Food Systems Education: Fostering the Next Generation of Systems Thinkers

This blog was first published by Um So Planeta and can be found in Portuguese here.

Food has always and will always be an important part of my life. Growing up in a household with an Italian mother, food was the center of our home. Food meant love, food meant family, food meant happiness and much more. I discovered from a young age, that food and what we eat is truly impactful, it’s about more than just nourishing. For me it’s about culture, it’s about coming together, it’s truly something beautiful being able to share a meal. As a competitive athlete, I wanted to pursue studies in something that would help my performance. I decided to pursue my bachelor’s in Nutrition and Dietetics. Throughout my four years studying nutrition I came to realize that food is complex, and our food systems are even more complex. My undergraduate degree taught me many things, one major revelation being that food is connected to all of us, and that we all have a role to play in transforming food systems for planetary health. 

After learning more about the science of nutrition during my undergraduate studies I decided I needed to think bigger and enact far-reaching change. With this mantra in mind, I pursued a Master’s in Public Health. I thought this would be a great way to better understand political, economic, socio-cultural, environmental and other external influences that govern food production, distribution and consumption.

Food systems encompass everything, they show us that in order to have a sustainable future which supports planetary health, we must stop thinking in siloes. We must focus on becoming systems thinkers. Systems thinking can be defined as “a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate” (1). In this blog, I will discuss the integration of food systems into early education as well as developing the next generations of systems thinkers. 

Today, we see many people, specifically children that are disconnected from where their food comes from. Many believe that food comes from a restaurant or the grocery store. We do not understand the origins of our food sources, and how it is grown. One way we can shift this narrative is by integrating food systems education into curricula. Educational institutions need to teach future generations where food comes from, how it is grown and how climate affects production. We must start to discuss the journey from farm to fork, and the interconnected nature of this journey from a young age. For example, we cannot have crops without a healthy planet or healthy people without healthy ecosystems. By nurturing the next generation to become systems thinkers, we will have opportunities to identify systems solutions. 

This societal shift and reframing of the way we think about food will drive progress in the decade of action. The Act4Food Act4Change campaign is doing just this. We are empowering youth to have a voice, to educate their peers and to continue to discuss issues on all elements of our food system. The Act4Food Pledge is a promise. We pledge, as a collective youth force to work on our own actions that contribute to food systems change. The Actions 4 Changeare a list of 17 actions to improve our food systems, which have been written and chosen by youth. We are asking youth to go and vote for what Actions 4 Change they believe should be priorities for decision-makers. For me, one of the most important Actions 4 Change is to Educate Everyone about food and its impact on our planet and our health. 

Education can include continuous dialogues or the facilitation of courses on agriculture, basics on gardening, cooking, and nutrition. Besides developing competencies, we must start showing the value of the professions within our food systems. For example, it has been identified in the Barilla Foundation (2021), “Europe and Food. Ensuring environmental, health and social benefits for the global transition” that European youth in agriculture is greatly lacking with only 5% of agriculture workers under the age of 35 years old (3). Many of our youth leaders commented that within their own countries it is not very appealing or respected to be in agriculture and farming. The devaluing of blue-collar work needs to be reframed to show the rewarding and vital role of this profession. I hope one day we will have children dreaming of being soil scientists, sustainable energy engineers and aquatic/ blue food[1] farmers. 

For too long we have been addressing food systems issues in siloes. Now, for the first time, food systems are being put at the top of political agendas and being regarded as a critical element of our livelihoods. This year has unearthed many of the gaps and disparities globally. In September 2021 the first United Nations Food Systems Summit will be held in New York, connecting many sectors/ actors to discuss collective actions required to ensure a healthy future for our people and the planet. The time is now for government, businesses, civil society, indigenous peoples, global citizens and youth to work together. We must support and educate one another to Act4Food & Act4Change. 

[1] Blue food is defined as all edible aquatic organisms, including fish, shellfish and algae from marine and freshwater production systems (aquaculture and fisheries) (2). 

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