Supporting Food Systems of the Future ‘With Humility and Open Hearts’ - SecondMuse

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    SecondMuse's Kristin Coates and Maria Balcazar Tellez discuss their work on the Food System Vision Prize





    In 2019, The Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with SecondMuse and OpenIDEO, launched the Food System Vision Prize (FSVP), an invitation for organizations across the globe to develop a “Vision” of a regenerative and nourishing food system they aspire to create by 2050. The effort grew from grim, research-backed discussions about what the world might look like in just 30 years if we remained on our current course. How might climate change damage the planet and its ability to produce food and sustain life? How might dwindling access to nourishing food impact health, exacerbate inequality and break down the social fabric of communities?

    Senior Director Kristin Coates, who oversees FSVP for SecondMuse, succinctly sums up the dystopian vision: “Think Blade Runner,” she says, referring to the 1982 cult sci-fi film set in a nightmarish future.

    Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President for Food at the Rockefeller Foundation and one of the key figures behind the FSVP, recognized that the work required to change course must begin in the present — and that work must begin with a vision.

    “If you can’t imagine a future, you can’t create it,” he said in an interview just ahead of the program’s launch. “We don’t have a lot of imagination of what a really good future would look like. We have global warming, automation, artificial intelligence, population growth — all of those things are real. But let’s say we made the right decisions: What would the food system actually look like? What would it take to support that vision?”

    Cue SecondMuse, which took on the task of program design under the direction of Kristin and FSVP Program Manager Maria Balcazar Tellez. The women and their colleagues spent months, in lockstep with the Rockefeller Foundation and OpenIDEO, researching and developing a program that has clearly resonated with people around the world: More than 1,300 organizations from six continents submitted proposals detailing their Vision for a nourishing and regenerative food system. Of those, the FSVP team invited 76 semi-finalists to participate in a 13-week “Refinement Phase” that ran through August.

    Ten finalists from that group are nearing the end of a three-month accelerator program, where they have been working with diverse mentors and collaborators to move from their Vision to action. These finalists include a team from Peru whose efforts to address inequities in the capital city were featured in one of the country’s leading newspapers. They include a team from India, which has been inviting groups across the country to imagine and share their own food system visions; and a team from Lagos, which is working on a collaborative film to draw attention to the city’s food access disparities.

    After the accelerator period ends in December, all 10 finalists will be eligible to be named “Top Visionaries” and receive a US$200,000 prize.

    Below, Maria and Kristin reflect on the program — from implementing it during a pandemic, to working with finalists who have left both women more inspired than ever about the future of food and the planet.

    What is SecondMuse’s role in the Food Systems Vision Prize?

    Kristin: Our role is designing, development, implementation and building community. We took a systems approach to designing the program, which began with us asking, what does a Vision look like when it is realized? We sought feedback on the program design by convening people with expertise [farmers, policy experts, business leaders, and researchers] as a part of two “Big Thinks,” one in Denver, Colorado and the other in Accra, Ghana. And we did research to uncover  what else is going on in terms of creating more positive food futures, and what has successfully led from ideation to action. Then we designed a program that integrates all this information but is also very compelling, and grassroots.

    Maria: Using that “systems thinking” approach, we identified core components of the program, which included inviting teams to consider key factors that influence food systems and put their community at the front and center as they developed their Visions. Throughout the program our guiding star has always been: How do we support these communities become the protagonists of their own future?

    Kristin: In the last phase of the program, we put together the 15-week accelerator to help the finalist teams advance their Visions. At a high level, that includes helping them identify the stakeholders they need to engage. It includes storytelling and sharing their Visions for the future, and working with them on a 3-year plan to take them from idea to action.

    Maria: Practically what that looks like is working with the teams one-on-one to bring their Vision to life. Helping them address the questions: What is the food future our community wants for 2050? How do we take the first steps to bring this Vision to life? How do we step into implementation? They started as thinkers envisioning a more nourishing and regenerative future. Now they are taking their first baby steps to implementation. It also involves connecting them with global partners and stakeholders to help the teams become protagonists of their own food future. We step into this work with humility and open hearts, knowing they are the experts of their food systems and that we are here to provide resources and guidance at this early stage.

    How does FSVP define a “regenerative and nourishing food system”? 

    Kristin: A decade ago we talked about “sustainable food systems.” But we now know that we can’t just sustain. We’re currently faced with drought, toxins in our soil and air, really gnarly food system challenges. So if we simply “sustain,” there will be a lot of people left behind on a suffering planet.

    Maria: A regenerative food system means a million different things because we have a million different food systems. For us to say that there is a single system is a massive oversimplification. But region by region, regenerative systems are those in which growing, harvesting, producing and consuming food is in balance with the larger ecosystem: So everything from animal production to the way we get rid of byproducts and food waste. The driving question is: Do all the pieces of the food system puzzle support one another?

    “Nourishing” is the human aspect of it. It has to do with culture, health, and equity. We currently have a huge imbalance where nourishing food is only accessible to some, while unhealthy and massively processed foods are available to most. A regenerative and nourishing food system ensures that delicious, nourishing, and culturally relevant food is accessible to all.

    Teams from more than 110 countries applied. How did you select the Semi-finalists and then narrow that down to the 10 Finalists?

    Maria: Our decisions were based on three foundational elements: First, we identified Visions that were “systems visions” — compelling and beautiful depictions of the future across six critical areas: environment, diets, economics, culture, technology, and policy.

    To make it more bite-sized and action-oriented, we looked for Visions that reimagined regional food systems in a tangible way. We wanted to feel, taste, and see that food future while reviewing their application.

    Finally, we looked for Visions informed and co-created with their community — a Vision that engages all the stakeholders in their region and community to bring this vision to life. We weren’t looking to support a single company or entrepreneur, but actually a diverse team with partnerships across their community.

    What sort of progress have you observed in the Accelerator?

    Kristin: We are halfway through the accelerator now and I am deeply encouraged by what I see happening. This is a time when people are digging into very hard questions. I’m working with one team that is grappling with the question of how to meaningfully invite voices of historically marginalized groups into their Vision of a regenerative food future. How do they go beyond surface level interviewing and really have them become integral to the Vision over the next 30 years? I feel super inspired by  the way the Accelerator is allowing people to have deeper conversations and surface ideas for positive change.

    I’m also inspired because the people behind these Visions are not getting stuck in despair and just leapfrogging ahead. As a society, we talk a lot. But FSVP is allowing us to show people and not just tell people what is possible.

    Has your work with FSVP changed your outlook on the future of food systems?

    Maria: I continue day-by-day to be super inspired by the teams themselves. I think 2020 and the COVID pandemic have been a huge invitation for all of us to consider, identify, and reflect on where our food comes from and what impact our food systems have on this planet and our communities. And at least for me, this year has been an invitation to recognize how fragmented and brittle our food systems are  —  how they put members of some communities at huge disadvantages. In working with these fantastic teams I get to see their commitment to bring forth a better and more nourishing future. This is at the core of why I do this work and love engaging with these teams; we must recognize that access to healthy, nourishing, delicious and culturally relevant food is a human right.