The Right to Food

Right to Food Observatory from the School of Nutrition (Uruguay): The information should not only be used for papers but also to reach out to decision-makers and the population in general

Experts' corner - 21.02.2022

21February 2022, Montevideo/Rome - Although it always had an important role in the generation of data to feed legislative and policy processes, academia and research institutions play an increased role in informing actions that contribute to the realization of the right to adequate food.

Two professors from the Faculty of Nutrition of the University of the Republic of Uruguay tell us what the work of the observatories for the right to food is about and why research is key in the fight against hunger.

Alejandra Girona and Gabriela Fajardo are members of the Observatory from the School of Nutrition, which contributes to putting healthy diets at the top of the political agenda.


The fight against hunger taking place in the classrooms and offices of universities is a little–known reality to many people. Could you please explain why the Observatory was created and what is the work about?

Alejadra Girona y Gabriela Fajardo: In 2011, the Right to Food Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean (ODA-ALC, its Spanish acronym) was created, by a network of universities in the region. These ‘observatories’ generate studies and recommendations that can be useful in the processes of development, implementation and oversight of legislation and/or public policies applied at local, national or regional levels. The ODA-ALC has a Technical Secretariat, of which Uruguay forms part, to represent its members and coordinate the main activities, and receives technical and administrative support from the FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The University of the Republic has two Observatories: one depends on the Faculty of Law and one on the School of Nutrition (EN), joining the ODA-ALC in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Today, the Observatory from the School of Nutrition (ODA-EN) is made up of professors from different academic units, a general coordinator and a focal point. It does not have its own university budget, so actions rely, primarily, on funds from the University and other entities.

The main work of the ODA-EN focuses on research and evidence generation in relation to the right to food and the situation of food security and nutrition (FSN) of vulnerable groups, especially children, as well as women and men deprived of their freedom. In addition, the ODA-EN collaborates with branches of the State and the Parliamentary Front, and disseminates the work carried out by civil society organizations. Lastly, the ODA-EN is at the academic forefront in the field of food and nutrition, which helps put these issues on the public agenda.

The participation of civil society is crucial in the formulation and implementation of programs and laws for the realization of the right to food. In this sense, how should academia articulate with the other relevant actors, in order to influence decision-making and generate an effective dialogue?

AG y GF: The pandemic shows once again that the work between academia and civil society can provide effective solutions to serious problems, and especially make visible the food problems that Uruguayans face. We are convinced of the need to generate new forms of relationship between academia, the state and civil society, to produce knowledge and products according to the needs of all actors, especially those who are represented by civil society organizations.

This will happen if there are policies and strategies over different timeframes, able to generate spaces for meeting. Here academia plays a fundamental role as a facilitator of sustained dialogue, based on independently generated scientific evidence . In this way, the Observatory has created an initiative to annually recognize civil society entrepreneurship that aims to improve the nutrition of thousands of Uruguayans.

Academia should also take a position on the course of public policies. There is a misconception, at times, that the university is distanced from the real problems of the population; this, in our opinion is not entirely true. The ODA-EN has spoken out on front of pack labelling and has reiterated the importance of the population being better informed when selecting their food.

 

"There is a misconception, at times, that the university
is distanced from the real problems of the population"
 

Information and awareness raising are key to achieving the right to food. How can academic institutions contribute to the development and strengthening of the capacities of governments in line with their obligations? Likewise, how can academia sensitize individuals so that, for example, they know their rights and how to eat well?

AG y GF: Legal recognition of human rights alone is not enough to guarantee their effective observance and transform the reality in which millions of people in our region live. Monitoring and evaluation should be seen as spaces that provide valuable input at all stages of the public policy cycle. Thus, academia can contribute with government to the development of policies that have real effectiveness, for example, by generating scientific evidence that supports decision-making with an empirical basis.

"Legal recognition of human rights alone is not
enough to guarantee their effective observance"
 

In parallel, academia can contribute through one of the most important activities for the promotion of human rights - education. Actions linked to food must not only be associated with the evolution of other rights and the social and political context, but also allow for participation. We believe they should be based on the promotion of comprehensive human development and human dignity.

Finally, it is important to recall that changes are made by individuals. Well-informed citizens are needed, but also protective states that safeguard human existence. Equitable access to healthy food does not only depend on individual will and information to consumers, but on a set of elements linked to the root of the current food system, which should be revised. Hunger in Latin America is not primarily linked to unhealthy habits but to inequality and poverty. While, obesity and noncommunicable diseases largely depend on the contexts in which people are born and live.

More and more voices warn that food systems do not adequately feed humanity and call for the participation of all in achieving changes in this regard. Which role should right to food observatories play in transforming food systems? Specifically, how does the Uruguay Observatory contribute to promoting sustainable food systems?


AG y GF: The Observatories form part of academic networks made up of prestigious academics and researchers who generate sound information about food in a variety of fields. This information should not only be used for academic papers but also to reach out to decision-makers and the population in general. They don't make sense if we can't change lives, especially for those who are most in need. The second aspect is that transformation requires an interdisciplinary and holistic approach. All of the parts of the system are important.

The ODA-EN has generated a set of recommendations which are drawn from the UN Food Systems Summit. As these are based on the human rights-based approach, the key is how to ensure compliance with the right to food. If in the end, as a country, we do not achieve that healthy diets are acquired by the entire population, we will have failed.

"If in the end, as a country, we do not achieve
that healthy diets are acquired by the entire population,
we will have failed"
 

We believe there must be:

1- Greater political will to make food more inclusive, fair and equitable.

2- Operationalization, monitoring, evaluation and audit of the laws, rules or regulations, decrees.

3- Financial investment for research and the generation of evidence on food and human nutrition.

4- Participation of local actors. Public food policies have to be closer to the people, and even more so at this time of great challenges and injustices. Change should be developed also and especially by the communities.

4. Nutrition promotion and education about food and sustainable food systems that take advantage of local knowledge, attitudes and practices.

5. Better access of women to productive resources, and greater opportunities for earning income. We must listen to them, because they also know a lot about food.

The COVID-19 pandemic has skyrocketed the levels of hunger and malnutrition, especially for the most vulnerable groups. Given the magnitude and the rapid global spread of the virus, it has not always been easy for countries to make effective decisions on food security. What are the recommendations provided by the Observatory so that public policies deal appropriately with the impact of the crisis and respond to existing challenges?

AG y GF: The pandemic in our region laid bare the negative trends of recent years regarding FSN. In Uruguay, the food insecurity figures have behaved similarly to those pre-pandemic. Those who most experience food access problems are the poor households in our country. Poverty is concentrated in households with children and adolescents under 14 years, and these households are the ones who, added to changes in employment, especially the informal sector, have suffered the blows of not only a health crisis.

The measures implemented by the State were not enough to prevent many Uruguayans from having to rely on the solidarity of the rest of society to ensure their daily food. Incredibly, even though the pandemic is still ongoing, the spotlight is not on food.

It is time to think about policies and actions in the medium and long term in a holistic way: where are food policies heading in Uruguay?, who is leading them?, what is the roadmap?, how will the households in which boys and girls were born in times of COVID-19 be accompanied, and to what extent is their potential for growth affected?, how can the rise of overweight and obesity be prevented?, do we need more laws and food standards?, how will we deal with food problems arising from new crises? These are some of the questions that concern us and for which we are generating permanent dialogue in search of solutions. Change is urgent because 2030 is tomorrow.

About Alejandra Girona y Gabriela Fajardo, Observatory from the School of Nutrition

Alejandra Girona is Associate Professor of the School of Nutrition of the University of the Republic. Coordinator of the ODA-EN and member of the ODA-ALC Technical Secretariat

Gabriela Fajardo is Associate Professor of the University of the Republic and Focal Point of the ODA-EN.

The ODA-ALC is a multidisciplinary academic network which is supported by FAO, through the Hunger-Free Latin America and the Caribbean Initiative 2025 (IALCSH), as well as the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation for Development (AECID).

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