IFSTAL 20/21 launches online

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With diverse backgrounds and a common interest in the food system, more than 180 participants from around the world attended the online launch of the IFSTAL teaching programme 2020/21 on 22 October 2020.

The webinar – Food systems in crisis: the need for transformation – shed light on the importance of having a shared vision and the broad skills to make positive change in the food system.

Launched in 2015 and available to students from five participating institutions, IFSTAL is a free-to-access teaching programme brings together postgraduate students from a wide range of disciplines, giving them skills and knowledge that complement their studies. Systems thinking, theory of change and communication skills are all on the IFSTAL curriculum and seen as essential to bringing about much needed change in our current food system.

Welcoming the virtual audience, Dr John Ingram, IFSTAL Programme Leader, remarked how the event had attracted interest from far and wide. Registrations for this year’s launch included students of everything from Anthropology of Food to Zoology, many of whom are based around the world.

IFSTAL Lead Academic Dr Barbara Haesler of the Royal Veterinary College opened the talks with a look at how COVID-19 has brought food system weaknesses into sharp focus. She then introduced the guest speakers, whose presentations further highlighted key issues including food insecurity, malnutrition and environmental impact.

Positive action

First up was Rebecca Tobi, Project Manager at the Food Foundation. A registered associate nutritionist and IFSTAL alum, Rebecca highlighted the work of the Food Foundation, which has a mission to change food policy and business practice in order to give everyone access to a healthy and affordable diet. Much of Rebecca’s own work centres around the Peas Please project, which unites actors from across the food system, including farmers, retailers, the hospitality sector and government to make it easier for everyone to eat vegetables. With systems thinking at the core of this initiative, Rebecca shared the Peas Please theory of change.

At community level positive work is happening to change the food system, as the next speaker, Sonja Woodcock of Foodwise Leeds, showed. In an uplifting presentation, she highlighted how Foodwise Leeds, a city-wide campaign managed by Leeds Food Partnership, is addressing health inequality while supporting and promoting good local food. The #TogetherLeeds project is an example of how Leeds’ communities have been supported during the COVID-19 crisis. The creation of 27 food hubs and two cultural food hubs as well as foodbanks, soup kitchens and other ways have ensured that the most vulnerable members of the community have enough to eat.

Resilience strategies

Jimmy Woodrow is the Acting Executive Director of the Pasture Fed Life Association (PFLA) where he is leading organisation’s ten-year strategy. He is a former student of the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford, which is also home to the IFSTAL co-ordination team. In his presentation, which centred around resilience, he reflected that he would have loved to have benefitted from the IFSTAL programme as a student.

According to Jimmy, the IFSTAL objectives of working collaboratively, building capacity within systems and viewing a system holistically are essential to building resilience. He gave examples of how some food industry businesses decisions do not encourage the type of ‘elasticity’ that can help food system organisations adapt to changes. He also cited positive examples in food businesses and initiatives where collaboration, community involvement and fresh commercial strategies are boosting the resilience of the food system.

Transferable skills

Before the Q&A, former IFSTAL student Kathy Wabnitz shared her experiences of the programme. After training as a medical doctor in Germany, Kathy came to the UK to study Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She encouraged the audience to get involved in the programme, citing the value of the transferable skills, networking opportunities and new perspectives that IFSTAL provided.

Closing the webinar, IFSTAL Academic Lead Prof Rosemary Collier of the University of Warwick reminded students at participating institutions to sign up via their Education Coordinators as application for Workshop 1 opens shortly.

With many students already signed up to Unit 1, it looks like the next cohort of food systems thinkers are already in the making.

Watch the launch event

Image: Ole Witt | Unsplash