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The Ten: Kirsty McFadden

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Name and job title

Kirsty McFadden, Head of Creative, UN World Food Programme

Where were you born, and where do you live now?

Tauranga, New Zealand. Now I live in London, with frequent travel (Outside of COVID!) to Rome, where my work is headquartered, and programme locations primarily across the Middle East and Sub Saharan Africa.

How you describe what you do?

I’m a humanitarian, storyteller, and Head of Creative at the UN World Food Programme, the largest humanitarian agency in the world providing food assistance and improving food security. I lead a team of incredible creatives across the world and collectively we deliver content and creative to engage strategic audiences to support the advocacy and fundraising objectives of the organization.

How much did you spend on your last cup of coffee?

£2.80 in London - my last Rome coffee was 70c!

What is one ingredient that is crucial to you?

This is a tough one…. My work life is so distinct from my personal life. The one ingredient that crosses both: peanut butter. I take a small jar with me when I'm traveling because it can make the blandest bread anywhere in the world palatable and more filling. Coincidentally, a form of peanut paste is also the main therapeutic food given to children suffering from malnourishment!

What does a culinary system mean to you?

Food systems to me are about so much more than the supply of food – they’re a critical part of development and poverty alleviation, as well as the empowerment of women and girls.

We produce enough food in the world to feed everyone but last year, 1 in every 10 people globally were affected by severe levels of food insecurity, so it’s clear that many of our food systems are unequally structured, broken or aren’t functioning in the way that they should. Over the past 6 years chronic hunger and undernutrition has been on the rise, and acute hunger (the most extreme form of hunger) increased by 70% in a similar period – and women and girls are always overrepresented in these statistics. There are a few key reasons for these increases – conflict and climate change are significant drivers – but also poor food storage and transportation cause significant disruptions to the most vulnerable food systems.

And then you add in COVID-19. The pandemic is having a dramatic impact on both global and national markets, compounding the existing issues with food systems. COVID is changing the face of hunger with relatively stable urban communities that had previously escaped severe levels of food insecurity being dragged into destitution – in Latin America for example that number has increased by a shocking 269%. In the next few months, the World Food Programme is going to have to raise enough funds to support an additional 38 million people who are being pushed to the brink because of the economic fallout.

While we in the UK may have felt the brunt of temporary food shortages as lockdown hit – for many of us, probably the first time ever that we’ve faced the prospect of food scarcity – it is of course the most vulnerable who have and will continue to feel the impact of the worlds fragile food systems.

How does your immediate locale affect your work.

I’ve spent the last ten years of my career traveling extensively and frequently and this is the longest I’ve been in one location in all of that time!!

With lockdown, it's been difficult for my team to do our jobs and access our programmes, and therefore the people we work with, because of border closures/ lockdown rules. I think this is a new normal though… and I’m doing a lot of thinking about how to completely overhaul the way we work to capture and tell stories.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I’ve always tried to take a collaborative approach to my work and the storytelling that I do, so a lot of my inspiration comes directly from the people who gracefully share their stories with me and my team. I’m here to amplify their voices, that’s my role. I’m interested in doing this in a variety of ways and I look a lot to the art world for inspiration. There are so many conceptual artists telling stories in a fresh and engaging way that cross mediums and channels…. It’s a bit more difficult to persuade a traditional UN agency to try similar concepts though, but we’re getting there!

What impact do you want to have?

I find this a hard question to answer. I work in a sector where my impact is all about the collective goals of the organization but I guess the personal impact I want to have is around changing the way and the kind of story we tell about hunger and the people experiencing it. I’m working to put in place collaborative, ethical story content processes, and championing young and emerging creative talent outside of the global north, and this is as important to me as raising the funds we need to deliver our programmes.

What change do you want to see in culinary systems?

With everything that is happening with COVID-19, the change I want to see is around supporting communities, and low and middle income countries, to keep food systems functioning.

Famines typically stem not from lack of food but from hyperinflation in markets or breakdowns in supply chains that make it impossible to get food to certain places, and this pandemic has disrupted supply chains of food both inside countries and between nations. While we don’t see immediate indications of famine from the pandemic, we’re extremely concerned. 30 million people are already on the brink of starvation and if WFP is unable to reach them because of broken food systems, we fear the worst.

At a time when countries and governments are withdrawing in, quite naturally to protect their own citizens, we need to strengthen food systems and offer support to those countries experiencing the most dramatic economic fallout of this pandemic. If we don’t, we can expect increased unrest, a rise in migration, deepening conflict, and widespread malnutrition that will impact families and communities for years to come.

"This is an image from one of our last airdrops in South Sudan before COVID started closing borders"

We ask all our interviewees to send us two photos: one of themselves and one that represents their work.

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