Workshop 1 – Food Systems: Big Issues and Challenges

The first IFSTAL workshop of the term and academic year kicked off on the 1st of November at Warwick University and the 2nd of November at Oxford, London and Reading. This workshop focused on understanding and applying the ‘Rich Picture Method’ to a complex food system, often used as a pre-analysis phase. Food systems can be dynamic and have multiple interactions where drivers and actors can shape and pressurise who produces and eats what, when, why and how. We need to understand the complexities surrounding a particular food system before we can look at changing it. Therefore, if we want to understand the dynamics of the total food system, we need to map all actors and drivers, their activities and feedbacks, not just some.

A couple of examples of rich picture diagrams

 By working in multidisciplinary teams and drawing out a messy situation, we can capture far more detail than if we were to just write it down in prose and/or alone. Working alone and writing an account of what we think is happening, we would have a string of linear sentences describing the situation in a particular way. However, by drawing a picture-map with input from multiple perspectives, we are better able to identify different parts of the story and how they interact. The Rich Picture is a useful tool for capturing a wealth of information, necessary before we attempt to find solutions and apply thinking frameworks that inevitably paste over some of this complexity. Rich pictures done collaboratively can also be used to surface opinions, attitudes and emotions that are typically suppressed or ignored in other methods. By using the Rich Picture in a group setting you can capture in real time the issues that you talked about, and which were important to the people present around the table. Everyone has an equal voice during the process and every contribution gets included, even conflicting ones.

At each of the IFSTAL sites, student groups chose a pizza ingredient to investigate, and mapped out a Rich Picture about the institutions, actors, activities and feedbacks involved. With this, they were then able to tease out, discuss and compare potential points of intervention for either improved health or social, environmental, and economic sustainability. The multidisciplinary nature of the groups facilitated knowledge-sharing and aided a more holistic analysis of the problems and challenges within this system. This approach was useful for identifying and overcoming disciplinary biases, exposing tensions and exploring potential solutions to the difficult aim of finding a balance of global health, sustainability and livelihoods.

This is what some of our students had to say about the workshops:

I thought the first workshop was a fun and casual way in which to introduce the major problems facing the food chain today. The use of the big picture method exercise was an interesting methodology. Due to its subjective and individual nature, it is its own greatest strength and weakness at the same time. Doing it in a mixed group of disciplines was beneficial, as people were able to contribute knowledge from their respective fields as well as learn from others. At times it was a little challenging as disciplines sometimes clashed over the interpretation of the same issues. Overall it was a very interesting first workshop and I am looking forward to the next.

Josselin Canevet (MSc Research for International Development, SOAS)

The first IFSTAL workshop at City University was more than an introduction to the food system. It was also the first step to actively working in a multi-disciplinary team. Creating a Rich Picture was a mind broadening exercise. To look beyond one’s own discipline and identify key issues in sustainability and health around a simple pizza was challenging. I am looking forward to discussing possible solutions, learning from others and applying new skills in workshops to come.

Heike Rolker (MSc Nutrition for Global Health, LSHTM)

“Our real discoveries come from chaos.” Just as Palahniuk’s quote, using images and drawings in a non-linear manner help us to depict connections, drivers and stressors about the food system in a much broader perspective than if we used a traditional method.

Isadora Ferreira (MSc Environmental Change and Management, Oxford)


In the next workshop, we’ll look at a way of structuring our thinking in a more systemic manner. If you’re a student at one of the consortium institutions and haven’t come to one of our workshops, sign up to the next one! They’re a great way to meet and socialise with other students, and learn a bit about systems in the process!

Log in to the Portal to find out more about the online units and the upcoming workshops at your local institution. If you have any questions contact your local Education Coordinator or post in our online forum.

Blog by Lauren Blake, IFSTAL Education Coordinator, LCIRAH.

Link to Unit 1: Introduction to the Food System (log-in required).

See the outline schedule of all IFSTAL events.

See more photos from Workshop 1 on our Facebook page.

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