Food citizenship: innovative partnerships for healthy food systems

October 15, 2020

By Frank Mechielsen, Sustainable Food program manager

Food is high on the political agenda. The need to make food systems more resilient to external shocks like climate change and Covid-19 is now well acknowledged among states and other actors. Green, healthy, and inclusive food systems should become the new normal. But to make this happen we need to reshape the entire food system, with citizens driving bottom-up innovations. No innovation is effective without the participation of its users, which means that citizens and civil society, producers and consumers, should be involved in any decisions about food from the very start. This World Food Day, we’re looking at how a holistic food system approach involving all stakeholders is key to solving the urgent and interconnected challenges that our world is currently facing.

Lessons from local food systems transformation

The Hivos and IIED Sustainable Diets for All program has championed multi-actor initiatives as a tool for helping drive the change needed. In particular, initiatives that consciously and continually engage stakeholders and that are agile enough to adjust to ongoing learning. Our Food Change Labs are multi-actor social innovation processes that use a systems approach to address pressing issues in a local food system. They have been a central component of local food system transformation within the program. These Labs bring relevant stakeholders like farmers, entrepreneurs, government officials and food vendors together to collaborate on developing sustainable solutions.

A new retrospective study shows the degree to which the program’s Food Change Labs in Zambia and Uganda used systems thinking to successfully kick-start the transformation of local food systems in these countries. Moving beyond frameworks and concepts, we implemented and monitored food systems changes involving practical interventions in the field. This helped us develop a set of eight principles to guide other similar programs through their program development and all stages of implementation. These principles form the basis of the assessment in this study and have given us important insights into what further action is needed for realizing even greater change.

Crop diversification

In Zambia, we supported civil society and successfully worked with the government to develop and implement its national crop diversification strategy away from maize mono-cropping. The Beyond Maize study and the short film ‘Life Beyond Maize’ have had a particularly profound effect on policy discussions. Partners also worked to ensure that local-level interpretation of national policy was in line with the spirit of sustainable diets and to foster a greater say for local citizens in issues that directly affect them.

Indigenous crops

In Uganda, promoting the production and consumption of indigenous crops was an innovative approach to addressing malnutrition. The revival of Orugali meals engaged a wide range of stakeholders – from rural households to local politicians – and was crucial in gleaning information about citizens’ needs and priorities. Furthermore, through the Food Lab, Fort Portal became the first municipality to overcome the constraints of Uganda’s 1935 Public Health Act by using local powers to provide an enabling environment for informal street vendors.

Key principles for people-centered transformation

Using what we learned from our experiences in Zambia and Uganda, we recommend the following key principles for setting up a regularly revised monitoring system with stakeholders.

(1) Whole system approach: Consider the food system as a whole, with its economic, societal and natural context. Develop a food system scan at the start of the program, including actor mapping and their relations. Ensure all stakeholders agree on the concept of food systems.

(2) Integrated sustainability dimensions: Draw up outcomes and interventions that integrate health and well-being, the economy, and the environment.

(3) Multi-level approach: Be aware of how policies and actions are framed and constrained by higher levels (i.e. local to regional to national, to international). Identify where systemic change requires higher-level intervention. Select a network of partners with capacity to work at different levels (local, regional, national, global).

(4) Multi-stakeholder participation: Promote multi-stakeholder collaboration through inclusive governance structures, with wide representation of food system actors – both informal and formal – and citizens, especially marginalized groups. We learned it is important to make information available in native languages, and to use facilitation methods that encourage ownership and participation of women and youth.

In addition, we identified four important supporting principles: (5) Evidence-based interventions; (6) Innovation and flexibility; (7) Long-term focus; (8), Monitoring and evaluation.

Harnessing our collective impact

We need to bring people closer to food chains and empower them to influence how food is produced and how it arrives on our plates. We believe that using these principles and connecting the various actors of the food system can be a catalyst for food system transformation all over the world. We’ve seen first-hand that inviting everyone to participate in these initiatives encourages a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives, interests, and lived experiences. This is instrumental in transforming any system.

In the Netherlands, the Netherlands Food Partnership is celebrating World Food Day this week by urging the Dutch agri-food sector and its international partners to throw their collective weight behind accessible and affordable healthy diets for all.

Including all these voices in the preparation for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit will provide momentum for a food system change based on the needs and perspectives of the majority of people, not a minority of vested interests. Redesigning our food system is a huge task but it’s one we can accomplish together.