female farmer holding cabbage female farmer holding cabbage

Introducing a new cohort

There is an old maritime expression that says the best way to navigate a storm is with a compass and hope.

COVID-19 has presented the world with a moment of reckoning. It’s an alarming and unsettling time: we’re concerned about the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones; the wellbeing of our planet for future generations. In the immediacy, many around the world are worried about how to feed their families.

We’re now gaining a better understanding of the ways in which the pandemic affects our food systems. We know more about how deepening inequalities and altered food environments impact the most vulnerable groups worldwide. We see how disrupted supply chains have forced us to create more diverse, sustainable, and shorter food networks. These challenges are not new, but they are more apparent since the start of the pandemic. The urgency of COVID-19 has put food insecurity on the public’s radar like never before.

Importantly, this attention has also shone a light on the individuals and initiatives that embody resilience in the face of crisis. This is where we see hope.

That’s why today, on World Food Day 2020, we’re pleased to announce a new phase of our Beacons of Hope (BoH) project. In the coming months, the Global Alliance will be sharing the stories of initiatives whose creativity, adaptability, and resilience present examples for how to respond to global challenges like COVID-19 and the need for food systems transformation.

These stories are as diverse as they are inspiring. In Nigeria, the Lagos Food Bank has partnered with local and international brands to provide door-to-door food relief for nearly 90,000 vulnerable families. With operations in the eastern and southern U.S. The Common Market is working with community-based organizations and producers to connect low income families with local food. Gastromotiva, a Brazilian NGO, launched a series of Solidarity Kitchens where its students and alumni transform their home kitchens into small restaurants that serve those in need of a meal. Led by community groups, innovative policy-makers, and progressive private sector players, each initiative intervenes at a different point in our food system. Together, they demonstrate that transformative change is happening all around the world — and that it can and must be accelerated.

These Beacons of Hope initiatives address food system challenges in creative and more inclusive ways. They push back against the prevailing narratives of productivity-at-all-cost, privatization, and those claiming our food system can be run only by technical or scientific experts. Their actions are bold and think outside the box.

There is so much to learn from these Beacons of Hope. These stories will not only reveal what we need to change and the reasons why it’s so necessary — they will also focus on how we can fundamentally transform food systems. We will be sharing two stories a month, accompanied by a short commentary analyzing each initiative. Combined, these pieces will frame a series of bold Calls to Action that the Global Alliance recommends be adopted by policy-makers, food system players, and individuals alike.

It’s our hope that these Beacons of Hope stories present an inspiring, sustainable, and equitable way forward — helping us not only brave this current storm but also steer clear of others. These stories set a direction for our compass, and the hope they provide is the wind in our sails.

Analysis: The Common Market & Lagos Food Bank Initiative +

Introducing two new Beacons of Hope: The Common Market and the Lagos Food Bank Initiative

This analysis was written to accompany our two new Beacons of Hope case studies about The Common Market and the Lagos Food Bank Initiative. You can expect each pair of case studies to be accompanied by a short article like this, reflecting on what we are learning from the Beacons. Below, we focus on productivism—how these two organizations disrupt the prevalent and narrow focus on increasing agricultural production that is common in food systems discussions.

In June 2020, experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released an update on COVID-19 and its consequences for food security and food systems. One of the report’s first lines lays bare the reality of the world’s situation: “Today’s challenge is not food availability, but food access.”

This was a bold and important statement at a time when the COVID-19 crisis is projected to force an additional 83 to 132 million people into food insecurity.

For decades, a false narrative has prevailed: a belief that boosting agricultural production is the best and only way to solve food insecurity challenges. This narrative promotes productivism and, although it has been proven false, it remains surprisingly persistent—despite having been challenged by many food system experts who view the root causes of food insecurity as much more complex.

We now understand the importance of applying systems thinking to food security and food sovereignty. The Common Market (USA) and the Lagos Food Bank Initiative (Nigeria) push back against productivism through counter-narratives that present alternate pathways forward. The success borne from valuing community building, addressing both short and long-term needs, and taking into account the social, cultural, health, and environmental impacts of their programs demonstrates this systemic approach.

Speaking with the organizations’ founders, Haile and Tatiana (The Common Market), and Michael (Lagos Food Bank Initiative), we were struck by their powerful backstories and comprehensive programs. Though located an ocean apart, both The Common Market and the Lagos Food Bank Initiative understand that food insecurity is a complex problem that requires observing all dimensions of food security: availability, access, stability, and utilization, as well as agency and sustainability.

With inequitable access to fresh produce and nutritious food pervasive in urban centres, The Common Market has spent the last 12 years connecting local family farms with under-served markets in nearby urban centres. While some people were panic buying and fretting over global supply chain disruptions at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Common Market continued devising ways to get fresh food to some of America’s most food insecure neighbourhoods. They explored different public partnerships, working with, among others, the City of New York and the United States Department of Agriculture to provide emergency food assistance. The Common Market also launched its Farm-Fresh Box initiative which ultimately tackled two challenges: meeting the immediate food needs of vulnerable families while at the same time strengthening shorter and more local supply chains.

This month’s second case study about the Lagos Food Bank Initiative examines how the organization has evolved since 2015 to address the root causes of hunger. This includes programs that focus on livelihood support, economic empowerment, nutrition for mothers, infants, and school-age children, and education. Further, the organization’s Family Farming program helps people establish small garden plots on their property, putting affordable, fresh produce within reach and reducing a dependence on expensive, imported food.

When COVID-19 began, both The Common Market and Lagos Food Bank tapped into their years of relationship-building and partnership. This social infrastructure—in addition to their agile and decisive leadership—meant the two organizations were able to quickly pivot to address the crisis. From volunteer networks to farmer contracts, we think you’ll be inspired by how these two organizations creatively reimagined their missions to impact hundreds of thousands during this difficult time.

There’s so much more to say about each of their approaches, but we’ll let you learn more in the two case studies: The Common Market and the Lagos Food Bank Initiative. Happy reading!

Our next case studies will be published in December and feature details of Fiji’s agricultural policy response during the COVID-19 crisis and Brazilian non-profit organization Gastromotiva Solidarity Kitchen.

Guest Article: Chef Alice Waters +

This is where the hope lies.

Guest contribution by Alice Waters, chef, author, food activist, and owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California.

We are living through an unprecedented time. The global pandemic has upended supply chains all over the world, adding unimaginable pressures to food systems already bowing under the weight of toxic and unsustainable industrial farming practices.

The current crisis has highlighted the fundamental flaws in the current agricultural system. But it has also revealed a truth about food and agriculture that has existed all along: smaller is better. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, we have been finding that small, local, regenerative food networks are more resilient than their industrial, scaled-up counterparts. They are better able to pivot, think creatively, and come up with novel solutions to the biggest issues of our time: food security, workers’ rights, and, of course, the inescapable reality of climate change.

The future of the planet depends on the success of these food systems, and it is up to us to make sure they succeed. Institutional restructuring has to happen everywhere for real change to occur. It is our most pressing, urgent need—for our own survival, and for the health, nourishment, and wellbeing of future generations.

I believe an essential place to begin is in the school system, with its immense buying power and educational potential. Schools are waking up to the idea that they can be vital, stable economic support systems for local, regenerative farmers and ranchers. This is what I call “school-supported agriculture.” Schools can become reliable and consistent buyers, paying organic farmers and ranchers in their area the real cost of food, directly, with no middleman. School-supported agriculture—with a centrepiece of a free organic and regenerative school lunch for every child—is an alternative economic engine that would cultivate local agricultural support networks everywhere and nourish all our students. The regenerative growers win, local communities win, and schools win.

Now more than ever, we need to share these sorts of creative food solutions and gather our best practices from countries around the globe. This is not so that we can force a homogenized, one-size-fits-all solution onto our food networks. The values we need to uphold are universal: nourishment, community, equity, biodiversity, stewardship of the land. But the ways in which we put these values into practice are richly varied, tailored to each environment, each culture, each climate. This is precisely how our food systems can not only withstand this current test, but transform, grow, and thrive.

The Beacons of Hope initiative shines a light on these diverse alternative food systems all around the world—the ones that are nimble and adaptive in the face of this crisis, that remain humane and vibrant despite the challenges that surround us. The changes we want to see are already happening, all around us, in thousands of cities, towns, and rural communities: in farms and schools and rooftop gardens, in food banks and seed banks and kitchens and organic greenhouses. The future of food is local.

This is where the hope lies.