Written by Sara Posa

“Addressing inequities within food systems is ultimately about addressing power imbalances: amplifying the voice of those excluded, and holding the powerful to account.”  Global Nutrition Report 2020

Among the major inequities in the food system is the accessibility and affordability of nutritious and healthy foods across the world. Currently, around 26% of the global population experiences moderate to severe levels of food insecurity and lacks regular access to nutritious and healthy food. Vegetables, fruits, and nuts that are high in essential nutrients are often less affordable, especially in developing countries. The latest report by the FAO on the state of global food security and nutrition estimates that healthy diets are unaffordable for more than 3 billion people across all regions of the world, making access to healthy diets a global problem.

COVID-19 has worsened the inaccessibility of healthy and sustainably produced food, both among rural and urban populations. Marginalized and vulnerable groups such as those in food-insecure regions, from low-income households, women and children, and refugees, are increasingly unable to access healthy foods during the pandemic. Quarantine measures have restricted access to local food markets and social schemes such as school meal programs, risking food and nutrition security across millions of households. According to nutrition experts, the accessibility of nutrient-rich perishable foods such as vegetables is more concerning than its availability in the short term. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) suggests that the price volatility of such fresh produce, in addition to disrupted supply chains and reduced incomes makes it difficult to access and afford nutritious foods during the pandemic.

With regard to (in)adequate access to food and poor health, the private sector has been perceived as both part of the problem and the solution. In terms of affordability, companies are expected to offer healthy and nutritious food at a competitive price and distribute it widely to reach all consumers, especially those who are vulnerable to malnutrition. The 2018 Global Access to Nutrition Index has shown that the number of companies conducting some type of accessibility and pricing analysis on what low-income populations are able and willing to pay has increased since 2016, but the evidence on the provision of incentives to buy healthy food is still very limited, especially in rural areas. Progress still needs to be made with regards to physical accessibility of healthy foods. The Food and Land Use Coalition has highlighted the importance of improving the monitoring and logistics systems to limit the impact of disruptions and increase the resilience of vulnerable communities.

Amid the pandemic, companies’ philanthropic responses to ensure access to food during the crisis has not gone unnoticed. Multiple food companies have made multimillion donations of hygiene and food products to charities and food banks. Concerns have been raised regarding the poor nutritional quality of the food donated by companies; snacks, soft drinks and other ultra-processed confectionary products have longer shelf lives and may provide comfort in tough times, but they are often unhealthy and targeted to children. Infant formula companies have also been under the spotlight for their aggressive breast-milk substitutes marketing strategies.

At the same time, many food multinationals have also demonstrated strong determination to mitigate the crisis alongside government efforts, by investing in workforce and consumers wellbeing. Monitoring the work of companies to make healthy foods accessible and affordable to all communities has become crucial, particularly during the pandemic. For instance, the Food Foundation is tracking the impact of the pandemic on the food system and monitoring for changes in food poverty and prices in the UK, and effects on supply chains. The Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) is currently developing a framework to identify action (and inaction) by global food and beverage manufactures, by adding a COVID-19 lens to ATNI’s existing assessment of companies.

With only five years until the 2025 global nutrition targets, the urgency for a food system transformation has never been greater. Leaders in the food industry need to step up their contributions to transform the system, as they play a paramount role in shaping opportunities and lowering barriers to attain healthy, nutritional and affordable food.  With the aim of holding the most influential companies to account, the World Benchmarking Alliance will assess leading food and agriculture companies on multiple topics across the environment, nutrition, and social inclusion dimensions where urgent private sector action is needed. The methodology framework, launched recently during the UN High-Level Political Forum, highlights the key dimensions where businesses can step up and contribute towards a resilient food system transformation. We invite stakeholders to join the conversation and to help us in the next stages of methodology development and engagement activities. For more information and contact details, please refer to: https://food.worldbenchmarkingalliance.org/