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Liberal-Arts Solutions to Global Food Problems

by Jane Battersby

There is no doubt that food and nutrition insecurity is one of the most pressing global challenges. However, while some progress has been made, the solutions proposed have generally been piecemeal and have, in many instances, had significant negative externalities. As a Fulbright scholar-in-residence at Dickinson College associated with the food studies program, I have been reflecting on the potential value of a liberal-arts education in moving these solutions forward.

For the last few months, I have been a part of the team of researchers working on the soon-to-be-released 2018 Global Nutrition Report. In it, we have collated and interpreted existing data on malnutrition and its impacts. Globally, nearly one quarter of children under five are stunted (meaning that they are too short for their age), and 20 million babies are born underweight. At the same time, 36 percent of adults are overweight or obese. Malnutrition and diet-related noncommunicable diseases are the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. The Global Nutrition Report argues that malnutrition is a “ticking time-bomb as a health, social and economic issue, holding back the achievement of the sustainable development goals.” Although progress is being made in some areas, malnutrition remains stubbornly high, and in many parts of the world it is increasing. New approaches to the challenge are required.

To this end, I have also been working with various U.N. agencies and other global development groups to develop urban food governance programs and guidelines. One of the points I have been trying to make is that approaches to address food and nutrition security have been too driven by simplistic, technical solutions to what are inherently intensely complex, systemic problems. I have been arguing that it is essential to validate new forms of data and the lived experience of the food system into policies and programming. We are attempting to do this in six cities in three African countries through our Nourishing Spaces project.

If the challenge of food and nutrition insecurity at the local, national or global scale is to be addressed, it will require committed individuals working as researchers, community activists, policymakers and others who are able to grapple with the complex meanings of food and the drivers of food choice and food systems change. It will require individuals who are able to critically engage data, policy documents and media. It will require individuals who can work as comfortably with the science of sustainability as with the cultural significance of food and place current food system issues in their wider historical and geographical contexts. It will require individuals who are able to combine academic knowledge with practical experience. In short, it will require precisely the kind of students being produced at Dickinson College through the food studies certificate and the college’s wider curriculum.

Jane Battersby, Ph.D., was a recent Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Dickinson College. She is the principal investigator of the Nourishing Spaces project at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

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Published January 28, 2019