What Will It Take to Distribute Food More Equitably?

Does the global food system need to change to end nutritional scarcity? How can food be distributed more equitably? Three food system experts shared their recommendations for change in a SHIFT20 panel discussion titled “Striving for the Equitable Distribution of Nutrition.”

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By Mary Ellen Kuhn

Does the global food system need to change to end nutritional scarcity? How can food be distributed more equitably? Three food system experts shared their recommendations for change in a SHIFT20 panel discussion titled “Striving for the Equitable Distribution of Nutrition” led by Corby Kummer, a senior editor with The Atlantic magazine.

Despite the food system challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s brought about some encouraging developments, noted Corinna Hawkes, City University of London professor and director of the Centre for Food Policy there. She cited the example of “agri-ambulances” that made emergency food deliveries, taking food from the fields where it was rotting in Nepal due to COVID-19 supply chain disruptions and distributing it to communities where it was needed.  

Planning and policy change are necessary to effect real change in the food system, Hawkes repeatedly emphasized over the course of the discussion. “I think COVID-19 shows that planning is required,” said Hawkes. “But that means that a lot has to happen at the local level, at the city level, and what we’ve seen with coronavirus is that even when there hasn’t been action at the national level, there has been action at the city level. And we see that in countries all over the world.”

Hawkes echoed one of the themes addressed by SHIFT20 keynoter April Rinne when she emphasized the need for “purposeful, intentional action” to address issues of food insecurity and inequity. “If we leave what people eat simply to the market, without either trying to drive demand in multiple different ways, including affordability and chain supply, this increasingly uneven dietary development will grow,” said Hawkes.

Panelist Chiara Cecchini, CEO and co-founder of the Future Food Institute, a nongovernmental organization committed to rethinking the food system, agreed that the COVID-19 crisis has focused more attention on local initiatives such as community kitchens. Cecchini said she’s observed a trend among large consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies to align themselves more closely with local food producers.

“I see it as a point of balance, the power of CPG in terms of supply chain combined with local producers that can be empowered by them,” said Cecchini. “I find it very interesting to see how the existing supply chain can actually be used by local producers to piggyback on some existing infrastructure[s].”

Mario Ferruzzi, a professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Science at North Carolina State University, whose work focuses in part on studying micronutrient levels in staple food crops, discussed the challenges of introducing products made with environmentally friendly and highly nutritious grains like sorghum and millet into the U.S. food supply. In the developing world, he said, such crops are used for human food products, “but in the United States, we consider those animal feed.”

Kummer asked the panelists what they’d wish for if given the opportunity for a “magic bullet” to bring about food system improvements. In response, Ferruzzi said, “I think it’s really time that we come together to develop public-private partnerships that are for the right [nutritional] studies and then put them in the hands [of those who can] do things independently. But at least put the funding in from public and private that allows us to do the bigger studies correctly as opposed to doing incomplete studies in the area of nutrition, in the area of food science and translation.”


To learn more about what the panelists had to say about nutritional scarcity and the kinds of food system and policy changes needed to better address it, follow their conversation by viewing this session in the SHIFT20 on-demand library.

Registration for SHIFT20 provides access to the on-demand library of sessions for a full year.

Mary Ellen Kuhn is executive editor of Food Technology magazine.

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