The Better food journey
Actionable ideas towards a world eating well
by Corinna Hawkes
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.
This blog builds on the paper "Five steps towards a global reset: lessons from COVID-19" published in the journal Global Sustainability. 2020;3 on October 2 2020
It’s been hard to make sense of COVID-19. At least, I have found it hard. So many deaths. So many changes to everyday life. So much political strangeness. So much uncertainty about the future.
But what has happened does, kind of, make sense. There is a logic to it. And food, kind of, illustrates why. Why it has happened and why the consequences have been so vast.
Through intensive production systems, the food system is one reason why animal pathogens and human populations interact more closely than before - the type of interaction which enabled the virus to jump from animals to humans in the first place. This was the result of an economic system focused on short-term gains rather than protecting our planet for future generations, an economic system that also incentivises the production and consumption of junk food, raising the risk of obesity and diet-related disease, now firmly established as intensifying the consequences of COVID-19.
In turn, COVID-19 hugely impacted the economic aspects of the food system – think of the closure of the food service industry, the loss of income affecting food counter workers, and the impact on fisheries.
This then reverberates into people’s lives to cause food insecurity and hunger.
So who gets bailed out? That’s a political decision, with leaders weighing up what matters most to them, affecting the health of the food economy and the health of people. This has varied everywhere, with political systems in different places responding to COVID-19 in different ways, affecting who got it and how severe it was. The capacity and the state of health systems also played a huge role, as did social attitudes in influencing adherence to lockdown measures. And once it had started, responses implemented to address problems in one system inevitably led to effects on others. That’s why it’s been so immensely hard to address.
In short, the existence and severity of COVID-19 was the result of activity in multiple systems and the interactions between them. It’s impact was huge because it – and the responses to it - reverberated across multiple systems.
Everything is connected. Looked at this way, COVID-19 seems all rather predictable.
COVID-19 may be the most extreme global challenge to have these characteristics, but it’s not the only one. Every global problem, whether it’s climate change or malnutrition, poverty or conflict, emerges as a result of the inter-connected nature of multiple systems. Surely, then, if fundamental solutions are to be found to major global challenges, they have to be based on the understanding that in practice, everything is connected. For me, I can’t see a pathway forward into the future – for food or anything else – unless we move away from behaving as if the world can be divided into boxes. It can’t. Each and everyone of us live in a system of systems whether we like it or not. The trouble is, while connections are inevitable, when run loose they create chaos – as the world has experienced.
So to get things working, there is a need to actively manage those connections, to see them, to be aware of them, to manage those relevant to solve the problem at hand. To do so, we could embed them in everyday operations, from the top to the bottom of institutions. For example, we could:
I think taking these types of steps could make a fundamental difference. Maybe it could even help towards the “global reset” that so many are calling for. But I have to confess, while it might make logical sense, I feel rather like a pontificating academic proposing something that, for the moment at least, hasn’t got a hope in hell of being implemented. Especially given the political situation in so many countries.
Yet we can all do something to connect systems – to take on the role that in many ways I see as most important. To be the knobbly bit that connects the pieces of the jigsaw; the double headed arrow on the systems diagram. To be a systems connector. It’s not about delving in deeply and trying to fix someone else’s problem; it’s about seeing what connections we need to make to solve our own problem, beyond our comfort zone, reaching out, and then figuring out if there are opportunities for co-benefits. And investing time and effort in doing so.
Changes in the system can only take place when we make connections in the system. Perhaps if each of us just did one thing to connect with another “system,” not for the sake of it, but because it will help us solve a problem we want to solve, we could begin to turn the current chaos of connection into more systemic unity of solutions.
Read more in Five steps towards a global reset: lessons from COVID-19
One of the most unsettling things I have read about the impact of COVID-19 – and there are many – is the report published by CARE International last month Left Out and Left Behind: Ignoring Women Will Prevent Us From Solving the Hunger Crisis (August 2020). It doesn’t hold back. Despite being the backbone of the food system, too many women have lacked access, information, and inputs needed to fight food insecurity and malnutrition during the pandemic. They have struggled disproportionately with food production. Rising food shortages mean they are at even greater risk of gender-based violence and mental health problems. They have struggled to afford a balanced diet and so often they eat last and least. In some cases they are not even permitted to register for COVID-19 safety net programs. Yet a tiny fraction of international reports on the coronavirus response propose “concrete actions to resolve the gender inequalities crippling food systems.”
The message is clear: deep gender inequities in food have only gotten worse and the international community has not stepped up to address them.
But then, a bit further down, another finding, very striking: “Women and girls are … already leading the charge to meet COVID-19-related challenges. Women leaders at all levels are finding solutions: from planting crops during curfew to keeping markets open, to supporting the poorest people in their communities.”
The implication here is clear, too: despite the structural barriers they face, women still exhibit leadership behaviours. It takes competence, adaptability, resilience, collaboration and ingenuity to solve problems in a crisis.
It’s an implication that also emerged strongly from a webinar I tuned into this week on gender and food environments. Hosted by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Fundación InterAmericana del Corazón (FIC) Argentina, Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad (CEDES) and Instituto de Efectividad Clínica y Sanitaria (IECS) presented their latest study from low-income communities in Buenos Aires confirming, perhaps, what was predictable: women lead the provisioning and preparation of food for their households. They decide what to buy, cook. They take the lead in asking for help when they need it. And importantly – especially given the current crisis – they participate in social networks and work collectively to provide food to their local communities.
This is leadership. Getting things done by building coalitions, motivating collective action with purpose, staying energised and positive when things get tough.
These behaviours have done so much to solve problems during COVID-19. UN Women gave a further example this week (September 14) in their story about the “agile adaptation” shown by a women’s group in Indonesia in distributing food in their local communities. And, I would argue, they are the very behaviours needed to lead the journey towards a well-nourished world. Tackling the plight of the global diet, malnutrition, and the food systems and inequities that exacerbate them, is a hugely difficult, complex task, full of potential conflict. It needs both vision and an ability to navigate the many nuances involved. It needs leadership honed through a grounded understanding of the everyday experience of acquiring, preparing, eating, growing and providing food. It needs a leadership that goes beyond fields, homes and communities, and enters too into the political and economic realm. To paraphrase Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court judge who passed away on Friday, leadership behaviours so often used by women “belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
This means we need to do more to name those behaviours, nurture them, and elevate them into our own workplaces as well as into the corridors of power.
This is why my colleague Dr Shu Wen Ng and I have started a conversation with a group of women who work in food and nutrition across the world. We are just getting started. But we have already learned much from each other (informing so much of this blog). By being curious about ways to lead, open about our own strengths and struggles, we hope to sow the seeds of a leadership movement, provide a nurturing space where effective leadership behaviours can thrive, where we can support each other as we make inevitable mistakes, and work strategically to break down the structural barriers out there.
We are convinced that the right type of leadership is lying latent. Learning from the skills and behaviours that have proved effective on the ground, nurturing them upwards, elevating them into decision-making spaces and our own workplaces, will only help us take the right steps forward.
This is not just a women’s agenda, important though that is. It’s a leadership agenda, a call for better decisions about the food we eat through more effective leadership. It’s about generating greater individual and collective awareness about the type of leadership needed for real change. It’s about taking the unsung leadership behaviours that have served communities so well during COVID-19, recognising them, crediting them, and enabling them to thrive.
If you’d like to join this conversation, please get in touch or leave a comment. I’d like to thank Shu Wen and the other colleagues taking the initiative forward. The ideas in this blog would not have been possible without our collective learning.
The Finalists of the Food Systems Vision Prize were released this month (August 6 2020). Reading them has made me think hard about the opportunities and challenges of a shared universal vision and agenda for food systems. It’s particularly relevant right now given the plans being forged for the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021. The Summit “seeks to energize and accelerate our collective journey to eliminate hunger, create more inclusive and healthier food systems, and safeguard the health of our planet.” I’m excited about the Summit, but also challenged by it: there is such a diversity of stakeholders in food systems, such a diversity of goals, that the promise of a “collective” journey seems distant. While diverse players from the World Economic Forum to the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems all agree that a vital first step to food systems transformation is alignment around a vision, actions in the field remain focused on sector-specific visions – reducing undernutrition, tackling obesity, sorting out greenhouse gas emissions, addressing food insecurity, fighting for food injustice, getting sustainable foods to market, reducing gender inequality, etc. There are, moreover, powerful ideological differences about what needs to be done and by whom. Overall, this fragmentation means the tremendous power of these multiple communities to connect and act along a common path is being lost.
That’s why The Rockefeller Foundation, and its partners SecondMuse and Open-Ideo, are hosting this new prize. Envisioning can be a powerful thing. A good vision unites, activates and ignites honest debate. It inspires the question, “How can we get there, together?” Indeed, the motivation behind the prize is to unite “fragmented system of actors” to “source, and support positive Visions for the future of the global food system,” and inspire “actionable solutions.” To be selected as a Top Visionary, collaborative teams were invited to answer the question: What is the regenerative and nourishing food system you aspire to create in your specific place by the year 2050? What would it look like? It proved a compelling question: 1300 teams applied from 110 countries. The Top 10 Finalists, chosen for their potential to inspire “real, positive and bold transformation,” make a compelling read.
In Beijing, China people will “have easy access to healthy, freshly made and nourishing foods with the help of numerous Good Food Hubs.” In India, the food industry will “provide and promote both healthy and tasty options as the norm.” Lima, Peru, will be as “green as the Lima discovered by Francisco Pizarro 500 years ago”; and Treaty Four territory in Canada will be a vision of “swales, creeks, and sloughs… linked by green corridors, the tree-surrounded fields tracing landforms,” rather than the monotonous checkerboard of fields it is today. In South Western Nigeria, farmers will have become “their own kind of celebrity,” and in the Netherlands, citizens will “participate in food policy councils to collectively decide about local food environments.” In the Hudson Valley, New York, Chef Pruitt will don her apron “with the same smile she shared with her coffee” after a day spent at her partner farm and micro-processing enterprise central to the networked, circular food economy that now exists. In the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, the Sicangu people will “get all of their food from the local operations of tribal citizens.” And in Nairobi, Kenya, “dignified, economically empowered and food secure” residents will share the food they have with each other.
These are surely very different visions to the food systems we have today. And, importantly, we can learn from them about the type of vision we need. There are many food systems visions out there, full of words like “sustainable,” “equitable,” “inclusive,” “resilient,” “democratic,” “diverse” and “healthy.” Good words. But what do they actually mean? Well, lots of things, depending on how you interpret them. Easy to say, hard (and complex) to pin down. Everyone can agree on the vision of a sustainable, inclusive, healthy food system – and then promptly disagree profoundly on how to get there. Indeed, people do agree. What’s to disagree with? But the very same people disagree on how to get there. Agroecology or agribusiness? Fortification or indigenous foods? It’s a shared vision. But it’s a superficial one. Everyone can stand up and stake allegiance to this vision, and then carry on along their divergent paths. If it’s a collective journey we are looking for, it won’t get us very far.
That’s why we should learn from the Food Systems Vision Prize: it goes beyond vague aspiration to help us think instead about what the food system will actually look like? It forces us to get real, to make the vision concrete and tangible. We can imagine these Visions in our mind's eye: people sharing food, a marketplace full of fruits and vegetables; fields, surrounded by trees; a chef visiting her own microenterprise. They are visual. They can be seen. And they can inspire action. Do we agree with fields surrounded by trees? If not, we can say so in concrete terms, start a debate about why not. If we do, we can connect with others to make it happen, asking collectively: What do we need to do to get there? Who needs to be involved? How can I help? What's the first step? This picture of possibility belies the need for big, well-intended but essentially hollow words.
So when crafting visions, let’s draw on the power of visualisation, focus on what we want to see. But there is a snag. And it’s a pretty major one. The Prize specifically asked for a Vision in a specific place (that was part of its power). Places look different. They are different. They contain different people. Their context is different. There is no one vision for every place. The Hudson Valley looks very different to New York City not far south. Nairobi is different to the pastoralist communities out in the Sahel. So while a visual vision is the best way forward to inspire real change, it belies a shared, universal agenda. There is too much specificity and context involved. It’s no wonder that probably the most talked about visual vision of food systems transformation of the past few years – the Eat-Lancet diet, depicted on a plate – was derided for being culturally insensitive. When it comes to seeing things differently, people like to see it in their own places. A bold vision of the future it might be, but at least it should meet them where they are.
So for a universal agenda, the temptation is to go back to empty signifiers again – healthy, sustainable, inclusive, etc. - useful, at least, in that they can be applied everywhere.
But there is another way: to step back from the vision and ask instead: what is the food system for? In short, to articulate the purpose of food systems – the “why” that lies behind the vision. The reason why food systems exist. Funnily enough, unlike the call for vision, this question is rarely asked. Perhaps this is because it is obvious. To produce food, right? Well, yes. But is the universal purpose to produce enough calories? Or to support people’s nutrition, health and development? Is it to produce cash? Or is profitability rather a means to an end? Answers to these questions have profound implications for what needs to be done and how. If the purpose of the food system is to regenerate and nourish, this implies a very different food system to one which aims to provide calories and cash. If the purpose of the food system is to feed the world, this means producing more. If the purpose is to nourish people, this means it also has the task of actively enabling and encouraging people to eat well and nourishing the billions who labour in the food system. If the purpose is to regenerate, this has profound implications for every single action taken to produce, transport and sell food in the future.
It’s this shared sense of purpose for the food system that ultimately we need to agree upon. What is the food system for? It’s a universal question that transcends place, population or plate. Unlike the call for a shared vision, it allows for a universal answer.
So this is what I’d suggest for the UN Food Systems Summit: create a universal sense of purpose for the food system and then inspire millions of communities, cities, and countries to build visions in their own spaces of what their food systems would look like if they were to put that purpose into practice. It’s a shared, universal agenda that also allows us to celebrate the wealth of diversity and difference in our food systems around the world.
Disclaimer: I was not involved in the development of the Food System Vision Prize. I have recently signed up as a mentor to support a subset of the Finalist teams.
Public health advocates across the world welcomed the announcement in the UK this week that the government plans to further restrict unhealthy food marketing. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s experience of complications of COVID-19 appear to have chastened his view that the state has no role to play in what people eat. (His reawakening apparently came after his doctors told him that his own excess weight was culpable.)
Johnson’s attitude to marketing regulation might be new, but the policy proposal itself is not. Globally, calls for restrictions have been rumbling on for decades. There is a huge amount of evidence that unhealthy marketing is pervasive, whether on TV or social media, food packaging or at point-of-sale. In the past year alone, studies from Brazil, Canada, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Oman, Russia, Slovenia, Spain and Turkey have added to the growing list. It has been known for years, too, that promotion influences children’s food preferences, attitudes and consumption. A recent video by Jamie Oliver’s Bite Back initiative shows just how advertising slips under the realm of critical thinking. Thus emerges the rationale for regulation: marketing works, so getting rid of it will stop it from undermining kids health.
Yet efforts to take unhealthy food out of the promotional spotlight have been slow on the uptake. Just 16 countries have some type of limited regulation compared to at least 36 countries that have mandated food standards in schools and a similar number with sugary drinks taxes. Only Chile – and now the UK – has taken a tougher stance. This is despite the World Health Organization recommending in 2010 that governments act.
Such slow progress reflects large pushback from members of the food and advertising industry. Their current argument is not so much that marketing makes no difference (they lost that one). It’s that banning it makes no difference. As one food business executive told the Financial Times this week, “we haven’t seen the evidence base that supports the idea that these measures will actually move the dial on obesity.” An advertising industry analyst, cited in the same article, opined that the ban has “no prospect of successfully addressing this health crisis.”
These types of arguments inevitably get waved away by public health campaigners. But who should we believe? Who is right and who is wrong?
As so often with black and white arguments, we have to dig a little deeper to understand what is really going on.
Food companies advertise in order to compete with other companies and brands. Advertising greases the wheels of competition: may the best win. One of the great innovators of advertising back in the early twentieth century, The Quaker Oats Company, understood that plastering a brand on an otherwise undifferentiated product and sticking a coupon on the box could elevate their product above the rest. In more recent years, promotion has been essential to the process of getting the word out about the millions of new products that hit our store shelves every week, all jostling in a crowded marketplace to get ahead of the rest. Promotion has, in a way, become part the product; there is not much point in producing a product, if it’s not possible to promote it.
By taking away a means to compete, then, marketing restrictions create a disincentive to produce unhealthy products in the first place. And by taking away the means to compete for unhealthy products, they set a new, level playing field on which companies can compete for healthier ones. This is what gives them their huge potential power: marketing bans undermine the core business of unhealthy businesses while stimulating progressive companies to innovate, reformulate, and shift their product portfolios. Unhealthy laggards simply lose out. It’s no surprise that some of the more progressive food companies have welcomed the move in the UK.
There is, however, a problem here: the competitive dynamics are still there. As reported by the Financial Times, “others in the [food] sector warn that without advertising, producers would compete on price and quality, either cutting prices or adding sugar.” It is already known that when one marketing channel is cut off, companies will find another: squeeze one part of a balloon, and another part will grow. But the larger point is that it must be recognised that there is an audience for these products. Financial insecurity, poor housing, lack of space to prepare food, stressful lives, the search for convenience when low on time, inadequate information and knowledge, feelings of low self-esteem, aspiration to be a fully paid-up member of society – all of these things drive us towards unhealthy foods; it’s not just that we saw an ad on TV. And once the often sweet, salty, easy-to-like flavours become habitual, our taste buds can’t cope with much else. For many businesses, in other words, there is still a market worth competing for.
By putting advertising regulations into this bigger, systems context, we can see they are a mere snip, a government wielding a pair of scissors, cutting a link in the system without changing the system itself, changing neither the free market economy that elevates competition nor the systems in which people live their lives. Thus the food execs have a point: as a single step, restricting marketing may not have much effect at all.
Where does this leave us? It leaves us with the recognition that every action on the better food journey is both necessary and not enough. There are many snips, many new ties, that will be needed to build a healthier system. In the meantime, we need to start somewhere. Limiting food marketing is a powerful way to send a message that enough is enough; that in itself will stimulate some type of systems response. And then we continue along the road, getting on with all the other things that need to be done to effect systems change.
Looked at this way, we can see both black and white are right. We need to act where it makes sense – but we also need to recognise that we cannot say with any certainty that marketing restrictions will make enough of a difference. No, we have to act despite uncertainty.
This past Friday, I was asked to appear on a late-night TV show (Newsnight) to talk about the UK announcement. Known for its hard questioning, I was joined by a Member of Parliament and an ad man. The discussion soon became black and white. “I am right, you are wrong.” No space for nuance. No space for engagement. No space for uncertainty. No space to find the common ground that provides the base for more collective, effective action. While this is (unfortunately) to be expected from our rapid fire, macho-style media machine, it also reflects a broader political discourse that elevates black and white thinking. If we ever care to wonder why we are not getting further along the pathway towards change, we don’t need to look much further than that.
Welcome to the Better Food Journey blog. It’s a blog about an issue I believe matters - matters for people and planet, for me and my neighbours, for you and your neighbours.
Eating better has the potential to make the world a much better place. Eating enough of the right kind of food enables babies and children to grow as they should, and helps adolescents and adults live in good health and fulfil their potential. Eating is a source of enjoyment, of pleasure, a source of celebration and community, of what we have in common. It’s a way of staying engaged with the earth that feeds us. Food is a vital part of our economy, providing jobs and supporting the livelihoods of millions of people who spend their days growing, gathering, harvesting, moving, processing or selling food. Food is also political, a means of helping us all figure out where we stand on the key issues facing the world today.
The problem is, the potential of food to make the world a better place is a long way from being realised. In some places, for sure, food is produced in a way that regenerates the land and supports nature and climate. For some people, eating is a source of good health, pleasure and wellbeing. For some communities, food is a source of cohesion and decent jobs.
And yet in most places, and for most people, this is far from the case. Eating practices too often mean people are undernourished or unhealthy. Producing, processing and distributing food eviscerates the environment. Labour in food systems is more exploitation than exaltation. For many, food is a source of stress, anxiety, conflict, pain - and death.
The gap between what is and what might be can be a source of despair. But it also prompts hope, especially considering the activity and passion out there already making a difference in all corners of the world. From the upper echelons of the United Nations to the bureaucratic backrooms of national and local governments, from the brains behind business start-ups and entrepreneurship to the innovations at the community level, stuff is happening. The innovations during COVID-19 to get nutritious foods to people show what can be done when it really matters. The point is: it matters every day. In this light, there is an understandable tendency to talk about the urgency of solutions. This is undeniably true. The clock is ticking on climate change; millions of kids go hungry everyday while others are in situations that make it too hard to eat the right kind of food. Farmers, businesses, and people working throughout the food system face precarious circumstances day in, day out.
But it can be so overwhelming. That’s why I try to see it as a journey.
In an ideal world we would all be eating healthily, nutritiously, and enjoyably. The food would be produced and processed from a thriving, engaged labour force in a way that regenerates and respects the earth and nature and supports local, national and global economic development. Urgent as attaining this vision is, it will take time, necessitating different communities of people connecting together around this vision, figuring out their roles and responsibilities to achieve it and taking the next step towards getting it done.
This is the journey – the better food journey.