In Focus: Researching public private partnerships in food systems

Our 'In Focus' series sits down with people at the cutting edge of improving nutrition outcomes to understand their perspective, passions and latest projects. Today we talk with Jess Fanzo, a leading voice in research and policy for nutrition and food systems.
Tell us a little about yourself …

I am a Professor at Johns Hopkins, and my work is primarily at the interface agriculture, diets and climate. I work on and across a lot of really exciting projects to help bring data and understanding so decision-makers can better understand how food is impacting people’s lives, health and environment.


What got you interested in nutrition? 

I have always been interested in nutrition, and that is what all of my degrees are in. But when I started out it was a very clinical field and after my post-doc I realised I did not want to be a bench scientist, so I shifted towards public health policy which has allowed me to work with people (instead of test tubes). 


What do you work on, and how does it relate to public private engagement for nutrition? 

I work on policy and research issues, so on the public side, but working in food systems there is no way to not engage with the private sector. And engagement is a very broad term, and comes in many forms. For me it is probably limited to research, dialogue, discussion, attending meetings with private sector representatives – and I am open to these debates and dialogues, but I do have to be careful around when and how I engage. That said, to not consider how businesses impact diets is a disservice to nutrition – business is involved in every stage of the food system so it is inherently part of my work. 


What is exciting about your work? 

I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where, as a community, we have really set the groundwork for responsible public private engagement. I am really excited to see what happens next as we take these theories and rules of engagement and put them into practice. We will need to be willing to adapt and learn as we go, but it is time to take action – in a productive, thoughtful and ethical way.


What is challenging about it? 

The nature of nutrition and diets is fundamentally multisectoral, multi-causal and multipathway, so isolating very specific cause and effect can be a challenge. It is so much more complex than building a road or digging a well because it is connected to health, education, family, culture, gender, money, preference, etc. That complexity – and because food is so personal – can often create tension within the nutrition community (including academics, policymakers, NGOs, public health advocates). And this becomes even more complicated when you consider how to bring the impact of business into this space. As someone who sits in academia, I fully appreciate the challenge of navigating the grey areas of engagement. I have to be very careful about upholding ethics, especially when it comes to funding to avoid any potential conflicts of interest. But to make progress, the nutrition community needs to acknowledge that business is part of the equation whether we like it or not, and find a way to work with them without compromising public good or positive public health outcomes.



    What’s the latest news or a recent success?

    We recently published a discussion paper looking at public private partnerships (PPPs) in nutrition. We were able to pull together some helpful guidance for those looking to engage across sectors, and I think that assessing PPPs by looking at Motivation, Means and Success will be a very practical framing to help further responsible action in this space.


    What’s next? 

    We need more evidence of PPPs that work - evidence that has been generated through external, third party monitoring and evaluation. And as I mentioned before, we have established ground rules, theories and accountability mechanisms – it is time now for public sector nutrition partners to get comfortable with these rules so we can take action. To do this well, it will be important for third party brokers and evaluators to help establish, monitor, regulate and report on these partnerships and engagements.

    I am now really switching gears and will spend the next few years delving into some country field work in Asia. We are undertaking some case study work on sustainable and healthy food environments in the Mekong River and better understanding rural and peri-urban food insecurity deprivations in Nepal and Timor Leste. And of course, we are doing a bunch of pilot testing of the Food Systems Dashboard in countries.


    Has this work made you change your mind about anything?

    I do believe we need the private sector to make positive changes in the food system, but we need to be cautious about when and how to engage. Based on some of  our recent work (e.g. Food system PPPs), I think it is important to consider different types of engagement, and what lies behind the way in which companies communicate about themselves, as well as their activities and products. I think this work has also made me realise we need to be okay with failure. Not every partnership or initiative is going to work, but we have to try because that’s how we’ll learn and get better.


    If you had to have a slogan for this work, what would it be?

    If you want to partner in nutrition, proceed with caution!


    What is your favourite meal to share with friends or family?

    Spaghetti alle vongole! And clams are both healthy and sustainable. All washed down with a chilled prosecco.