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.