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Inspiring Community-Led Concepts Advance to Semi-Finals in Food System Vision Prize


Seeking a bit of optimism, and even inspiration, in these challenging times? Take an hour or two and peruse some of the 79 semifinalist entries from around the globe for the Food System Vision Prize.

From Appalachia to Australia, the Salish Sea to the Galapagos Islands, entries from teams comprising farmers, doctors, researchers, non-profits, nutritionists and others offer a vision of what food systems could look like in 30 years. Each proposal envisions communities as key actors in shaping their food’s journey from soil to table.

“Our food system is both making us sick and destroying our planet,” says Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation. “It is the Number One cause of future morbidity and mortality, especially from chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And it’s the Number One cause of certain emissions that are threatening our climate. So we are very focused on building more nutritious and sustainable food systems at home and around the world.”

Visionary Food Systems Ideas from around the Globe

The Vision Prize, created by The Foundation in partnership with SecondMuse and OpenIDEO, aims to propel into action communities all across the world in cities or refugee camps, in the mountains or by the seaside. Visionaries were invited to describe what an ideal – but feasible – food system would look like in 2050, and between them, the Semi-Finalists represent every continent. The top 10 Visionaries will receive $200,000 each, for a combined total of $2 million.

“What we asked from the visionaries was to create a regenerative food system—one that will nourish all people, protect our environment and grow the global economy,” says Sara Farley, Managing Director, Integrated Operations for the Food Initiative Team at The Foundation.

Never have the exploration of these ideas seemed more pressing or crucial.

“This Covid-19 moment is revealing how the lack of resilience and buffers in our food system has left us utterly and completely vulnerable to shocks,” Farley says. “Backyard kitchen gardens are rare. Most people don’t have the skills to grow their own food. And we’ve created this appetite for processed foods. Emerging better after we’ve tackled Covid-19 entails harnessing the innovation, inspiration and ambition plentiful in communities globally to assure that our food systems enhance human and planetary health.”

Vegetables More Costly Than A Bottle of Soda

Adefolami Agunbiade, a public health physician in southwestern Nigeria’s Lagos State, leads a team that is among the Semi-Finalists. He is in a perfect position to see the impacts on his community of a diet heavy in processed food and low in nutrition.

Fridges fully stocked with Coca-Cola.

“A bottle of soda costs the equivalent of 30 cents, while fruits and vegetables cost $1.30 or $1.50. It’s cheaper to give your children soda,” he says. “I have seen families go for months without a single source of protein. I have witnessed children develop malnutrition and nutrient deficiency, which often leads them to underperform in schools.”

But adjusting the cost of nutritious food requires that farmers be given more efficient tools, and here Agunbiade also has personal insight, having worked on his grandfather’s farm as a child. “My grandfather slaved all his life as a low-income farmer,” he recalls. “I thought several times that the income didn’t justify the labor.”

He and his team, the Food Innovation Nervecenter, have identified six key food challenges for their region, from food waste to aging agrarians, and developed a multi-faceted plan to meet those challenges that he believes could transform life for both farmers and consumers along with his region’s relationship to food.

Food System Plan to Correct Past Wrongs

Correcting past wrongs is part of the thinking behind the food system plan envisioned for Treaty 4 Territory, which spans the southern part of Canada’s Prairie Provinces. “In the late 1800s, outsiders came into this territory and divided the entire region into square sections to create farms, imposing this grid structure on the landscape,” says team leader Paul Hanley, an award-winning environmental writer and researcher. “This biome is considered among the most altered in the world.”

Buffalo grazing in a field.

“The rights of the Indigenous people who lived here were completely disregarded. They were confined on reserves and their treaty rights were not respected,” Hanley continues.. “The agricultural system was set up to export virtually all the products from the land to Europe and other markets. This extractive economy is unsustainable and also unjust.”

Restoring the land closer to its natural patterns is part of his team’s plan, and it envisions that 40 percent of the land would be conserved or restored to native prairie and parkland, which can also be accessed to support Indigenous food sovereignty. On the remaining land, regenerative agricultural practices would focus on supplying local and regional markets. Exports would be reduced to levels that prevent land degradation.

Drone-Enabled Food Transport for Mountain Dwellers

Like the Treaty 4 Territory plan, a proposal for the Rwenzori Mountains abutting the town of Kasese, Uganda, is responsive to the needs created by the environment. “Mountain dwellers face a unique set of challenges,” says John Casillas of Global Rise. The Rwenzori Mountains are home to six of Africa’s tallest peaks and those who live there have no access to typical government services like water, electricity or sanitation.

Bucolic countryside.

Casillas’s team proposes drone-enabled food transport. Currently, farmers must walk many miles to sell their crops. Nearly 80 percent of the homes are led by women, so many carry a child as well on their food delivery runs. Under the plan developed by Casillas’ team, drones would pick up the produce, take it down the mountains to vendors to sell, and the farmers would receive automatic cash transfers.

One million Ugandans would benefit initially and the targeted population eventually would expand to another 4 to 5 million from the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. It would also focus on education so families learn the difference between feeling full and eating a balanced meal, as well as techniques that could improve farming output. Worldwide, 22 percent of children under age five are stunted, or show slowed growth due to malnutrition or repeated infection.[1] In the Kasese region, that figure is close to 50 percent, and must be reversed, Casillas says.

Addressing the Imbalance in Food Imports

In some ways, crisis is what a team from Puerto Rico says it expects. On the heels of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the Neuroplastic Routes of Splendor group believes strongly in the importance of being able to pivot to meet changing conditions and new challenges.

Cargo ships docked by land.

A key concern for the group is the imbalance in food imports, says Camille Collazo, the team leader and Executive Director of VisitRico, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy through agritourism experiences to achieve food sovereignty.

“In Puerto Rico, we import 85-90 percent of our food, and we are eating food that is killing us and making us sick. We cannot continue to take in venom,” Collazo says. Their goal is to support farmers and communities in order to address the imbalance. “We want to use technology to collect data from farmers and give them a voice. And then we want to shrink the space between the farmers and the people.”

Like many of the Semi-Finalists, The Foundation’s Sara Farley finds hope in this uncertain moment. “It is impossible to ignore what this shared human experience of global pandemic is teaching us all about systems,” Farley says. “We are deeply interconnected—whether or not we like it, or even understand it. This whole argument that we need to transform our food system? People might just get it now.”