The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
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.
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