From neighborhood bodegas to multinational food and beverage companies, COVID-19 has sent shockwaves across the food system at all levels. Much has been written about the immediate pressures caused by COVID-19 and the short-term pivots to mitigate them, but it’s clear these effects will be felt for a lifetime. When social distancing eases and we look out over the next several months and years, where will we be? What will our relationship with food look like? And how do food system stakeholders navigate these uncharted waters?

In this new 5-week series, “COVID-19’s Wake-Up Call: Food System Realities Reimagined,” experts from across the AVENIR Global network and global food system will weigh in on these questions through original, weekly posts and a free, global webinar on May 28, 2020 (8-9 am PT/11-12 pm ET). Register for the webinar here!

Each week, our team of experts from Padilla and FoodMinds will explore a new COVID-19 reality paired with a reimagined possibility, along with thought starters to help shift from “what now?” to “what’s next?” My colleagues and I cannot claim to be perfect prognosticators – no one can in this tumultuous time. But, this series aims to not only anticipate how food’s future will evolve in light of COVID-19, but also spark ideas on how your organization can help shape that future.

In developing this series, my colleagues and I reflected on our own experiences with food over the last few months. We realized our experiences were rife with contradictions. We were feeling limited and concerned; we were feeling stressed and inconvenienced. At the same time, we were feeling privileged to enjoy a new sense of resourcefulness and creativity in the kitchen. Even though we spend most of our day working on food issues, we were even more aware of how important the entire food system is to our health and the fabric of our communities.

These tensions are being felt around the world. For some, COVID-19 means an opportunity to enjoy the art of baking sourdough bread for the first time. For others, it marks the first visit to a food pantry. COVID-19 makes disparities like these impossible to overlook. There are systemic challenges to be fixed and this is our “fork-in-the-road” moment. Do we rebuild what already existed or reinvent for resiliency? For every hard reality, this series will look to identify the new possibility.

Reality: The world is now grappling with four pandemics

Four intersecting pandemics are fueling devastating consequences for global health and well-being: climate change, undernutrition, obesity and now, COVID-19. These cannot be viewed in isolation. Stakeholders across the food system are both uniquely vital and vulnerable to how these issues are addressed.

Pre-COVID-19, society was falling short of meeting many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) indicators, including those related to eradicating hunger and combatting climate change. The World Food Programme recently sounded the alarm that COVID-19 could give rise to “multiple famines of biblical proportions.” This comes at a time when the rate of undernourished people had recently increased by the millions. COVID-19 is compounding these challenges and putting the SDGs even further out of reach by 2030. How do we address these issues in a truly systemic fashion? Society was juggling three pandemics and a fourth was just thrown into the mix. A food systems-based approach is needed to ensure we don’t drop the ball.

Reimagined: The world must innovate to solve these systemically…or wait for the next crisis to hit

This level of crises is overwhelming and addressing four pandemics at once can feel impossible. There needs to be recognition that there is no silver bullet and there will be trade-offs. However, delaying collective action to achieve nutrition security and climate progress will only mean it’s a matter of time until the next crisis strikes. There are a lot of boxes to check, but now is the time to rethink what’s possible.

Possible Paths Forward: How can your organization meaningfully address these global challenges?

  • Introduce or strengthen programs or product attributes that are intentional in addressing at least two of these pandemics in parallel. For example, rethink what the intersection of safety and sustainability can mean for your organization, or your product and its packaging. Customers bringing their own reusable cups or bags may temporarily be off the table. But, how else can your business approach or product delivery be enhanced to meet heightened safety concerns, while also minimizing environmental impact?
  • Facilitate partnerships across different sectors to bring in broader reach and perspective. This will allow your organization to better connect the dots across these challenges. Consider non-traditional partners across (or beyond) the food system. For example, look to the SDGs for inspiration. If your organization traditionally channeled efforts into the “Zero Hunger” lane (SDG #2), what common ground could you find with partners focused on “Gender Equality” (SDG #5) or “Sustainable Cities and Communities” (SDG #11)?
  • Make it easy for the public to feel good about their choices. At a time when constraints are high, minimizing the trade-offs between affordability, accessibility, health, safety, sustainability and taste are critical. As one tactical example, invest in educational content that helps your audience prepare and enjoy meals with these many Food Values in mind. Other ideas for keeping sustainable diets relevant and meaningful during COVID-19 are available here.
  • Avoid letting nutrition and sustainability fall by the wayside. Even if not front-and-center in communications or budgets right now, it’s critical to continue measuring and improving your organization’s environmental footprint and product’s nutritional contributions, to whatever extent possible. Losing sight of these priorities in the short-term will surely have consequences in the long-term.

Interested in discussing how we can help bring these possible paths to life? We have dedicated experts in food, public health and sustainable food systems. We are in this together to build for resiliency – drop us a line at [email protected].

In the meantime, stay tuned for more and register here for our May 28 webinar. Next week, we’ll explore reality and reimagined possibility #2, focusing on how to transform gaps across the food system into nimble webs.

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