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