Food for thought: securing sustainable food systems in the 21st Century

Campus: Exeter

It’s Monday morning 10:00am… Grand Challenges time! But what does this actually mean for the Food for Thought Challenge group?

On the very first morning of Grand Challenges, the Food for Thought students gathered together and were introduced to the 3 specific enquiry groups: My Community, My Food, and My World. They listened to inspiring talks from experts such as Michael Winter and Andrew Butler, while there were also pitches by local food related organisations, about how food creates community, how our eating behaviour is affected by the food environment and vice versa, and how exactly the world is fed. These talks informed the students about the various challenges faced at each of these levels. More importantly, they invited and encouraged students to think about challenge questions! At the end of the day, the students were allocated to their theme groups (based on community, eating behaviour and global impact) and brainstormed questions, project ideas, and potential outputs that would display their findings (e.g., websites, YouTube cookery courses, apps, and campaigns). Each student noted a question they were specifically interested in answering, an idea of how they’d wish to answer it (e.g., survey, interviews, etc), and a specific skill they might be able to bring to the table in developing the output (e.g., video editing). Students with similar interests were then matched up to form work groups that worked on their respective projects for the remainder of the week.

After this first day of inspiration and brainstorming, the start of the second day really signalled the whirlwind of activity. This is when students narrowed down their Challenge Questions and fully developed the methods to answer their questions. The day was broken up by a Lunch Choice Challenge and students were asked to find the most sustainable and healthy lunch for £5 from various outlets on campus. This proved to be a hit, with one student saying: “I really enjoyed the food challenge in which we were given five pounds towards the most sustainable meal we could find.” Fuelled and rested, some students were ready to get started on their data collection in the afternoon. Some groups created surveys to share on social media whilst others conducted interviews with members of the community and business owners. It was this data that informed the direction of their final outputs.

The amount of work that students put in, and the creativity that was sparked by the fact that they only had a few days to get their project and output done, was invigorating! Due to the flexibility of the Grand Challenges programme, students were able to choose issues and questions that they were most passionate about and use that motivation to create an output exciting and relevant for others whilst making an impact in their chosen area. Over the second, third and fourth days of the project, the students completed the bulk of their work. This involved filming, creating posters, running public events and designing websites. A student commented on this: “The best things about Grand Challenges Week were interacting with the local community and directly impacting the environment we live in.” On the final day, the students presented their projects in groups before having their outputs displayed at the Grand Challenges Showcase, a large celebration in the Forum where all of the students from all of the themes came together for a friendly conference-style exhibition (and free drinks and canapes!).

Some of the Food for Thought Challenge outputs for 2017 include UniCorn, an app that aims to reduce food waste and lone meal times among students by matching students up with others who have similar tastes in food. It encourages cooking together and sharing of ingredients and meal times. Another output this year was produced by a group trying to increase healthy eating among the student population by creating an online cookery course. They used locally sourced produce in their recipe and filmed their cooking instructions in a typical halls of residence kitchen. Other outputs included posters, flyers, social media campaigns, and blogs. Reflecting on the week as a whole, a student commented saying: “I feel like I can apply to some bigger firms in my year in industry because I have more confidence that I have gained the building blocks of certain skills that will hopefully further my career.”

Enquiry groups

Enquiry groups are the subtopic of the challenge that you will focus on during the week:

Food is a global issue. The UK imports 40% of its food and that proportion is rising. Agriculture and land use change are responsible for one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, alongside serious impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. This enquiry group will investigate the implications of major patterns and trends in global food production. Topics could include the implications of Brexit for UK farming, the amount of land, energy and water required to feed a city like Exeter, the implications of new technologies like genetic modification, the costs and benefits of the international food trade, the role of different certification systems like FairTrade, and how to manage vulnerable resources like fisheries.

This enquiry group will consider the food choices people make and the implications these choices have for health and the environment. What should our priorities for dietary change be for improved health and sustainability and how can we encourage or persuade people to change? Students will look at what drives food choices at the individual and societal level including how factors such as age and socioeconomic status influence food choices and how our food environment primes us to make certain choices. Students will also consider how we could try to harness the power of marketing, product promotions and other environmental nudges to try and change people’s food choices for the better.

Food has the potential to powerfully connect people--with one another, with the places in which they live, and with their natural environments. The industrialisation of food has profoundly challenged these connections, however. This enquiry group will explore ways of reconnecting people with the processes through which their food is produced, as well as ways of using food to connect people to the environment and to other people. Students will look at the use of food in the development of regional economies and viable livelihoods. They will also learn about ways of using food to build community and support vulnerable people. Areas of focus may include: linkages between sustainable food production and tourism; food and social enterprise; or food and mental health.

I was really impressed with the evidence-base presented in students' talks and ideas – they did some serious data-gathering and number-crunching to arrive at some clear and useful suggestions for how various food issues could be tackled. They combined their numeracy, analytical and creative skills to develop engaging and useful ideas for real projects and campaigns that address important issues. These ranged from very local issues (e.g. addressing food waste or unhealthy food marketing on campus) to global challenges (e.g. what fish humans should eat). The diversity of topics the students chose to address and the high-quality outputs they created was inspiring.

Dr Natalia Lawrence, one of the academic leads for the challenge, reflects on 2016's students

Flickr gallery from Food for Thought 2017