The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
In October 2022, I gave a talk at the Uppsala Health Summit, where I told a story of the food system going from sickness to health. This blog is an adapted and shortened version of the talk, which can be viewed here.
One day, the food system went to the doctor. Up until then the food system had felt happy. It knew its purpose: to produce as much food as cheaply as possible, as competitively as possible, and to make money for the people who controlled that food system. As the food system liked to say, calories and cash. The food system was tremendously proud of this. Think of all that food, it often thought to itself, flying around the world. Products like wheat and soybeans and corn grown in the places they could be produced most efficiently then exported so people could buy foods more cheaply. A source of economic growth for those countries, a source of profit for the companies involved. Lots of by-products for animals to eat, lots and lots of them. Ingredients that manufacturers could use to create an amazing array of ultra-processed foods that people seem to love. Yes, the food system was very proud indeed.
But something started to happen. The food system began to feel unwell. The muscles of the food system started to weaken. The amount of energy the poor food system had started to decline. The resources it had to make sure enough food could be produced started to dwindle. And the weather started to do all weird things that made it more difficult to produce food. The food system became sick.
So the food system went to see the doctor (quite an unusual doctor). The food system said to the doctor: what’s wrong? And the doctor said: you’re exhausted. You need to take a few years off to regenerate yourself. Otherwise, it’s only going to get worse. The food system said: but I can’t. I need to feed people. If I don’t produce food, people will go hungry. People will die. I can’t afford to take time off to regenerate. And besides, I’m proud of what I do. I work hard. I’m proud that I stop the world from going hungry and help it be healthy by producing all those calories and cash.
And the doctor looked hard at the food system and said, listen, I’m sorry to break this to you, but you’ve been working really hard to produce food and it’s actually been making people sick. In fact, most of the people I see are people who’ve been made sick because of food. I see kids who are wasted because they are not having enough food. I see kids who are stunted because they are not having enough nutritious foods. I see people who are ill because of foodborne disease. I see people who are affected by overweight and obesity and are suffering from cancers, from heart disease and hypertension because of the food they eat. And that’s most of the people I see.
The food system was shocked. The food system hadn’t realised this. It became sad and started to cry.
After a minute or two, the food system, who was good old soul, said, I’ve got to do something about this. What am I wearing myself out for? I am not resilient. I am not sustainable. And I am making people sick. What’s the point? Why bother wearing myself out when I’m not even helping people be healthy?
So the food system said to the doctor, who was wise: what should I do? And the doctor said, well, first of all, remember the reason you’ve become sick is because you failed to see yourself as a whole body. You have not been thinking about all of these different parts of your body in a holistic way. You failed to see that what is produced affects what is consumed. You failed to link your health with your environment and with your economy. So I advise you to think more holistically about the approach you are taking.
The second piece of advice I have is this: there are lots of people out there who can help you. There are lots of people who are trying to make change. There are lots of people in all parts of you who can help. Go and gather them together and work together for change. Engage the whole of you while managing these different aspects of your body to move together in forward motion.
Then the doctor said: remember, though, those people will have different interests, incentives, solutions and levels of power. So there’s going to be conflict and disagreement. There’s going to be people pulling at your body in all kinds of different directions. That’s part of the reason you’re facing the problems you’re facing. You need to acknowledge and manage all those tricky power relations and conflict while at the same time make sure that everybody with a stake is involved.
So the food system went off and tried to do this. It wasn’t easy. But the food system discovered that once they found ways of working together, people with very differing perspectives managed to come up with shared agendas. They found shared objectives. There was a lot of conflict, but they found a way through. They found places where they could create co-benefits to bring different parts of the system together, to align towards health and sustainability.
Now, after this had been happening for awhile, the food system felt a lot better and went back to the doctor. The doctor examined the food system and said, you know what, you are getting a bit better in different parts of your body. But it’s still a bit isolated, a bit here and there. It’s good here and not so good there. It’s kind of like you’re beginning to regenerate in different parts but it’s not quite the whole yet. And the food system said, well, maybe I need to wait a little longer. And the doctor said, how’s your heart? And the food system said: please examine it and tell me. The doctor examined the food system’s heart and said: there’s something not quite right at the heart of your system.
So the food system thought for a bit: what really is the problem? Why am I still coming up against barriers? Why is it that people are still saying, well, I’m doing this and I’m doing that - but there are all of these things that are trying to stop me and get in the way?
To get an answer the food system decided to go and talk to the people who really seemed to be in control: the big corporations of the world, the big governments; the big banks. And the food system realised just how much they had been economically benefitting from the way the food system was designed, and how the costs had been born by the food system getting all exhausted and worn out. The incentives were all wrong, creating economic benefits for some but horrible inequalities for others. So the food system said to these big powerful actors: look, why are you putting all these incentives and policies into place that are making me behave in a certain way? And these big powerful actors said: well, you know, we’re stuck too. Modern forms of capitalism aren’t working for us either.
So the food system said: what can be done to change it? It turned out there was plenty that could be done: financing, competition law, corporate governance, investor metrics, food environment regulation to level the playing field. Once some of these actions started to work, the food system’s heart started to pump in a different way. Things started to flow and connect much better; there were no longer so many blockages getting in the way.
The food system realised, too, that it hadn’t yet spoken to the people who eat.. The food system wanted to understand their experience of food, why they eat what they eat, and all the many factors that shape what they eat. The food system realised that unless people had the capacity and opportunity to eat better, there would not be any more demand for the healthier, more sustainable food the food system was now better designed to supply.
So the food system started to speak to the people who eat all over the world and discovered all kinds of possibilities and opportunities to help them eat more healthily and sustainably: actions to help make people more financially secure, to reduce the burden of food work, to improve household and transport infrastructure. There were lots of things to do. There were issues around social norms and networks, around gender. There were issues of access. There were enticements in the food environment that diverted people in the wrong direction. You could do something about that. There were issues of trust and the meanings and status of food.
Wow, there were so many different actions that could be taken to make this happen. And people rolled up their sleeves; they understood their role, they took responsibility and they began to take action and make change.
After all of these things started to happen, the food system began to feel a lot, lot better and went back to the doctor and said: I think I’m almost better. The doctor was shocked. The doctor happened to know that they’d been trying to take all of these actions for years. People went to summits, to conferences, did research, undertook all kinds of good things, but change never really happened. The doctor said: what was the magic ingredient? What made this change happen? How come people started to act, accepted their roles, took responsibility, did things for collective impacts?
And the food system thought for a moment and said, well, you know, I did happen to notice there were lots of women in charge. And lots of other marginalised and minoritized groups took power to make decisions too. They were making decisions. And what was really interesting was that they and all the others involved were making decisions in particular ways. They prioritised social purpose over things that matter less to people. They were utterly committed to what they were doing. They persisted in their commitments.
Yes, they made mistakes. But they learned from those mistakes. They were happy to talk and be open about those mistakes. They adapted to them. They were happy to stand up, to deviate from the norm. Though they didn’t spend time pushing themselves forward. They were about lifting others up. They listened to unheard voices, listened with curiosity to the people that they even disagreed with. They reflected individually and collectively on what they could do, and they connected with those who they really felt they could work with for collective action. They communicated with each other openly and authentically. In other words, said the food system, it was about leadership. Yes, that was it. That was the magic ingredient: leadership.
With thanks to the Uppsala Health Summit 2022 for inviting me to give this talk, which can be viewed here. The details and other talks at the Summit, which focused on food systems, can be found here. The figure of the food system is courtesy of the Centre for Food Policy. The points made about leadership echo those made in Achieving a Well-Nourished World: A Manifesto for Leadership (Next Gen(D)eration Leadership Collective, 2022).
Food systems decision-making is currently more battlefield than balancing act. This must change. As another World Food Day passes, a new mindset for food systems transformation is needed
As the current spate of international summits and meetings is making clear, the food system is in a profound state of crisis. At the FAO Asia-Pacific Symposium on Agrifood Systems Transformation I attended two weeks ago, the talk was all of the “4Cs” of conflict, climate change, COVID-19 and cost of living, collectively creating chaos for the “5Fs” of food, feed, fuel, fertilizer and finance. Doubtless the tone was similar last week at the 50th plenary session of the Committee on World Food Security. Coordinating the global policy response to the global food crisis was top of their agenda.
In his address at another conference in early September, the African Food Systems Forum (AGRF), President Paul Kagame of Rwanda posed the critical question: “How did we get to this point?” Indeed, how did we get to the situation where the system most needed to sustain human life lacks adequate resilience to shocks? Where the billions of people who work in the food system – from farm to supermarket – are so vulnerable? Where despite their fundamental role keeping the food system going, women are marginalised? Where despite huge investment in productivity, millions of people remain undernourished (new estimates out last week showed even micronutrient deficiencies are far higher than previously thought). Where obesity and non-communicable diseases journey relentlessly upward? Where biodiversity, soil and water journey relentlessly down? And where it seems that every week there is a new flood, hurricane or drought related to climate change?
In my own presentation to the FAO conference, I tried to come up with some kind of answer. I boiled it down to four aspects of decision-making. First, over past decades, decisions have favoured productivity of low-cost calories over environment, livelihoods and nutrition - delivering calories and cash, not multiple food systems solutions. Second, decisions have favoured food systems globalization without the complementary policies needed to manage risks. Economic development is of course an important goal, but the downsides for livelihoods, land use, obesity and diet-related disease need attention too. Third, decisions were made in siloed spaces about single issues with little consideration for the risks and benefits for other food system objectives. Fourth, decisions were made without understanding the experiences of people affected by the problem, meaning policies and practices are less likely to work on the ground.
This unholy quaternity of decision-making has meant positive benefits for some dimensions of food systems, but undermined others. Let’s look at some evidence from specific policy decisions:.
There is a certain inevitability to this. The food system is inherently interconnected; there will always be reverberations from any decision elsewhere in the system. The evidence shows, for example, that much needed strategies to protect health and environment create risks too, such as measures to protect the sustainability of marine capture fisheries impact negatively on livelihoods in poor coastal communities, or sugary drinks taxes on the lowest-income families.
The challenge is how to balance these things out. At the moment, it seems like a game - often times more like a battlefield - of “who is most powerful wins.” What needs to be done if we really are to – as the FAO conference discussed - “transform” the food system to meet multiple goals? There is no easy answer, but rebalancing food systems decision-making is part of it.
First, decisions should aim to optimise not maximise. Attempting to balance out the different tradeoffs for economy, livelihoods, food security, environment, nutrition is a tough thing to do. But it is the only way to move towards systems efficiency, rather than maximizing benefits for one goal or stakeholder at the expense of others.
Second, decision-making should consciously and creatively aim to craft co-benefits, always taking context into account. This is the process of asking the question: how can the policies or actions support other goals as well as their primary intention? Who can benefit and how? What complementary actions are needed to make that happen? There may not be a clear answer but the process of asking the question itself, with the right people in the room, could lead to creative, innovative ideas and solutions and a sense of a shared agenda.
Third, decision-making needs to engage the sectors and institutions with a stake in the outcome, in whatever appropriate form that takes. This is needed not only to better understand how decisions might affect others and spark innovative solutions, but also to manage the inevitable conflict and ever present power relations.
Fourth, decision-making should always consider the experiences of those affected. That’s where the tradeoffs are experienced and, therefore, can be really understood. The voice of the people who have to live with the upsides and downsides of decisions on the ground must be heard if the system is to be more of a balancing act than the battlefield it is now.
Making decisions differently for food systems transformation will take a new mindset. It will mean embracing uncertainty and an ever-ongoing process of reflecting, learning and adapting. Balancing rather than battling may sound rather timid, compromising, even weak. Too much being nice. Yet if we are to learn the lessons from the past, we need to recognise that we got to this point by failing to balance. And it will take courage for the powers that be to see the whole system for what it is. It will take courage, not timidity, to skilfully manage the conflict, create a sense of collective problem-solving and make different decisions.
The thoughts aired in this blog benefited from three pieces of work conducted at the Centre for Food Policy: Taking a Food Systems Approach to Policymaking, in collaboration with R4D; Aligning Food System Activities with Healthier Diets for Low-Income Households: A Guidance Note, commissioned by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; and (as yet unpublished) a project funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to identify environmental actions in food systems, in support of the Food Systems Dashboard.
As prices rise, everywhere, for pretty much everything, the prospect of the human suffering this will cause is deeply worrying. There are predictions that the number of people in the world experiencing acute hunger – currently 276 million – could soon rise by as many as 47 million.
To address the problem, one thing that many agree on is keeping trade barriers low. This means not banning exports, where individual countries hang on to their supplies, and making sure sanctions don’t affect vital food supplies. The fear is that any barriers to global flows of food will simply push prices up even more.
This focus on keeping prices low is understandable and necessary. But it is also worrying, because the economic mechanisms which have driven down prices in recent decades have severely weakened the global food system.
This was brought home to me on a recent visit to Kenya. Eating fish one evening on the banks of Lake Victoria, one of the world’s largest inland fisheries, I asked my Kenyan colleagues where my tilapia would have come from. The surprising answer was that it was quite possibly from China.
But under the cheap food paradigm, this makes sense. China has done a phenomenal job of growing its aquaculture industry (it now commands around 60% of the global market) while also investing in African transport infrastructure.
Extremely efficient production and distribution have lowered costs, enabling local vendors in Kenya to earn a living selling imported tilapia at prices their customers can afford.
It’s this kind of dynamic that the globalisation of food has allowed. But when globalised trade is disrupted, the whole system is threatened.
Until recently, for example, Ukraine supplied 36% of the world’s sunflower oil. The Russian invasion has massively reduced trade from Ukraine, making this staple ingredient considerably more expensive for the millions of households and companies around the world that use it.
Many African countries depend on Ukraine and Russia for more than half of their wheat. Supply shortages created by the war, along with catastrophically high fertiliser prices, are threatening to increase hunger in the region.
This is the flip side of global efforts to keep food prices low. On the one hand, increased productivity and competitiveness have enabled food to be produced more cheaply and distributed to the people who need it. But the relentless drive to increase efficiency and gain competitive advantage has created risks for the resilience of the food system.
It has meant that a smaller number of countries and companies now dominate, detracting from the diversity in food sources and supply chains which is needed to build strength and reliability. As a UN report into food insecurity states, diversity matters because it “creates multiple pathways for absorbing shocks”. Those shocks can be catastrophic.
It’s little wonder then that many countries are re-evaluating their dependency on imported food to feed their people.
The single-minded focus on keeping food prices low also distracts from other issues, such as the environment and supporting sustainable livelihoods. As the UN secretary general, António Guterres, has pointed out: "Food systems hold the power to realise our shared vision for a better world [by] feeding growing populations in ways that contribute to people’s nutrition, health and wellbeing, restore and protect nature, are climate neutral, adapted to local circumstances, and provide decent jobs and inclusive economies."
It is unlikely that the fish I ate in Kisumu was produced in a way that took many of these concerns into account. But the cheapness of food incurs large costs elsewhere – for people’s health, their livelihoods and for the whole planet.
These “hidden costs” have been estimated at almost US$20 trillion (£16.3 trillion) per year. Put simply, the prices we pay for food today do not reflect the true cost of producing it – and such a system is unsustainable.
There is no question that food must be allowed to flow across borders in large enough quantities to prevent hunger. But there is also no doubt that future generations will need to be able to rely on a more sustainable global food system – one that incorporates prices, diets, environment, livelihoods and resilience.
It is incumbent on any battle against hunger to consider not just how to keep food cheap in the short term, but to ensure over the longer term that food systems are redesigned so they are stronger and more sustainable. This would involve substantial changes, but there are already signs of shifts in the workings of the global economy.
One prominent investor recently commented that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has “put an end to globalisation as we know we it,” predicting a process of “deglobalisation” and companies re-calibrating their global supply chains.
This presents an opportunity to use the latest research to work out which economic models are needed to transform the planet’s food systems. This should involve “true cost” accounting, which properly reflects the various costs and benefits of producing, transporting and selling what we eat.
There is also room for significant steps to be taken towards a food system which incorporates the circular economy (with more emphasis on sharing, reusing and recycling) and the “bioeconomy” model, with its focus on conserving biological resources.
Politicians, businesses and consumers need to accept that low food prices are part of a bigger problem. Focusing solely on keeping food as cheap as possible, and an unrelenting drive for productivity and profit, is not the way to keep the world well nourished. Things need to change. And the fact that now is the hardest time to confront this problem is precisely why we should.
This commentary was originally published by The Conversation.
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.
New global food reports indicate need for greater human capacity & systems thinking
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).
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