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