil society activism could help push them to make the right choice.
11. Local community groups seize World Food Day (October 16) as a “people’s food day” to celebrate food, encouraging and enabling citizens to share food freely with one another. Far from its current home in the corridors of power, World Food Day could spill out into the streets and fields across the world, building on the tremendous capacity for communities to support each other, as the experience of COVID-19 has shown. Food can never be an entirely free good. But for one day it could be shared. Such a day could celebrate the work of so many religious organisations already sharing food with people who do not have enough, the amazing Apps dedicated to food sharing, and the thousands of community initiatives out there. There is so much going on in so many places. For a single day each year, food could be truly celebrated - like it should be everyday.
These things might be wishful thinking. They are. But with a bit of imagination and a lot of hard work, the opportunity is there for people to seize the day and make them possible. The exciting thing is that there is so much that can be done now. This wish list is just a start.
These ideas were also inspired by the huge amount of learning I have experienced over past months; thanks to the many who’s great ideas have inspired this list.
February 17 saw the announcement of a new expert group to assess the need for an International Platform for Food Systems Science. Given the mutterings ongoing for years about the need for an “IPCC for food,” this is a welcome announcement. In assessing the science related to climate change, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has proved pivotal in generating and compiling the necessary evidence to make the case for change. Given food systems cover an even larger scope, it makes sense to start with a process of figuring out what value such a Platform might add and the form it could take.
The announcement set me thinking about the type of scientific knowledge needed to inform food systems change. It’s been on my mind, too, with the preparations for the UN Food Systems Summit drawing both on formal scientific evidence (via its Scientific Group) and the knowledge of experience of people who work and engage in food systems (through the Action Tracks, Food Systems Dialogues and Champions Network). As the UN Special Envoy for the Summit, Dr Agnes Kalibata, has said: “It is all of these people who have the knowledge, insights, and understanding to help improve the system at large and make it more inclusive, more sustainable, and more resilient.”
This acknowledgement of the role of different sources of knowledge is commendable. Happily, too, the make-up of the new group (with experts from the natural sciences, law, economics and other social sciences), suggests a desire to gain insights from multiple disciplines.
Into the knowledge mix, I’d like to put a large stake in the ground for the evidence generated by researchers observing, talking and engaging with people about their lived experience of food systems. In other words, evidence from qualitative research. Qualitative research tends to fall between two stools: it generates data, but not the numerical type typically associated with ‘science'; and while it’s about people's knowledge of their food systems, it analyses and interprets this data to produce new knowledge not necessarily held by the participants, for whom (like all of us) seeing the big systemic underpinnings of their every day experience is tough.
I’d argue this evidence is vital, especially when it comes to understanding why people eat what they do. Knowledge of why people make decisions about what to eat is made in the multiple systems in which people live their lives. Understanding how peoples' lived social, economic and psychological realities shape what they eat has huge implications for what policies and interventions will succeed or fail.
Take, for example, the issue of food access. A large number of North American, European and Australian studies indicate a paucity of shops selling healthy food in deprived communities (in contrast to the plethora of ‘unhealthy’ ones). An intuitive policy response would be to introduce new stores, or have existing markets change their product offer. But by involving people who live in such neighbourhoods in taking photographs - as studies have done in urban Philadelphia and Madrid - researchers ascertained it is the nature of social interaction in stores that really matters for shaping a healthier food environment, not just what they sell. In a more rural setting, a study conducted by the African Population and Health Research Centre in 2017 found that the Maasai community lacked adequate physical access to markets – yet participatory photo research methodologies revealed that empowering, supporting and including women in food and nutrition decisions was likely more crucial for addressing poor access and food insecurity than better transport. Both these examples indicate the extra value of engaging with the people experiencing the problem to inform the actions needed for effective change.
It is noteworthy, as well, that a gender perspective tends to emerge from these studies. After all, they often reveal the stories of women who struggle to do their best feeding themselves and their families, women whose voices are rarely heard, whose experiences are often diminished.
This past week, colleagues from the Centre for Food Policy and collaborators from 20 different institutions published a document aiming to contribute to bolstering the legitimacy of this form of knowledge. Understanding Lived Experience of Food Environments to Inform Policy: An Overview of Research Methods names, categorises and exemplifies the different qualitative methods available to researchers to explore the decisions people make about food, and their response to existing policies and interventions. Methods include in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and photo elicitation to explore perceptions, beliefs and practices; observing practices in situ, such as on go-along tours or transect walks; and designing policy and interventions with people based on their lived experience, such as co-create and co-design methodologies.
Researchers around the world committed to the rigorous and ethical application of such methods are now coming together into a Community of Practice, meeting regularly to discuss how to increase the quality and quantity of this evidence and work together to maximise its ability to inform change. At our meeting last week, we heard from three policymakers about their perspective on this type of knowledge. They - Esi Foriwa Amoaful, Director of Nutrition at Ghana Health Service, Tristan Gorgens, Acting Director at the Department of the Premier of the Western Cape Province, South Africa, and Veronica Graham, State Manager for Healthy Eating and Active Living Public Health in Victoria, Australia - sent us a clear message: this type of evidence is vital to bring alive what is really going on in people’s lives. It provides knowledge that speaks clearly to the policy-making agenda, and focuses on finding solutions that work.
So my wish for the new Expert Group is that they figure out how any new Platform might integrate this form of knowledge into the science of food systems. It’s the job of any scientist, in the broadest sense of the term, to look and listen closely, to see and feel beneath the surface, and to grasp what underlies the patterns that emerge. In this case, the researcher's task is to read the signs in the store, in the street, and at the stove. The lived experience they are privileged to witness, interpret and share must, surely, form part of the diversity of scientific knowledge needed to inform food systems change.
The Community of Practice referred to in the blog is convened by the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, UK and CIRAD-IRD-SupAgro, Montpellier, France. To date it involves around 70 participants actively engaged in research on lived experience of food environments all around the world, from PhD student to Professors. If you are interested in participating please let me know.
I'd also like to thank Kimberley Neve, other Centre for Food Policy colleagues, and collaborators from the African Centre for Cities, African Population Health Research Centre, CIRAD, the Global Obesity Centre and the Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University, Flinders University, GAIN, Gehl, The George Institute for Global Health, INRAE, Loughborough University, SupAgro, UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems, University of Alcala, University of Barcelona, University of Ghana, University of Greenwich, University of Hertfordshire, and Wageningen University for their work on the Research Brief "Understanding Lived Experience of Food Environments to Inform Policy: An Overview of Research Methods" (Centre for Food Policy, February 2021).
Yesterday marked the release of a new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Making Better Policies for Food Systems. Highlighting the “triple challenge” of food security/nutrition, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability, it raises a fundamental question for food policy in the 21st century: how to “simultaneously make progress on these three dimensions?” It’s not an easy question to answer. As the report is at pains to point out, policies designed to tackle these challenges are riven with incoherence and trade-offs. So how can policymakers navigate the complex terrain of food systems? How can policy actually be fit for purpose for the 21st Century? Here are a few take-aways I took from this report about what policymakers can do:
First, pay attention to policy coherence. Good policymaking cannot escape the interlinkages between food system challenges. Policies designed to address livelihoods (such as agricultural subsidies to support farmer incomes) interconnect with food security and environment. Thus, if policymakers are to address all three challenges they must - at the very least - be aware of “the possibility that a new policy initiative may have spillover effects, or that an existing set of policies may be incoherent.” If they fail to even consider this possibility, problems will, intentionally or not, get worse.
Second, focus on creating coherence where spillovers between policies are strong. Creating policy coherence is not easy. In fact, it’s really hard. Existing institutional arrangements mean spillovers are often hidden. There are no simple decision-rules available to manage trade-offs. And there are disagreements about the facts, diverging interests and different values among the people involved. Focusing efforts where it matters most – when a policy in one area is evidently undermining progress in another, or where there are strong opportunities for synergy, makes practical sense.
Third, prioritise managing the different interests involved. It’s evident that different, often competing, interests exist in the food system. The report makes the important point that if efforts to create coherence are serious, these interests must be explicitly recognised and managed. It’s not enough to engage all stakeholders in an inclusive way and pretend that divergent interests aren’t there: different interests will always “try to influence decision-makers to tip the scales in their favour,” leading to less effective policy. The report makes several practical suggestions about how to manage interests, including guidelines, independent accountability mechanisms, offsetting the cost of reform for interests that may lose out, and building broad countervailing coalitions.
Fourth, if you really want change, ignore differences in values at your peril. Values run deep in the food system. The report gives the example of ‘choice.’ “They take away choice” is an argument frequently used against regulations to restrict the marketing, sale or taxation of foods produced by large manufacturing companies. While it’s easy to blame special interests – indeed this is the source of the pushback – the notion of having the autonomy to make free choice is not just an argument, but a value that runs deep for many people. On the other hand, not wanting the consume the ‘ultraprocessed foods’ these companies produce is also an articulation of deeply held values, values that influence ideas and proposals about what food systems should look like. While generating facts and evidence on each side can help, science is never the ultimate arbiter: people are always more likely to believe the ‘facts’ that align with their beliefs. The report presents a very useful categorisation of the way differences in values are typically dealt with in policymaking, including ‘structural separation’ (when competing values are dealt with in different spaces) and ‘bias’ (when certain values are prioritised and dissenting values excluded because they are too awkward to deal with). But, it concludes, none of them are satisfactory. Instead, it highlights the potential of “deliberative approaches” to “help to build societal consensus” through which values can come to be shared. They propose something else, too (my favourite line in the report): “finding specific actions which can be supported by people with different values.” It may appear impossible, yet in my experience, intelligent navigation and moderation of deeper motivations can make that happen.
Five, carefully consider the policy instrument. A key decision for policymakers is whether to tackle the problem of incoherent policies through complementary policies, repurposing existing policy instruments, designing a bundle of mutually reinforcing actions, or replacing the policy with something completely different. While this needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, the opinion of Making Better Policies is that “one policy instrument will rarely be sufficient to meet all objectives; rather, a mix of instruments is usually needed.” Trying to find a single policy that can, for example, maximise farmer livelihoods and mitigate the food system impacts of climate change might just be too much to ask. In any instance, the design and implementation of the policy instrument requires careful consideration.
Making Better Policies sets out a laudable vision – but a tough ask. It’s also not an ask that’s new. Indeed, exactly forty years ago, the OECD produced another – alas forgotten - report on the topic. The report, titled simply Food Policy, set out an astonishingly prescient vision of a more integrated, holistic approach to food policy. “Concerning interrelationships among different sectors,” it states “policies introduced in the food economy can have effects on other sectors of the economy and, perhaps even more importantly, policies directed primarily at other sectors or the economy as a whole can have a very marked effect on the food economy. The food policy approach is intended to clarify this aspect of policy making by considering the overall effects of policies.” It’s vital, it said, to “recognise that there are competing pressures exerted on policymakers” and it is “particularly important to avoid the introduction of narrow measures catering to special groups (as all too often has occurred in the past).”
The author who drafted that report in the OECD Secretariat was Wilfrid Legg, now serving as the Honorary Secretary of the Agricultural Economics Society after a long career in the OECD. I spoke to him last week and asked him what he thought the most damaging outcome had been of governments and others not heeding his call. “If we had a more whole-of-government approach,” he replied, “we might have avoided many of the problems of the environmental impacts of farming.” That’s a pretty damning statement against incoherent food policy. “It’s dangerous to make food policy based on a single issue alone,” he said, giving the example of the risk of designing policies on cutting meat production and consumption driven by meeting the challenge of climate change, while not considering nutritional, socio-economic and natural resource impacts.
But given its importance, why is the goal so elusive? The architecture of policy coordination is crucial, he said, and current institutional arrangements based on the single-issue model may no longer be fit for purpose. Forty years on, Making Better Policies for Food Systems makes the same point: stronger institutions are necessary, including international ones. While major new institutional arrangements came into place after the food crises of 1974 (e.g. the Committee on World Food Security and the International Food Policy Research Institute), it’s evident we do not yet have a model conducive to building a food system that creates synergies and co-benefits.
One step forward, then, is to piece together the institutional jigsaw, adding capacity in the system to connect the pieces (rather than creating a separate body). Another approach, as I have argued before, is for every country – and city and region – to develop an integrated, overarching food policy that brings the issues together. Neither of these is enough, of course, but they are steps in the right direction. In the meantime, we must focus on identifying and pushing out the solutions supported by broad coalitions of people with different values - all of whom, wherever they may sit, care about a better food system.
With many thanks to Wilfrid Legg for taking the time for our conversation and to Ellie Avery and Koen Deconinck at the OECD for their support.
As part of my involvement in the UN Food Systems Summit (I am chairing a subgroup of Action Track 1), I’ve been wrestling with the issue of affordability. The Action Tracks are tasked with coming up with “game-changing” solutions. In this case, it’s about how to make nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains and legumes more affordable, while making refined starchy foods, cheap fried foods, pre-packaged “ultra-processed” snacks and sugary drinks less so. It’s a challenge we are tasked with addressing for the billions of people around the world living life on a low income.
There are different schools of thought here. One says: make healthy foods cheaper. Indeed, the 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition estimated that a healthy diet costs five times more than a diet dominated by starchy staples. Solutions proposed include supply chain efficiencies, food subsidies, and, to make the unhealthy foods more expensive, taxes.
Another says: tackle poverty. There is only so much you can do, the argument goes, to lower food prices; and besides, downward pressures on prices makes it even tougher for producers and suppliers of nutritious foods to survive. Moreover, if the “true costs” of food were taken into account (incorporating the environmental costs of production, for example), food would need to be more expensive, not cheaper. The real problem is poverty. Solutions proffered here relate to wages, equality in income distribution (including within the food system), gender issues, and social protection programmes.
Others argue that affordability is only a small piece of the puzzle. There are easily affordable nutritious foods out there – it's just that considerations of taste, convenience, knowledge, status and identity drive people towards less healthy alternatives. Suggested solutions include making nutritious foods more palatable and easier to prepare, food literacy programmes and campaigns to change behaviour. Others point out that physical access is still a real challenge in some places, and requires targeted solutions.
Another perspective is that transforming any the above is just too hard. People eat what they eat, and history tells us that tackling poverty or prices is not an easy thing to do. So, in the meantime, let fortification and reformulation do the job so we don’t have to alter income, prices or behaviour.
What’s it to be, then? What’s really going to make a difference? Which camp is right? My reading of the available evidence (cutting across a wide range of countries) is that the challenges faced by people experienced in their real-life contexts are overlapping and multiple.
The first challenge is that while low-income households have significant skills in managing their food budgets, low levels of income, alongside variability and unpredictability, shape buying practices. Rational management of scarce food budgets leads to a focus on foods that offer satiety (“it fills them up”), lower-cost substitutes (e.g. cheaper meats), seeking out price deals (e.g. month-end price cutting), and prioritising foods that won’t go to waste.
The second is that the nutritious foods people want to eat (and their children to eat) are often higher priced than less nutritious alternatives. In some places (e.g. more rural) and times (e.g. because of seasonality), they are also not physically accessible. The specific foods that populations find appealing but unaffordable varies between populations and context – could be raspberries, groundnuts, milk etc. Lack of assets to reduce waste (e.g. fridges), and gender inequality (e.g. inadequate decision-making powers), make these foods appear even more unaffordable.
Thirdly, some nutritious foods are available at low prices but offer low perceived value. Cowpea, soya and millets are highly nutritious and cheap yet typically consumed less than refined staples. Certain vegetables, like cabbage and carrots in certain contexts, or indigenous or wild vegetables in others, may be affordable but likewise lack acceptability and appeal. Reasons are low convenience (i.e. they take time, energy and skill to prepare in the context of women's time burdens); concern about wastage (if family members don’t like them); and perception of low quality, palatability or status (they’re “poor people’s food” or “food for the animals”).
Fourthly, fried foods prepared in and out of home, sugar, and “ultra-processed” sugary drinks and snacks aren’t only widely accessible: they’re also perceived as affordable and appealing. These foods are perceived variously as safe, aspirational, convenient and (for some foods at least) highly satiating. Sharing easy-to-like foods is also a source of social pleasure among friends and harmony in families. Thus people, including adolescents, are willing to pay for them, even when more expensive than nutritious alternatives. Sugar is notable for being widely accessible and for its ability to make inexpensive foods (e.g. tea, porridge) more palatable and appealing, especially for young children.
The fifth major challenge is the perception that “healthy foods” are unaffordable, even when they’re no more expensive than alternatives. People who believe healthy foods are more costly, or that good nutrition is a luxury only for the wealthy, tend to buy less.
All told, the evidence suggests that this is a multi-dimensional issue. The problem isn’t reducible to any single story. There is no doubt that poverty plays a major role in shaping what people eat; tackling income inequality has to be a core part of the solution. At the same time, increasing income to the degree possible through intervention won’t alone solve the problem. Neither will lowering prices alone be a magic bullet. Over the short-term, efforts to lower prices of the nutritious foods people already find acceptable and appealing appear to have the greatest chance of success. Other situations demand a focus on enhancing the acceptability of existing nutritious foods already affordable, taking into account womens' burdens at home and work. Enhancing people’s perception that nutritious foods offer good value relative to others – nutritional bang for the buck – could also work for some foods in some contexts, as could enhancing physical access. Coming down hard on the processes that make unhealthy foods aspirational, and building in the “true” costs of their public burden into their prices could also be part of the picture.
What emerges here is the need to layer up solutions, each one catering to a different aspect of the problem, tailored to fit context, between them collectively addressing the problem as it is actually experienced in the reality of people’s lives.
Perhaps the first game-changer we need, then, is a narrative shift. A shift away from the idea that one approach is “right” and others “wrong”; a shift away from spending time arguing a particular position. And instead, spending time figuring out how all the different solutions fit together to change the game for the people who experience the challenges. It’s not that “anything goes,” of course, but recognising there is no one single story, no one way to tackle the problem, and that understanding it from the perspective of the people who experience it is a good way to start.
This is not just relevant to affordability, but to the food world in general. Too often we see experts and activists standing in different camps, lobbing solutions at each other. My solution is better than yours. We have the truth, the evidence, and you don’t... If there is to be a more fundamental shift in the current way of doing and thinking about food systems – the formal definition of a game-changer – we might begin by changing the way we execute our own business. We don’t have to agree upon every proposed solution. But by asking the right questions, and showing patience in listening to the answers, we might at least begin to understand where each piece fits in the jigsaw of solutions.
With credit to Stella Nordhagen for her research support on Action Track 1 and her contributions. The views in the blog are also inspired by the emerging findings of projects in South Africa and the UK involving engaging with populations living life on a low income.
Today sees the release of a series of brilliantly informative papers in a UNICEF and GAIN special issue of the journal Global Food Security on children’s food systems. Focused on diets and nutrition, its core message is that food systems need to work both for and with children and adolescents. In this blog I reflect on what this means in the context recent political events.
In her inaugural speech this past Saturday as US Vice-President-Elect, Kamala Harris had a compelling message for young people: “dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before.” It’s the type of leadership I’ve been amazed and inspired to see emerge in the world of food systems in recent months. Indeed, the same day as Harris’s speech, British footballer Marcus Rashford announced his campaign pushing for measures to provide food for kids in poverty had been successful – a campaign in which voices of young people proved so powerful, young people like 17-year old Christina Adane calling out the absurdity of children going without food in the world’s sixth largest economy.
The previous week I’d heard the equally powerful demands of Pierre Cooke Jr. on the World Obesity Federation webinar How are young people catalysing action on Childhood Obesity during COVID-19? Pierre, Technical Advisor at the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, One Young World Ambassador, and member of the National Youth Parliament in Barbados, had a clear ask: children deserve to be protected from unhealthy food. Kenyan Amanda Namayi, GoGettaz Lead at Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and part of the Climate Smart Agriculture Youth Network, is another example of a powerful voice talking on the very different but equally vital issue of youth engagement in agriculture and climate change (I’ve learned plenty these past months from her excellent articles on COVID, agriculture and food in Kenya).
And then there are the youth leaders involved in the UN Food Systems Summit (as co-chairs for each of the Action Tracks). 16-yr old Janya Green is leading innovation and training in community gardens in Georgia, USA (recently winning the 2020 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Award for Agriculture). Lavetanalagi Seru, co-founder of the Alliance for Future Generations in Fiji, aims to build a “movement of young people to effectively and meaningfully engage in efforts for sustainable development”; Mai Thin Yu Mon is fighting for indigenous people’s rights in food systems at the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO); Mike Khunga from Malawi is campaigning for better nutrition as part of Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) Global Youth Leaders (I recommend their excellent advocacy toolkit co-created with youth).
These are just a few examples. And their message is clear:
It’s all a sign of new possibility for food system transformation - young people taking agency, showing up with conviction, with ambitious goals for healthier, future-proofed systems; food systems centred on serving theirs and society’s needs now and in the future.
Yet, at the same time, a series of recent studies consistently identify a rather different, troubling form of children’s agency in modern food systems. The words of a parent from Hanoi, Vietnam, say it all: “Children nowadays are very different, they will never eat what they don’t like, and we cannot force them to eat it.” The result, according to the research in low-income communities by Sigrid Wertheim-Heck and Jessica Raneri, is that while parents favour healthier meals, the priority they place on getting their kids to eat means they end up cooking “western” style fried foods, treating their kids to snacks at supermarkets on weekends.
It’s the same story in Indonesia. According to researchers at Umeå and Gadjah Mada universities, parents across the socioeconomic spectrum feel “concerned and conscious” about poor nutrition, but also “defenceless” when their kids demand “chicken nuggets, cookies and instant noodles.” Their kids become “mad,” they say, when they try to get them to eat fruits, vegetables, traditional foods. In the Ecuadorian indigenous Kichwas community, grandparents say their grandkids challenge them when faced with a healthy, traditional home-cooked meal: “can't you cook anything else”? In rural and urban settings in Malawi, research just published by Valerie Flax and colleagues shows that mums, wanting their kids to be “loved and happy,” capitulate to their requests for “Kamba puffs, fizzy drinks, sweets, biscuits, sugar cane freezes.” This despite their overall preference for healthiness. In the US, too, a study by Priya Fielding-Singh illustrates that in the context of significant financial constraints, mums give in to requests for inexpensive yet unhealthy snacks; it’s the one opportunity they have to say “yes” to their teens.
Thus emerges an apparent paradox: through their voices, their demands, young people are driving forward both positive and negative transformations in food systems. On the one hand, they are taking agency to transform food systems for the better; on the other, they are taking agency against their own parents and caregivers to demand a rather less savoury change: diets counter to their own development. Yet we should not be surprised. As Elizabeth Fox finds in her paper published in the special issue today, children are susceptible, susceptible to the way these foods are positioned as giving them what they want. In the context of (often) financial deprivation and the aspiration for better things, these foods can appear to children to meet their otherwise disregarded needs.
So we do have to listen to children and young people – but we also have to be smart enough to understand what lies beneath their demands for these easy-to-like foods, smart enough to see the more subversive forces at work that create a kind of junk food populism, nurtured at far too early an age, in countries everywhere. It can't be right that food systems are effectively pitting children against their parents.
If young people are to have the courage and confidence to be future leaders, as Kamala Harris calls them to be, if we want the “better angels to prevail” rather than the “darkest impulses” — as President-Elect Joe Biden said in his own maiden speech to Americans — we need to protect them against the forces that subvert their interests, that tout certain foods as cool and aspirational. We must set parameters about what food is right for children and what isn’t (as the paper released today by Hollis et al. does). We must give parents the space to parent the way they want to. We must listen to young people while also providing them with the acumen to understand what lies beneath. And we must give youth the platform for meaningful engagement, so they can reflect, along with adults, on the commercial environments that surround them, that sometimes engulf them, coming to their own collective conclusions about what needs to change and how.
Youth can be agents of positive change in food systems. It’s up to all of us to make sure they have a fair shot at succeeding where adults have failed.
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