Earlier this year, the Word Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) sounded the alarm on the over 41 million people grappling with emergency levels of acute hunger — meaning they are one step away from starvation. This brought the stark reminder of a year that continues to be dominated with headlines of the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and how food systems are failing over 2 billion people who do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. 

Hunger is strongly connected to poverty, and in emergency and unstable conditions, always rises to the top of challenges as the shadow crisis to the crisis. 

But this year, countries have the opportunity to shift the narrative as they gear up for the Food Systems Summit in September. The summit, convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, is part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The summit is intended to launch bold new actions and awaken the world to how we must all work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes, and thinks about food.

When we know that good food is not a choice for many, what are the stories that have been told, haven't been told, remain to be told, or need to be retold? With the Food Systems Pre-Summit on the horizon July 26 to 28 — against a backdrop of stark numbers on hunger and calls for more inclusiveness around ensuring all stakeholders are at the table — what do food systems really look like for individuals and communities around the world? 

For Children

Food systems are critical to delivering healthy, affordable, and sustainable diets, but they have not taken much account for the nutritional needs of many children around the world. Hundreds of millions of children have often not been prioritized, and most do not receive the diets they need to grow, thrive, and develop to their full potential.

The pandemic has further exacerbated this, disrupting school feeding programs, exposing millions of children to food insecurity. What's more, around the globe over 149 million children under 5 are stunted — a chronic form of malnutrition affecting cognitive development — as a result of poor nutrition in utero and early childhood. Unfortunately, these numbers are expected to increase due to constraints in accessing nutritious diets and essential nutrition services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As I was gathering information about the costs associated with Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) in the treatment of a child with Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), I called a nutritionist with experience working with children suffering from SAM in both the rural and urban areas of Zambia.

This led to an emotional and illuminating discussion. She explained the many factors associated with treatment and therapeutics. Children usually are brought in with a host of conditions, and she emphasized that to treat these cases, you have to think of the system that fails these children — the burden of care in the recovery process on families that already couldn't afford food in the first place. This includes the cost of heating (something you wouldn’t consider when you think of hunger), the costs of transportation to the clinic, and more.

Taking a systems approach, we cannot isolate these children with SAM or moderate acute malnutrition (MAM) from the communities in which they live and play. 

For Women in Rural Areas

In agriculture, often described as where our food systems start, gender inequalities continue to be present. For rural women in particular, they play a critical role in running households and contribute significantly to agricultural production, fulfilling multiple roles: as farmers and caretakers, looking after children, preparing meals, and managing the home. Yet, they are held back by lack of education, unequal property rights, and limited control over resources. 

For Smallholder Farmers

It's been shown that investment in agriculture is up to 11 times more effective in reducing extreme poverty than investment in any other sector. Small farms generate incomes, provide jobs for unskilled laborers, and sustain rural communities and economies.

Smallholder farmers are one of the most vulnerable groups to climate change, as most depend on rain-fed agriculture. Although they are responsible for a majority of the world’s food, they face harsh challenges — many live in extreme poverty and bear the burden of climate shocks and other disruptions that can displace them from their land.

An estimated 63% of the world’s poor people work in agriculture, the overwhelming majority on small farms. There is an urgent need to scale up efforts to help smallholder farmers cope with existing climate impacts and build their long term resilience. Centering agriculture in rural development will have multiple windfall benefits for communities and societies. Rural livelihoods and food production should be protected, as they are the frontline to good food for all.

Why Does the Food Systems Summit Matter? Why GoodFood4All?

It has been emphasized many times over, and it's worth repeating, that the success of the Food Systems Summit depends on the engagement of citizens all over the world. It is an opportunity to place front and center the stories of individuals and groups that our food systems in their current form have failed. Addressing this is more than just a moment, it is ensuring a lifeline for many.

So, how do we actually challenge the status quo? 

Undisrupted access to nutrition services and school feeding programs helps prevent childhood malnutrition  Evidence shows that school meals are one of the most impactful and efficient interventions to support children. 

In Haiti alone, UNICEF warned it would run out of RUTF in June to treat acute malnutrition and urgently needs $3 million to purchase essential supplies and medicine to carry out preventive and treatment programs.

Support for rural smallholder farmers can reignite progress toward the elimination of extreme poverty and transformed food systems. Investing in organizations like the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which aims to double its impact over the next 10 years, can address poverty and hunger in rural areas.

A gendered approach considers gender at all stages, from production to consumption, and acknowledges the inequalities that exist throughout the food system. Dismantling these barriers is critical for a shift toward sustainable food systems and achievement of the Global Goals.

Sustainable practices from farm to fork can help transform the food system from the inside out. 

Supporting systems that ensure investments are appropriately used can ensure that these goals are reached. In practice, this means: 

  • Doubling investment in CGIAR, the global research partnership for a food-secure future, to deliver science and innovation to equip food systems that advance human and planetary health, and provide good nutrition for all people while staying within environmental limits.
  • Inclusive value chains: Enabling environments that address technical and institutional constraints is necessary to ensure developing countries' participation in emerging value chains is not impeded.
  • Test and scale up new technologies and cost-effective solutions encouraging private sector partnerships that can address long-standing challenges faced by small-scale producers and poor rural men and women.

With more than 690 million people still going to bed hungry, the voices of Global Citizens are more critical than ever to ensure continued Official Development Assistance and locally driven solutions for the communities most vital to our food systems.

Share your story in support of the Food Systems Summit. You can send us a video explaining what good food means to you. We will share these with the team organizing the summit and ensure your diverse views are heard.


Defeat Poverty

How Can We Transform the Global Food System?

By Mwandwe Chileshe