Relationships in food systems: 2017 IFSTAL Summer School

Guest blog by Gavin Wren, one of the participants at the 2017 IFSTAL Summer School. Gavin Wren is a food photographer and food blogger at Le Petit Oeuf whilst studying Food Policy MSc at City, University of London. His interests in food systems are focussed around social, cultural and personal factors that impact upon our food choices.  

Mid-afternoon on Friday 7th July 2017, I sat on a train bound for London Euston, gawping at the Warwickshire countryside churning past the window, my brain whirling around my head as though it had been belted into a fairground waltzer for the week.

Sitting in this trance-like state, I realised my brain’s boundaries and contents had been stretched in more directions than I believed possible in such a short space of time. Basically, I felt alive.

Six days previously, I was sitting on a fresh lawn in the sun, against the backdrop of a BBQ, chatting to a group of strange but friendly people who had spookily similar interests to me; food, and the study of it. It’s rare to land in a group of people who all seem to ‘get it’.

This, of course, was the IFSTAL summer school, a chance to engage in lectures, workshops, group studies, role plays, industry visits, talks with key industry members and more, whilst meeting a load of postgraduate students from various disciplines who share this unabating interest in food’s role in the world.

Professor Ray Ison began the week by unfolding a key understanding about what is meant by a system. Regardless of whether they’re for food or not, a system is built upon relationships. It’s defined by the relationship between the various parts. This simple piece of knowledge swept aside my ingrained thinking of systems in terms of outcomes or objectives, allowing space to focus on the interactions and relationships.

During the week, we were assigned to groups and partnered with a professional organisation or charity who tasked us with a question to research and answer. I found this group work the most engaging and thought provoking activity, allowing space for broad and deep research of both the question and the answer.

Led by the Food Ethics Council, my group faced the challenge of reconciling the shift from a consumer to a citizen mindset, wrapped up in a drive for sustainability. At first we pulled the question to pieces and I found myself questioning consumerism, citizenship plus the many and diverse definitions of sustainability alongside the counter arguments to these positions. The meaning of life, choice, freewill and capitalism was called into question on more than one occasion.

However, through thoughtful interaction, challenges, confrontations, research and a few torn flip chart sheets, the group managed to herd the disparate strands of philosophical ambiguity into what felt like a cohesive, rational argument, which brought an answer into view.

Upon reflection, I loved how the dynamics of the team slowly filled the blank spaces. These spaces were on the whiteboard, in our ideas, the theory, research, or simply in the conversation when I thought we’d all run dry. Someone was always able to dive in and bridge that gap, ensuring that our thinking kept moving forwards. Occasionally it felt like we were going round in circles, but just like the corkscrew on a waterslide, we were still going forwards.

Finally, a cohesive, logical and most importantly, understandable solution emerged. From the nebulous concepts that had kicked off our research, my group came together on Friday and presented our thoughts on the barriers to acting as a citizen in front of the other IFSTAL participants and Anna Cura from the Food Ethics Council.

Our multi-disciplinary backgrounds, along with a willingness to engage and challenge each other’s conception of the question allowed us to identify the barriers to a citizen mindset. Almost without realising, we transformed the idea of citizenship into a collection of relationships, which – as Ray Ison showed us – is the foundation of a system.

How relationships engage us as food citizens in society is of vital importance, as Frances Moore Lappé says, ‘hunger is a crisis of human relationships’. One of the fundamental benefits of participating in IFSTAL is developing academic and professional relationships across disciplines and institutions. When combined with the group work and lectures on relationships, it left me pondering the question of whether these relationships, be they personal, professional or theoretical, are actually one of the most profound tools we have to help unpick our understanding of life.

And on that note, I’m going to lay down and have a rest! Thanks to everyone at IFSTAL for organising a great week and to all the other participants for simply being awesome people.

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