Dispatches from the centre for food policy

Sharing what we learn from listening to the world of food policy

Let’s embrace real life to drive forward real food policy change

In this Dispatches post, Centre Director, Professor Corinna Hawkes, reflects on the recent City Food Symposium and the importance of citizen-generated evidence.
You can find the slides of her opening presentation here.


The first project I ever did on food policy – 20 years ago now – was on food poverty in the UK. Since then, food banks have become institutionialised as the prevalence of food insecurity has risen. I then moved onto international work, focusing on the prevention of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases. In that time, both have also inexorably risen around the world.

So it is on a daily basis that I ask myself: why are we not managing to effect more change? It is easy to point fingers – and we should, sometimes at ourselves. Governments are not taking a hard enough line; food companies are hedging their bets; advocacy by NGOs is too weak; academics are working in silos. All of these things are true. But there is another aspect that has been troubling me for some time: that collectively, we are not doing enough to understand how people – citizens, communities – are experiencing the problems we are seeking to address. And this means that even when actions are being taken – and there is a lot of action being taken – we are not taking into account how people will respond to them. This means we are missing opportunities to design them better.  A simple example comes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV programme last week. Hugh, with the best of intentions, drove into a deprived neighourhood in Newcastle, UK, with a fruit and veg van. Did people come? Well, yes, some did, but most did not. He realised he was going to have to understand the community better before cooking up solutions from the outside and parachuting in (it was to his credit that he realised this).

I have been sharing these concerns for a while now. Some have brushed them away, saying that the real problem is the systems that create food-related challenges. I agree. My point is that in designing solutions, we cannot ignore the fact that people are not separate from the systems that shape their everyday lives. And people respond to their circumstances – and the policies and actions designed to change them – in ways which are difficult for an external “expert” fully to understand. People, in other words, have evidence that emanates from their “lived experience”. This is knowledge that is impossible to obtain only from the outside. People’s experiences do reflect many things that outsiders can count – how much a farmer is paid for their crop, how many fast food stores there are, how much income someone has. But how people – and that means us all – respond to problems also reflects our feelings and human frailty. Feelings around identity, powerlessness, anger, shame, prejudice, vulnerability, exclusion, desire, hopefulness may not be “rational” but are a human reality that influence how we respond to our circumstances – and are shaped by them. Obtaining evidence of this “lived experience” is thus a starting point for exploring systemic issues that lie beneath people’s perspective on their own realities.

In the first instance, this simply means listening to people about their experiences. In the second, it means involving people in co-designing solutions and having a voice in demanding change. In the third, it means doing something with this – making sure what is learned feeds into what actions are taken, and how they are designed and implemented.

On April 25 2018, the Centre for Food Policy hosted our annual City Food Symposium dedicated to this topic. It explored how we can gather evidence of lived experience and how we can translate it into more effective and equitable action. It brought together people who are way ahead of me in their understanding of these issues. For there are indeed many in advocacy, policy and research who have been grappling with these issues for a good while, and even more who are coming into it. We welcomed Cristina Perez Parsons to talk about the NCD Alliance’s Our Views Our Voices global advocacy programme, and Alejandro Guarin and Natalie Lartey on what the International Institute for Environment and Development, Hivos and their Ugandan partner are learning from people’s experiences of their own diets in Western Uganda. We heard from Francesca Sanders from the UK’s Food for Life programme about their user-centred approach to designing food services for older people, and from Professor Wendy Wills about what she learned from listening to teenagers about their experience of school lunch. We heard from Elise Wach about an Institute of Development Studies project on transitions to agroecology with farmer participation in rural areas of Africa and Latin America, and from Anna-Maria Volkmann about what the Cities Changing Diabetes programme is learning about the factors that lie beneath food-diabetes in Houston, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Vancouver. Matthew Thomson of the Cornwall Food Foundation talked to us about the value of drawing on stories of people who experience food poverty, and Tianna Gaines-Turner and Sherita Mouzon shared with us how the Witness to Hunger programme in Philadelphia had given them a voice in talking about what hunger had done to them. Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert shared with us the difference listening to people who had experienced food price volatility in a range of low/middle income countries had made in how they understood its effects – and Janette Lowe from rural Victoria, Australia, on how involving the local community in designing solutions to obesity has led to greater action to effect change (and declines in obesity). And we heard from national governments too – the work the Canadians are doing to consult their communities as they develop a Food Policy for Canada, and the work the UK Food Standards Agency are doing to understand trust in the food system.

There is a lot of exciting work going on. These talks  –  and the afternoon workshops hosted by The Leadership Centre, Shift Design, Nourish Scotland, the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission,  Food Power, the Healthy Hoods project, and the Food Standards Agency – produced a lot of learnings for moving forward. These learnings will be captured in our report from the Symposium.



One message came through loud and clear: reality is messy and food policy needs to accept that reality. And, as highlighted by my colleague Claire Marris in her reflections on the day, reality can be uncomfortable. When we are listening, then, judgment needs to leave the room.

But hard as it is, engaging with lived experience emerged as not a “nice to” but a “need to.” It’s not the fluffy stuff we do on the side while the big guys get on with the important things. It may have a touch of touchy-feely about it, but at its heart, it is a very pragmatic agenda. Thus I very much welcomed Bill Vorley’s closing remarks –  that one of our first jobs is to change the view that citizen-generated evidence (the subject of an excellent IIED report released on the day of the Symposium) is not worthy of attention by the policy community. It is. Let’s embrace real life to drive forward real change.



Food Policy in New York City Since 2008: Lessons for the Next Decade

This month we are sharing a guest post from Nicholas Freudenberg,  Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the City University of New York School of Public Health and Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute. 


For more than a century, New York City has used the authority of municipal government to make healthy food, that most basic of human needs, more available for all city residents. In the last decade, the city’s Mayors and City Council have launched dozens of new initiatives to prevent diet-related diseases, reduce food insecurity and create a more sustainable urban food system.   In a new report from the City University of New York Urban Food Policy Institute, my colleagues and I ask what New York has accomplished in food policy in the last decade and analyze the lessons for urban food policy in the coming decade.

Our report Food Policy in New York City Since 2008: Lessons for the Next Decade is based on our analyses of four sources:  20 major reports on food policy prepared by New York City and State public officials between 2008 and 2017;  six annual Food Metrics Reports produced by the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy between 2012 and 2017; a review of evidence on implementation and impact of 40 major city and state food policies from the last decade; and  an examination  of 10-year city  trends on key health and social outcomes including fruit and vegetable and sugary beverage consumption, rates of obesity and overweight, diagnoses of diabetes, and the number of food insecure individuals.

We found that the food policies of the last decade sought to achieve six goals: (1) improve nutritional well-being; (2) promote food security; (3) create food systems that support economic and community development; (4) ensure sustainable food systems; (5) protect food workers; and (6) strengthen food governance and food democracy. Our review identified policy successes and disappointments.

Food Policy Successes

Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment is that food policy is now squarely on the municipal agenda.  Two Mayors and City Councils have launched new food policies, created and expanded the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, and included food goals in major strategic plans for the city. Although there are some differences in emphasis over the years, we noted the consistency of food policy and the commitment to making it an intersectoral priority.

Second, over the decade city government and civil society groups have acted to enhance the power of municipal government to improve local food environments.  Since 2008, New York City has improved the city’s institutional food programs through which 11 city agencies serve about 240 million meals and snacks a year.  The city has simplified enrollment and expanded outreach for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP), a public food assistance program that in 2017 provided food benefits for 1.7 million food insecure New Yorkers.  The city has supported dozens of new farmers markets, subsidized grocery stores in under-served neighborhoods, and made fruits and vegetables more available. This emerging public sector in food has the potential to serve as an alternative and catalyst for change to the private sector, which still prospers by making unhealthy food cheap and ubiquitous.

Obstacles to a Healthier Food System

These successes are tempered by significant shortcomings.  New York City still lacks a coherent comprehensive food plan with specific measurable goals.  In the 20 public reports we reviewed, elected officials made 420 specific recommendations for improvements in food policy, far too many for anyone to monitor.

While advocates are campaigning vigorously to make progress on each of the six food policy goals, their work is usually siloed.  Neither leaders nor a policy agenda that speaks for the millions of New Yorkers most harmed by our current inequitable food system has emerged.  Despite new governance mechanisms that improve coordination on food policy among city agencies, most New Yorkers still lack any voice in shaping their local food environment, a gap that leaves many policy decisions in the hands of real estate developers, supermarket companies or fast food chains.

Of greatest concern, critical health and social outcomes have barely budged in the last decade and the class and racial/ethnic gaps have persisted.  While soda consumption has declined among adults, fruit and vegetable consumption has not increased.  Modest declines in food insecurity are probably the result of improvement in the local economy.  As in 2007, about 55% of New York City adults are overweight or obese and the prevalence of diabetes has increased slightly.  These findings suggest that if we simply keep on doing what we’re doing, New York’s most serious food problems will persist.


To avoid this fate, we recommend five actions:

  1. With multi-sector participation, create a New York City Food Plan that charts 5 to 10-year food policy goals.
  2. Identify key outcomes and metrics for these goals that can be used to monitor the food plan.
  3. Focus New York City food policies and programs more explicitly on reducing socioeconomic and racial inequities in food outcomes.
  4. Strengthen New York City’s public sector in food to better achieve food policy goals.
  5. Create new democratic and governance processes that offer New Yorkers a greater voice in shaping their food environments.

With these steps, New York City can translate the new attention on municipal food policy into measurable improvements in the well-being of its residents.  Read the full report here.

Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the City University of New York School of Public Health and Director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.  Co-authors of the report are Nevin Cohen, Jan Poppendieck and Craig Willingham.

Our food future: the role of retailers

This Dispatches post is written by Helen Strong, Jack Fargher and Viivi Oinonen, students on the Centre’s Food Policy Masters Programme.

Helen Strong

Jack Fargher

Viivi Oinonen







Every year, the 7 food-related City of London Livery companies (the Worshipful Companies of Bakers, Butchers, Cooks, Fruiterers, Farmers, Fishmongers and Poulters) organise the City Food Lecture in Guildhall in London. Students from the Centre for Food Policy and across the UK have been invited for several years to attend both the lecture and a special student visit to a major UK retailer or supplier. This year’s ‘behind the scenes’ visit was to the Marks & Spencer headquarters giving us a sense of the inner workings of a major food retailer and an opportunity to learn how food policy is being formed, followed and understood by today’s retailers and suppliers.


An inside view

Battling through the Beast from the East, we arrived at M&S HQ where we were introduced to ‘Plan A’ – a sustainable business strategy that includes multiple commitments to address the key environmental, social and ethical challenges facing M&S. Ranging from climate change, health and food waste, one of the key goals of Plan A is to work collaboratively with other retailers, manufacturers and government on government recycling policy and to ensure that all M&S packaging is ‘widely recyclable’ by 2022.

We were also given a broad overview of the technologies and processes used by M&S to ensure both quality and food standards are met and measured for their beef products. M&S are able to use DNA traceability for all of their products containing beef due to the size of their operations which raised an important question; how far can retailers grow and still maintain detailed knowledge of, and control over, their supply chains in order to ensure food quality and standards?

At the end of our visit, we had the opportunity to speak with the senior management (mainly food technology) team regarding food policy issues ranging from Brexit to sustainability, as well as consumer trends. It was refreshing to be faced with a predominantly female panel at this point – something that the City Food Lecture should take note of for their own panellist selection, key note speakers and guest list in subsequent years!


Industry and influence

At the Guildhall, Mr John Giles (Chairman of the City Food Lecture) spoke about the historical and present roles of the Livery Companies, with Dean Holroyd (Group Technical and Sustainability Director of ABP Food Group) speaking about his diverse experience within the food sector. We were then joined by the evening’s panellist members; Julia Glotz (managing editor of The Grocer), Dr David Hughes, (Emeritus professor of food marketing at Imperial College London) and Peter Kendall (former president of the National Farmers Union and chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board). Touching on food waste, ever-evolving consumer trends and farming in the UK post-Brexit, these discussions highlighted the enormity of the food industry and diverse range of stakeholders attempting to influence the direction of policy and the market.

Lastly, we were joined briefly by the keynote speaker, Mr Dave Lewis (CEO of Tesco Group), who detailed his career and how it had taken him from Unilever to Tesco. Such an exclusive audience with the keynote speaker was a novel occurrence at the City Food Lecture and an exceptional opportunity for us students! It also highlighted the power that individuals and single organisations can have in shaping food policy.


Sustainability – what does it mean?

Dave Lewis, CEO Tesco Group

The evening lecture took place in the Guildhall’s Grand Hall, a centuries old room filled with marble statues, ornate stained-glass windows and wooden chairs just big enough for 21st century bodies! As the 500-strong audience sat down and the livery company masters were introduced, Dave Lewis spoke about supplier partnerships and the future of food. Using his tenure at Tesco as a case study, he spoke about the difficult changes needed throughout the food system if sustainability is to become a key priority.

Discussions about food waste, improving recycling to close the packaging loop and better commitments to buying farmers stocks in times of glut, were issues framed by Lewis both in terms of environmental sustainability and economic sustainability. The corporate sector, he argued, can benefit from the latter if the former is introduced, with Tesco’s intention to provide sustainable, healthy and affordable food to the masses arguably testing how truly sustainable the corporate sector can become.


The role of the private sector in food policy

In thinking more broadly about the challenges we face with our food system, the event prompted us to question the role of the private sector in addressing these. More specifically, to think about the role of retailers given the visit to M&S and the presence of Dave Lewis at the City Food Lecture.

The dominant position in our food system held by Britain’s large retailers is significant, and arguably in some cases, unparalleled. As such, a certain amount of responsibility lies at their door. With tremendous levels of expertise, logistical capacity and influence, the potential for this sector to bring about real change within our food system is enormous. However, it is the ‘certain amount’ of responsibility that comes in to question here.

Some of the environmental, social and health-related challenges that we face as a result of our current food system can be directly linked to the modus operandi of the food retail sector, such as food waste and the sustainability of packaging.  Others, are less explicitly the result of retailers’ operations but are certainly linked; such as the obesity epidemic and biodiversity loss. How far then, should they take responsibility for these challenges, and who should hold them accountable for doing so?

As we learned during the day, there is considerable effort from the retail sector to address some of the challenges we mention above, and the capability and commitment to this that we saw from the M&S team is an invaluable asset to making progress in these areas. However, retailers are businesses who must maximise financial return and shareholder value. This economic motive is also part and parcel of the way they address environmental, social and health issues.

Another matter for consideration is that of consumer demand – the driving force behind product development and the types and range of foods stocked. This year, M&S have 9 different varieties of hot cross buns on their shelves. Who and what shapes this demand?!

Where people are becoming more health-conscious or aware of the environmental impact of certain foods, retailers are responding; for example, through the reformulation of ready meals to reduce fat, salt or sugar, increasing the range of vegan products on the shelves or making imperfect fruit and vegetables available. These demands largely stem from increased public awareness of the broader issues at stake. If it is consumer demand that shapes what is available to us in shops, could retailers not do more through their own advertising and marketing to promote healthy, sustainable diets and do more to actively discourage less healthy, less sustainable diets?

From what we learned during our fascinating day, there is lots of good will and plenty of steps being made in the right direction, whatever the motive behind this activity. But a pervasive thought remains. Reducing food waste through donations to food charities; improving the recyclability of packaging; tracing DNA to ensure food safety and standards – whilst important, it still reflects the dominant models of production, distribution and consumption that have delivered many of the problems associated with today’s food system. We need to build on the changes being made and work even harder for deeper paradigm shifts to change our food system for the better.

How can we train people in food systems thinking? The IFSTAL experience.

Guest Blog by Dr Annabel de Frece and Rebecca Wells, Teaching Fellows, IFSTAL (Innovative Food Systems Teaching and Learning) Programme.

Funded by the Higher Education Funding Council of England, IFSTAL is a network of 7 different institutions: City, Oxford, Reading and Warwick Universities, the Royal Veterinary College, SOAS and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Students from these institutions come together on an online learning platform as well as for lectures, workshops, awaydays, webinars, symposia and a week long residential summer school.

Our team of researchers at the Centre for Food Policy often reflect that Food Policy as a subject area is inherently inter-disciplinary. Food, in all its complexity, is an issue central to all our lives and addressed by many different academic fields. So, while our Centre for Food Policy is located in the Department of Sociology at City, within the Centre are graduates from many different disciplines, working in many different ways. From geography to nutrition, biochemistry to social psychology, our staff and students come together to think about food policy and wicked food problems with a wealth of perspectives and expertise.

These diverse viewpoints have helped us to recognize a reality of food policy – that global food challenges like food (in)security, animal health, food waste and food poverty can only be meaningfully tackled by many different disciplines working together, taking an integrated and inclusive approach. And that’s why it makes sense for our teaching to be trans- multi- and inter- disciplinary as well.

IFSTAL Awayday (image credit: Talvinder Sehmbi)

So how can we help students transcend disciplinary boundaries and differences? And can we analyse the food system holistically, taking account of the multiple actors and often competing goals? How can environmental objectives be combined with economic objectives, for example? How can nutritionists speak to the private sector? How do we take an integrated approach to achieve the political will for change? Our Innovative Food Systems Teaching and Learning (IFSTAL) programme uses systems thinking to enable students from many backgrounds to tackle global food challenges together.

Using the work of Gerald Midgley, Ray Ison and others, IFSTAL’s systems thinking approach recognizes and engages with the complexity of the food system. Indeed, it argues that we are not just dealing with one food system, but many food systems. This is because so many different people and organisations, rules and regulations, socio-political and economic contexts are involved in getting our food from ‘farm to fork’. What’s more, all of those involved in this complex system hold different perspectives and motivations for change. One person’s farm is another’s factory, fishery or forest; one person’s fork is another’s chopsticks or fingers; it all depends on your background and your perspective.

Food systems thinking maintains that while the elements of the food system are inextricably linked, there are so many different perspectives, so many different systems, we can’t hope to successfully map the whole.  So, we need to talk about and draw boundaries. We need to make any distinctions, perspectives and assumptions we are making clear so that we can intervene to make meaningful and needed change.  An example of how we do this is the DSRP framework, developed by Derek Cabrera, which is used in systems thinking to conceptualise and frame issues from different perspectives.

Systems thinking methods and frameworks, like DSRP, have been developed by systems thinkers to help participants analyse and change complex systems. They draw on but are not confined to qualitative ways of analysing activities and relationships between actors, institutions, processes and outcomes. IFSTAL uses so-called ‘Soft Systems Methodologies’ (or SSM) to try to collaboratively identify potential areas of the food system that require change and intervention, as well as predicting unintended consequences.

Rich picture technique at IFSTAL Workshop

Our IFSTAL workshops bring together students from a variety of disciplines who work in mixed teams, so the workshops have a built-in interdisciplinary approach as each student views the system from their position of expertise. In the first workshop, we guide students in mapping an element or problem in the food system through a ‘rich picture’ technique, taking account of different actors, perspectives and processes. Rich pictures are a participatory method – everyone gets to try their hand.  No-one is ‘in charge’ – everyone has a pen and is encouraged to put their ideas and thoughts on the paper.


In our second workshop, student teams critically analyse an intervention that could improve the problem they mapped in Workshop 1. Students use a BATWOVE framework (in which B=beneficiaries, A=actors, T=transformation, W=worldview, O=owners, V=victims and E=environmental constraints), which helps to examine a particular intervention and the likely and potential outcomes. The aim is to ensure the intervention works for all and to make transparent any unintended consequences or blocks that might inhibit change. Further analysis exposes issues of power and influence in both negative and positive ways and highlights where accommodations could be made for the intervention to benefit everyone. Students have used this method to look at the possible impact of a sugar, meat or palm oil tax, or how to minimize university canteen food waste. Other IFSTAL workshops and awaydays use different methods including participatory models and tools, gaming, and developing a theory of change. We hope these activities train students to be able to intervene in food system problems by thinking critically, reflectively, holistically and incorporating multiple perspectives. Being able to work effectively within a group is a key skill in working to affect change – and food sector experts that speak at our events tell us that these are key skills they want to see in future employees.


IFSTAL Awayday (image credit: Talvinder Sehmbi)

So IFSTAL training is not just about education, it’s about creating communities and networks and enabling individuals to work with each other as students and we hope, as professionals as they enter the workplace. What can be learned from the IFSTAL experience? Post-graduate education can be creative, innovative, inclusive and engaging. It can do more to prepare students for the workplace and to address the complex global food challenges we all face.

If you’re interested in finding out more about IFSTAL please email us at ifstal-city@city.ac.uk

Immovable feasts: food for thought, activism and hope?

Over the past few weeks, there’s been veritable feast of events around the world relevant to food policy. I recently returned from the Global Nutrition Summit 2017, in Milan, where I launched the Global Nutrition Report 2017. The report – Nourishing the SDGs – shows just how much work food policy still has to do: 88% of countries for which we have data have a severe burden of either two or three forms of malnutrition. The report emphasises that a more holistic and connected approach to food policy is necessary if we are ever to succeed in ameliorating the burden.

Nutrition was the also subject of the Scaling up Nutrition Movements Annual Gathering in Abidjan a couple of weeks ago; ditto the vast meeting of the International Union of Nutritional Sciences held in Buenos Aires. This was hot on the heels of last October’s Annual Plenary of the World Committee on Food Security in Rome, the WHO Non-Communicable Disease Summit in Uruguay, and the Annual Meeting of Mayors committed to the Milan Food Policy Pact in Valencia.

Here in London, meanwhile, we had the Vegetable Summit (thanks to our students who supported the Food Foundation with that event), the Conference on Livestock and Extinction organised by Compassion in World Farming, the People’s Food Policy workshop, convened by the Landworkers Alliance, the Bridge Collaborative’s Evidence-based Solutions for Health, Development and Environment event, the Parliamentary Reception to mark Sugar Awareness Week and a SOAS seminar on gastrophysics. Our very own IFSTAL held launch events in London and Oxford and we hosted a workshop for the Lancet Commission on Obesity, the A is for Apple seminar, as well as our monthly Food Thinkers – most recently with Boyd Swinburn and Anne Marie Thow. This month’s Food Thinkers is taking place today with guest speaker Andy Fisher – join us in person, or via this live stream link. Next month’s will be a Christmas Special on Cooking taking place on December 13th.

There have also been a whole host of events not explicitly about food but where the cross-cutting nature of food comes to the fore. Food is increasingly discussed at health conferences – the European Public Health Conference in Sweden and the European Health Forum Gastein are just two examples.  Our staff and students also attended the British Sociological Association event on Risk in the Media, a panel at UCL Challenges of Translating Research into Policy and the Ethical Consumer conference on Challenging Corporate Power.

The range of events relevant to food is simply vast and impressive and a cause for guarded optimism.

For us, the biggest event of all was the arrival of our new cohort of Masters students – our largest ever, another cause for optimism! It’s been wonderful to welcome such an enthusiastic and diverse set of people passionate about food – and to be able to be part of the next phase in their learning.

We want them to learn not just in the classroom, but through engaging in the plethora activities going on around them. So I asked them – and our staff at the Centre – about what they thought they’d learned at these events. They’d learned a lots of facts and figures, they said, and gotten a better sense of what’s going on. I learned a lot, too. At the Mayors event, for example, I’d learned about what cities around the world are doing to improve their food systems, from Antananarivo to Ede, Maputo to Toronto – and how valuable these opportunities are for municipal  governments to learn from each other.

These events are an opportunity to observe, reflect and gain inspiration. They think about how we can move towards a vision of the world where food policy is improving the wellbeing of people and planet. They each sensitise us to the way the world is thinking about problems and solutions – and who is in the driving seat. One of my colleagues said of the events she attended that there was “too much expectation that ‘consumers’ will solve the problem,” and “too many old white men” dominating the stage. Change is clearly needed! Another commented that “going to events in different fields mean that at least we can grasp how different people understand the world.”

Being in these different rooms can challenge us and make us think, outside our own box. One student told me she had seen an art exhibition positioning supermarkets as the “modern temple.” What does that say about us as a society? she wondered. They expose us to new ideas that identify problems – and expose us to prospective solutions. One of our PhD students came back from an event enthused about the idea of using investor advocacy to change corporate behavior. Hearing inspirational speakers can equally give us hope that things can change for the better. Another of our PhD students told me just how much, hearing Professor Sir Michael Marmot declare that “baby-steps can turn into a long march which can result in real change.” Such words can help us feel better about the sometimes apparently insurmountable problems. Events are also places to have fun, banquets where we can collectively commiserate and celebrate. Another of our students had been to an event in a mill involving teaching people how to cook with heritage wheat. An example of the power of food as solidarity, looking at past methods to propel us into the healthier future.

We can and should learn a lot from these events. We can learn from the banquet that is everyday life, too. I thought of this, in a brief break from the Mayors Summit, waiting in line at a fruit and veg stand at the wonderful Central Market in Valencia. The women ahead of me – they were all women – were making their own choices, interrogating the vendors about their products, showing a vast knowledge of food, gained through experience, through the everyday practice and graft of cooking every day, of putting food on the table. It seemed to me that they were continuing the lessons learned from their mothers and grandmothers before them. This is the type of knowledge we’re in danger of losing, banished from the temple of the modern supermarket. Needless to say, it isn’t something we learn at events or in the classroom. Yet it’s invaluable knowledge just the same. Let’s keep on learning in every which way we can: at the market, in the street, in the classroom, in the kitchen, recalling that learning from and actively participating with ‘amateurs’ can be just as nourishing as listening to professionals.

Markets as social space: reflections on Borough Market

We are delighted share a blog this month from Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy and Trustee of Borough Market, London:

Since my time as a farmer, I have always viewed the world of food through both practical and academic lenses. Doing and thinking. One of the joys of working for the Centre for Food Policy is that we have tried to carve out academic space to view food through both lenses. It is hard work but our teaching and research are immeasurably enriched by our tradition of external and practical engagement with the real world of policy-making.

When the Centre started, this was very unfashionable. The UK Research Assessment Exercise (now the Research Excellence Framework – REF) rewarded intellectual activity only. Outside engagement was fine if it meant working with business or taking commercial contracts, but we set out to work with civil society, and non-profit sectors – precisely those who don’t have big coffers.

For the last 10 years, I have been a Trustee of Borough Market, here in London. This wasn’t for REF impact but simply because it set out to champion high standards and to celebrate real food, to be a beacon for this in London and Britain. And because I like markets.

A few weeks ago, Borough Market was news worldwide for the terrorist outrages. We will remember this for a long time. But this is one of the oldest continual markets in the world. It has seen and will see a lot. Our records suggest Borough Market is 1,000 years old. It settled in its present location by Southwark Cathedral in the mid 18th Century having been spread down the road before and, at one point, being on London Bridge itself. It’s the only market we know to be enshrined by an Act of Parliament in 1754. It’s non-profit; neither privately nor local state owned. This is food for the people. My duties as Trustees are to keep it as a market for the people for ever. Not a bad brief.

In the 1970s I had watched the slow decline of British markets, as supermarket power got a grip on the UK food system. Retailers even colonised the word, adding super to market. Everywhere, markets got tatty, lost customers, were edged out of innovation, and were ignored by city and town councils.  To be on the market committee of a local authority was a sign you were a good person not exactly hot politics. Borough Market, as an independent body, had stopped selling direct to shoppers and become a wholesale market. Even that was squeezed by retail power. In the 1980s at the London Food Commission, advising the Greater London Council, we had tried to get the British consumer movement interested in revitalising markets but had failed.

So in the 1990s I watched with pleasure when a new experiment opened up at Borough, when a few artisanal producers held a new consumer-facing occasional market. It took off, and Borough quickly – with a lot of hard work – was transformed into the current format and beacon status. Food scouts quickly came to see what was occurring, to revamp the boredom of supermarkets. It helped that the Market was in a run-down part of London, south of the river, but subject to a huge regeneration, with the Tate Gallery taking over the decayed power station. Borough Market became a hub for this new fun and realism.

So when I was asked to become a Trustee in the mid 2000s, I paused (thinking of workload) but said yes. It has been one of the most rich and varied experiences of my life. We Trustees are the overall managers but our remit is to keep it going. In fact, it means nurturing the conditions and infrastructure for over 150 businesses who, in turn, employ over 1,000 people. It’s been an incubator, a trial, a cultural renaissance, and at times a crisis. We have our own direct staff who run everything. We create space for others to see, to try and to buy foods. This is Markets as social and economic infrastructure. Taste and pleasure for all.

Then, early on Sunday June 4, I was woken at 01:00 hours by a Market alert, an exchange between our CEO and Chair. Three men in a van had just mowed down people on London Bridge just above Borough Market and then run rampage through our lovely Market a few hours before. Property, businesses and above all people were damaged. Knives had been strapped to hands to kill and maim, rather than be used to cut food for human pleasure. Bodies and injuries were everywhere. I was horrified. We couldn’t do anything. Our lovely Market was under siege. Police and marksmen had taken over our space to reassert order.  I saw a rapid, understandable spiral, a civil food space had become uncivil space. I was (and remain) outraged. Events had taken over.

Due to our huge success, the Market was always a risk, and we were and are security conscious. We get over 100,000 visitors a week. June 3 was a cultural attack on a modern, liberal, democratic space. We don’t have barriers at the market. It is space we work hard to keep quirky, with few straight lines, things always to catch the eye, the senses. It’s a place which celebrates diversity of foods, cuisines, cultures, people, lives, livelihoods and collective humanity.  Food as social glue.

We’d rehearsed our security measures only the week earlier to the terror. But that could not prevent what happened. The responses of tenants, local people, customers and the wider London public has been typically robust and humane. Our staff worked round the clock. It was magnificent but the economic damage to our tenants is terrible, and continues. (Welcome to the world of insurance.) The market is a place for small businesses, who are shaken by what has happened, not allowed onto the scene for 10 days as forensic teams combed it. The losses mounted. We set up a hardship fund. We rolled up sleeves. We refused to get into blame games.  But all this was because the Market was a space people love. It’s as popular in the evening, just off the River, and for its pubs and restaurants which are transformed by the ‘new’ market.

This is an object lesson in how food is about culture and physical space, among all the other features it teaches us.

We who work in food policy know only too well how food can be violent. Hunger and famines are violent. The terrible damage that over- and mal-consumption does to societies and families is a form of violence, I suppose. Food work can be enriching, but it also can wreck lives. History teaches us that food can also be a weapon of war. That is why we remind people of how the European project made food security so central. Messy though it has been, Europe has been a civilising force for us Brits. Food can also be an emotional weapon inside families and inside individuals.  (I got into food via my PhD on phobias.)

We had all dreaded an outrage at the Market, but its ferocity on June 3 took our breath away. We have tried to reassert how food can and must be a healer, too. It can be peace offerings, just times, sharing, cultural exchange, love, exploration, affection, even ambivalence. All these features are to be treasured.  It’s where we are.


Let’s be bold and ambitious: why every city, country and region needs an integrated food policy

We are doing a lot of thinking right now at the Centre for Food Policy about how food policies might actually work for people and planet; policies that enable and empower governments, businesses and people to solve food systems problems in a coherent way. We call these “integrated food policies”.  This basically means policies that join the dots to deliver food-related outcomes more efficiently and effectively; policies that take account of the interconnections in the food system – enabling nutrition, health, environmental, social and economic goals to be delivered more coherently.  It might mean, for instance, every government department working together to address specific problems; connecting what is happening at the grassroots with national and international decision-making; providing incentives for business innovation to reconcile economic goals with health and sustainability.

But it’s a tough ask. In a report just out from IPES-Food, myself and Jess Halliday, a PhD graduate of the Centre, discuss how cities have managed to develop and deliver food policy. Originally, we wanted to feature examples of comprehensive municipal policies that tackled  the full range of food systems challenges. Yet there were too few examples. So we had to focus instead on policies that started with more specific policy goals.

Does this indicate that a vision of integration makes it all rather too complicated? A bit like the efforts to integrate all the Sustainable Development Goals? Policy-making just isn’t like that, critics say. And besides, isn’t it just plain easier to address one issue at a time?

Well, yes, it is. But integration has to start somewhere. More than anything, it’s a destination. As Jess and I found in the IPES-Food report, even when the starting point appears to be just one thing, integration ends up happening when the nuts and bolts are put into place to achieve a vision of real change. And that takes time and effort. Belo Horizonte, Brazil, built what was one of the first integrated food security policies in the world by embedding a whole agency to food within city government. In Amsterdam, concerted efforts to build their Approach to Healthy Weight across government en­sures that no child at risk of obesity goes unde­tected. In the Golden Horseshoe around Toronto, farmers – large and small – came together with city officials to integrate concerns about rural development with city development.  In Detroit, legal changes were needed to enable grassroots movements to convert vacant land into flourishing gardens, given conflicts with state-level policy.

Good food policy typically involves recognising conflicts and managing them. Failing to see the whole picture will simply mean problems will not be resolved. What if the way we are addressing under-nutrition inadvertently creates conditions in which obesity can flourish? What if, as so often happens, policies designed to meet economic goals undermine diet-related health and decent work? What if we have a food system – as we do – where retailers have developed extraordinarily “efficient” supply chains to get food to people and yet 10% of British children are living in households are experiencing severe food insecurity (as new data out this week shows); and 20 million people in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen experience severe famine?

These are the disconnects. We need to step back and ask: why? They are the disconnects that show why every country – and city and region – needs an integrated, overarching food policy.

In the first instance, an integrated approach can bring together the huge array of different policies that affect the food system and identify how they can support, rather than undermine, each other. It’s not about re-doing these policies, but showing how they fit together.

Second, they can provide an enabling environment for businesses and the public sector to reshape supply chains for economic, social, health, and environmental goals. Business and public sector agencies need the stimulus to innovate, while boundaries need establishing to define what behaviour is unacceptable.

Third, integrated policies can re-set decision-making structures that enable cross-government working and, importantly, enable participatory processes. Counter to what they might seem to be, these policy frameworks are not (or at least, should not be) about top down planning – but engaging people. Experience tells us that involving people in defining the problem is likely to lead to more effective solutions; involving people in identifying solutions is likely to lead to more sustainable solutions. People’s participation in governance is more likely to lead to transformation.

Fourthly, integrated food policy frameworks can also set out a series of clear food system goals, with reporting requirements.

The good news is there are exciting developments afoot. In London, developments are underway to develop an integrated food strategy; Scotland is revving up to develop a Good Food Nation Bill; civil society is supporting A People’s Food Policy for the UK, to be proposed soon by the Landworkers Alliance; the Canadian government is consulting on proposals for a national food policy; IPES-Food is advocating a Common Food Policy for the EU. In the Global South in this regard, there are precedents in place to learn from.*

The message from the EAT Forum this past week was #foodcanfixit. It would be naive to think integrated food policy can solve it all, but it can provide a framework that brings it all together. In his marvellous talk at EAT, Sir Bob Geldof, spoke about what commitment really means. It’s a feeling that one cannot step back: one simply has to act. Once that commitment is there, there’s a destination, as well as the beginnings of the many, many steps along the way to get there.

At the EAT Forum, too, we heard from Ron Finley, an organic gardener in South Los Angeles. “You gotta plant a seed”, he said. It sounds trivial, but for him he was doing nothing less than taking on the food system. Baby steps might be little and full of tumbles. Yet they’re the boldest and most ambitious steps we ever make.


*The gradual steps needed to build an integrated, inter-sectoral approach to food security in Brazil is a story Professor Renato Maluf will be talking about in our next Food Thinkers seminar; 27 June at City, University of London. Sign up to attend here.


Seven connections we need to make to fix the food system

I spent this past Saturday at the 2017 Oxford Food Forum, a conference organised by Oxford University students. It was laudable to see a dedicated crowd come to spend their Saturday talking about something apparently abstract – building connections in the food system (the conference theme was “Breaking down the Silos”).

But the relatively abstract nature of the theme was precisely why I was so keen to go. Because in practice, connections are not abstract at all. As I argued in my talk, they are key to finding solutions for food system challenges. Food systems can seem complex; depictions often show a dizzying array  of arrows, feedback loops, elements. It’s easy to get lost in the food system — and all too tempting to think that making connections is a nice exercise for academic boffins while important people focus on making real decisions. But nothing could be further from the truth: making connections is  a very, very pragmatic thing to do for policy makers, practitioners and anyone who cares about the impacts of the global food system.

Here’s why.
First, making connections between the problems.

This means we can find solutions with co-benefits. So often we try to solve problems in isolation.  But this is missing opportunities. As was discussed at the conference, if we work to increase food sustainability in a way that also ensures people can afford healthy diets, we have bang for our buck. It was fantastic to see the inspiring Gunhild Stordalen focus on this in her TEDMED Talk out this week.

Second, making connections between decision-makers.

This means we will solve problems more efficiently. All problems have multiple causes. It’s only by aligning decisions made by the various government departments, international agencies and parts of businesses who influence these causes — whether they realise or not — that we will get the coherence we need.

For example, as a student presentation at the conference noted, if we are concerned with increasing access to food by people in situations of deprivation, why would we clear informal food vendors from the streets? This kind of dis-connected decision making is happening all too often at the moment. Let’s remember that the Sustainable Development Goals explicitly say that policy coherence is needed to deliver our objectives in practice.

Seven connections in the food system © Centre for Food Policy

Third, making connections in food supply chains.

This means we are able to trace how supply chains can have more positive impact while also ensuring they function economically. This is the role of businesses and entrepreneurs, large and small. Large businesses have for years been making stronger connections in their supply chains to cut costs, using techniques like “Efficient Consumer Response” and “Vertical Integration.” Pressured by their customers, civil society, and governments, these corporations are now using the very same management techniques to enhance the traceability in their supply chains to reduce their environmental footprints, poor labour practices and food safety problems. All food businesses must relentlessly pursue these goals. But highly connected, complex chains also introduce risks: this week we heard about yet another scandal concerning contaminants entering the humus supply chain – and spreading its tentacles outwards. Connecting supply chains is also a way of concentrating power. So we also need innovators to diversify supply chains, entrepreneurs like the coffee producers in Chiapas we heard about in one talk, producers who are taking back control of their supply chains through forward integration. As was pointed out, we need innovators like this at the margins because this is where the future lies.

Fourth, making connections with “consumers” or better put, all of us who eat.

This means we get the world behind us in making decisions that make a difference. The key thing here is that connections are based on trust and engagement: all too often, as we heard about from speakers on food tourism, efforts focus on “adding value” by making customers feel good about what they are buying. Imagine the wonderful forests where the coffee in your cup is coming from! Take a trip to see! Ah, how romantic. A lot of food production is far from romantic. It’s hard, and rural households are, frankly, often poor or malnourished.  Let’s really connect us eaters with our food system by  being honest about how supply chains work.

One way to do this is, fifth, making connections with place.

This means we can take the opportunity to engage with our local communities to change the food system where we live. We heard about stories from Oxford to Sao Paulo,  about how connections with the places we live our lives is making a difference. These initiatives often rely and build on local champions, passionate about food, which leads to…

…the sixth: making connections between food and our own identities.

The food community is full of people who feel connected to the world through food (I am one of them). This personal connection means we have a whole load of activists driving forward change; it is the source of energy that has driven the rise of  local food policy councils to large international initiatives like EAT. But it is critical that we also understand how other people experience the food system. If our work connects with only people who share our personal passions, it remains a closed community, a  closed system. Inadvertently, we run the risk of doing exactly what we critique the system for, which is to build a wall around ourselves, build a silo.

The seventh critical connection, then, is making connections with other people’s lived experience of the food system.

This means we will better understand how to design solutions that work for people. Through the approach of people-centred design we need to listen and learn to identify what lies beneath people’s decisions about food — whether a person making food choices in situations of deprivation, a business leader, an informal food vendor or a government policy-maker — and take that into account in the way we design policies and programmes.  This means acknowledging that above all,  food systems are made of people. Let’s work harder to humanize the food system.

My big learning from the conference was, though, about the connection I forgot: the social connection.

Even if people don’t care so much about food, they want to connect socially and food can bring people together. It is one of the many powers of food; it is yet another connection we need to make to find the solutions for the global food system.


You can view my full presentation from the Oxford Food Forum below, and as ever,  keep up to date with us  @CorinnaHawkes and @FoodPolicyCity.




Welcome to the first dispatch from the Centre for Food Policy. It’s been a year since I took over the Centre. In that time, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about what this Centre is about and what it can now bring to the burgeoning field of food systems thinking and practice.

Since the Centre was established — back in 1994 — there have been enormous developments in the world of food policy. Back then, the term “food system” was still an evolving concept. Now, in the world of food, agriculture, nutrition, environmental science, rural sociology, and even economics, the term has become de rigueur. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) talks “food systems” not just “agriculture”. The Wellcome Trust, long-focused on funding biomedical research, has taken up the cause with its new Our Planet Our Health initiative. Meanwhile, the World Bank is publishing reports about food systems. This is a long way from when food systems were seen as a vaguely hippie-ish, fringe concern.

My predecessors at the Centre for Food Policy played a role in advancing this food systems thinking. Unless we recognise the connections in the food system, they said, we’re never really going to resolve food systems problems. This thinking is what lies behind my colleague Tim Lang’s new book on Sustainable Diets. In it, he, and Masters in Food Policy alumni, Pamela Mason, discuss the perils and possibilities of bringing together environmental and health concerns in food. We’ll be debating their book in a new start to our Food Thinkers Seminar Series on 24th May.  Please do come along  – register here, and for more on food systems thinking, check out our teaching initiative, Innovative Food Systems Teaching and Learning.

Going forward, one of the Centre’s priorities will be to further explore this integrated approach by asking how: how can local, national and international governments and other stakeholders advance a more integrated, coherent approach to food policies? Our work at the Food Research Collaboration is already engaging with this agenda, providing insights into how food policy and governance might become more coherent in a post-Brexit Britain. It’s something I work on through co-chairing the Global Nutrition Report where we bring together different forms of malnutrition, advocating an approach in which undernutrition and unhealthy diets are placed in the same frame. Integration does not mean solving everything at once, but leveraging connections to find solutions.

A second priority will be to advance a clearer understanding of how food policy design and delivery can do a better job of engaging people. We spoke about this “people-centred approach” at our 2016 City Food Symposium, trying to practice what we were preaching, getting lots of different people involved, hearing their voices. My colleague Martin Caraher has been working in this way for years through his work on food insecurity — listening to the voices of people who experience the problem. It’s a topic he spoke about at his recent Tedx Talk.

When I lived in Brazil and studied their food policies I learned something that’s stayed with me to this day: applying, testing, and then reflecting, learning and changing, is fundamental to successful food policy.  That’s what these dispatches will be about: sharing what we learn about how food policy can work better by being more integrated and more inclusive.

My second dispatch will be what I have learned from the upcoming 2017 Oxford Food Forum (April 29th),  a topic close to our hearts: Building Linkages in the Food System and you can keep up to date with us  @CorinnaHawkes and @FoodPolicyCity .

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