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: Quito Resiliente & FoodShare +

Introducing two new Beacons of Hope: The Municipality of Quito and FoodShare in Canada

Perhaps you’ve heard the statement: food is a public good. What does this mean, exactly?

Food security means that every person, irrespective of social status, has the right to access sufficient and culturally acceptable food at all times. The Right to Food is referenced in many human rights norms and treaties mutually agreed on around the world. Food justice recognizes that racialized people and communities experience higher levels of food insecurity due to structural inequalities. Within these concepts, governments have an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to food and ensure food security for their citizens. Other food systems actors have a complementary responsibility. Together, all must ensure that food systems are governed to primarily fulfill this public need.

This interpretation does not often play out in reality. That’s, in part, due to a common narrative in food governance that upholds and enables the privatization of food systems, allows markets to lead food system transformations, and reduces public space for food. Those governance and market-based decisions are often deeply inequitable—made by people in positions of power with little input from the general public.

It is widely acknowledged that the majority of food is produced, processed, and traded by individual private actors across markets. At the same time, these transactions are regulated by a series of norms, rules, and behaviours set out by society and policy-makers. With shifting public opinion comes the pressure to do things differently. This includes momentum to see food as a public good in the same way that public transportation, access to public utilities such as water and electricity, and access to other services are seen as public goods in many jurisdictions around the world.

COVID-19 may have shifted thinking around this subject. Many food systems responses to the crisis acknowledge the need for food as a public good. While the pandemic has brought severe consequences to the crisis of global food security—such as widening social inequalities, food price shocks, and altered food environments—we are increasingly hearing about the importance of public health systems, alternative food distribution, and growing solidarity in our food systems. Public responses such as wide-sweeping stimulus packages and strengthened social security policies are also on the table. Have we reached the limit of privatized food systems?

This month, we introduce two new Beacons of Hope that show how to translate this understanding of food as a public good into local policy and action. Our first story takes us to Quito, Ecuador, a city recognized as a leader in putting food policy on the municipal agenda. For two decades, the municipality has been building integrated, inclusive, and participatory food governance as well as the institutional infrastructure to support a sustainable food system. Quito has invited diverse actors—private and public—to take part in building sustainable and inclusive food systems. The city’s resilience strategy, Quito Resiliente, proved key when it came time to plot a COVID-19 response, a sign that local food resilience heavily depends on the institutions that regulate food systems.

Toronto, Canada, is the setting of our second story. Despite the right to food being guaranteed in the city’s Food Charter, nearly 1 in 5 Torontonians continue to suffer from food insecurity. It’s a shocking figure that reminds us that leaving food governance primarily to private actors will not fulfill the right to food, irrespective of the affluence of cities. FoodShare is a leading organization in Toronto, and has been advocating and acting for food justice since its founding 35 years ago. Alternative food infrastructure supported by FoodShare, such as Good Food Markets, provide communities with a sense of local ownership and decision-making over food governance. Meanwhile, the organization’s Emergency Good Food Box launched in response to COVID-19, is a practical solution that fills the social gap where private markets and public governments have failed in securing the right to food.

We hope these Beacons inspire you and demonstrate a reimagining of our food system where food truly is a public good. Enjoy reading!

Analysis: Fiji’s agricultural policy response & Gastromotiva +

Introducing two new Beacons of Hope: Fiji’s agricultural policy response & Gastromotiva

This analysis was written to accompany two new Beacons of Hope case studies about Fiji’s agricultural policy response during COVID-19 and Gastromotiva’s Solidary Kitchens in Brazil. This month, we focus on deconstructing the narrative that food systems were doing fine before the pandemic. These stories examine how these two organizations turned a crisis into opportunities to continue accelerating food systems transformation in their respective countries.

COVID-19 has substantially impacted our food systems. Increasing levels of food insecurity faced by vulnerable populations and disrupted distribution chains are just two of the major consequences. While these are severe challenges with long-lasting implications, it is important to remember that our food systems were far from performing well before this crisis hit.

The past few decades has seen the steady increase in food production to keep pace with a fast-growing population. But as productivity ramped up, the overall performance of global food systems became largely unbalanced, unequal, and unsustainable. Despite major progress in closing the food inequality gap, the positive trend halted around 2014 with rates of food insecurity growing in recent years.

In 2019, before the COVID-19 crisis hit, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) noted that 690 million people are hungry and an astonishing 2 billion do not have access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food. This growing food insecurity is accompanied by a rise in other forms of malnutrition (micro-nutrient deficiencies, obesity, among others). The outcome is that approximately half of the world’s population are either undernourished or malnourished. COVID-19 exacerbates these public health implications further still—and this does not even touch on the environmental consequences of our actions, which we will explore in the coming months.

On that thread, this month we introduce two new Beacons of Hope that have long been addressing specific food systems challenges in their contexts. The first story takes us to the South Pacific where we` examine Fiji’s agricultural policy response to the pandemic. When COVID-19 began, the national Ministry of Agriculture was already innovating to address some of the country’s major food challenges: a dependence on food imports and processed food. Once the crisis hit, the Ministry used the moment to push for even stronger food systems changes. The past months have seen Fiji increase its focus on production and consumption of locally-grown food, promote organic production, and shift public perception to view farming as a sector worth investing in.

Gastromotiva, a Brazilian NGO, took a similarly creative approach. The organization has years of experience investing in social gastronomy—using food and the tools of gastronomy to spark social change. Their programs train young cooks and entrepreneurs from low-income neighbourhoods. In response to COVID-19, Gastromotiva launched a network of Solidary Kitchens where students and alumni cooked from their homes and provided meals to vulnerable people in their own communities. It’s an innovative project that links social inclusion, food security, and entrepreneurship for the common good.

Both Beacons offer important lessons. COVID-19 gave these two groups more motivation to push for the food transformations they envision. We hope some common themes are clear in reading their stories: the importance of using existing social and institutional networks, of decentralizing food supply and distribution, to strengthen the food skills held by farmers, gardeners, and cooks, and to re-purpose infrastructure and programs. These reflect an interesting, innovative care economy that builds resilience and enables rapid response to a crisis like COVID-19.

Happy reading!

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.