Meet Corinna Hawkes, Distinguished Fellow
Corinna Hawkes is Professor of Food Policy and Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University of London, Vice Chair of the London Child Obesity Taskforce established by the Mayor of London, and serves on a variety of international initiatives. Between 2015-18 she was Co-Chair of the Independent Expert Group of the Global Nutrition Report, which tracks progress on addressing malnutrition in all its forms.
You wanted to be a politician when you were younger and your PhD in geography focused on environmental change, so how did you end up working in food policy research?
After my PhD, I wanted to do something more people-focused. I went to Los Angeles for a few months after I got married, and I discovered the wonderful local farmers’ markets. Not only that, but I found there was a movement of people actively engaged in trying to improve the food on their plates. I’d grown up with a progressive mother passionate about good food, a love of cooking myself and a long-standing interest in the science of food (I idolised my great-grandfather, who had won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the discovery of vitamins). All of this came together in my mind, and I realised I had found my passion and resolved to do something about it.
What keeps you motivated?
For me, food is something to be relished and enjoyed; it’s part of our social fabric. However, millions of children around the world live in poverty and consume dull, monotonous diets. Others enjoy eating (too many) sugary, fatty and salty foods – but then they get sick. I believe the world would be a better place if everyone gained health and happiness from eating well. It’s a tough nut to crack, though, and I often contemplate how little we have moved in that direction. I am driven by wanting to find out how to design actions that will really make a difference to people’s lives and change how they eat for the better. If we fail, we learn, and then we try again.
On a personal note another intrinsic motivation was my mother, who died when I was 18. When I was discovering food, I realised how deeply I was affected by the fact her beliefs about the importance of good food were never listened to. She cut an isolated figure, for example, when she complained about the food in my schools. As a result, I am constantly motivated by wanting to give her the voice she never had. That’s pretty motivating.
What does the latest Global Nutrition Report tell us?
The Global Nutrition Report 2018 focuses a lot on diets. It’s a pretty dismal picture. Globally, the proportion of babies who are exclusively breastfed up to 6 months of age is 41%, and sales of infant formula are growing rapidly. Regardless of wealth, school-aged children, adolescents and adults are eating too many refined grains and sugary foods and drinks, and not enough foods that promote health, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. For example, 30.3% of school-aged children do not eat any fruit daily, yet 43.7% consume soda every day. Meanwhile, analysis of over 23,000 packaged food products shows that 69% are of relatively poor nutrient quality, with the proportion higher in lower income than high-income countries.
These are diabolical findings and show that food policies need to do so much more. They must be effectively designed to ensure the system that produces our food is incentivised in the right way and that people have support to eat well.
That said, there is some good news; more and more countries are requiring front-of-pack nutrition labelling, legislating on sugary drink taxes, and taking actions to reduce trans fats and salt. And, crucially, these actions are proving effective.
You advise a range of policymakers on diet-related ill health, at city, national and international levels. Which level do you feel is most important in terms of impact?
To be honest, all of them; they’re all interconnected. At the city level, I’m really enjoying my work as Vice Chair of the Mayor of London’s Child Obesity Taskforce, which brings me closer to the people affected by the problem, as well as to those decision-makers who can make a difference. The work I do with policymakers at the national level feels more top down, but is fundamentally important because it’s where the national direction is set, as well as decisions about population-wide policy applicable to all citizens.
Then the international – and global – level is important for two main reasons. First, we need frameworks, political statements and technical guidance at a global level where there are issues relevant to the whole world. This was one of my objectives in establishing the NOURISHING Framework for policies for healthy diets, when I was working at World Cancer Research Fund International. Second, engaging at the international level is a means of inspiring and sharing lessons. For example, I am excited by the various city networks that have been established around food and health.
What do you think are the biggest challenges policymakers face in addressing rising levels of obesity?
The biggest challenge is that the policies designed to address obesity come up against two pretty major conflicts: our current economic model, and the reality of people’s lives.
Our prevailing economic model creates incentives that contribute to obesity. All food companies, no matter their size, compete with each other to attract custom. These competitive dynamics are at the heart of the problem and create a lock-in, preventing crucial change.
These dynamics would not be so powerful if it weren’t for the reality of so many people’s lives. What’s the use of supplying delicious, nutritious foods if people cannot afford them? Or if they lack the spaces to cook, or the skills to do so? People then develop unhealthy habits and preferences that keep them locked in.
What food policy research or data is most urgently needed?
If we are going to shift the needle on diets, there are four areas we really need more work on. First, we need to identify policies that can help create healthier food economies and healthier business models. Second, we need to understand people’s lived experience of food in a way that can help us design people-centred solutions that work. Third, we need to test these solutions in cities, to see if they are effective and equitable. And finally, we need to ensure policies are consistent and coherent throughout the food system in supporting these changes.
For me, all this comes together in urban food environments. When I started working very proactively in food systems, I realised that changing how people encounter the food system – which is where we shop and acquire food in stores, restaurants, schools, urban gardens etc. - is potentially a very powerful lever for change.
Taking a people-centred approach to urban food provisioning (where people acquire food in an urban setting) means understanding how people live their lives and their feelings around food, identifying the viable business models that cater to this and then figuring out if we have policy frameworks that incentivise change in a consistent way. I am interested in exploring this much more proactively, from the local to the global.
What would you be doing if you hadn’t moved into food policy?
If I were to be doing something other than food policy, I’d have set up a bookshop with my husband, with a little café attached where I’d take on the role of cook and business partner. I know what a tough job that would have been, though!