How do you teach (food) systems thinking?

What literature, materials, examples, frameworks, assignments, activities, etc. do you use to teach students about the importance of systems thinking and ways to apply it to food systems?

When do you find it most useful or relevant to introduce it and let students work with it?

At HAS University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands we usually refer to the HLPE framework or a related one by Van Berkum et al. (The food systems approach: sustainable solutions for a sufficient supply of healthy food). These both show food system activities along the supply chain, drivers and outcomes.

We also use the Systems Thinking Iceberg, based on Donella Meadows’ work on leverage points and let students map the interrelated causes at different levels for a specific ‘Event’ (e.g. iron deficiency in a target group) to paradigm level. Systems Thinking Resources - The Donella Meadows Project

In my experience, presenting these frameworks can really help students zoom out and make new connections between their specialisations and other topics and perspectives. Applying them to concrete and more familiar challenges (e.g. food waste) works quite well. At the same time, these conceptual approaches can also be confusing when we tell them “everything is connected!” and students can find it challenging to balance between zooming in and out and back again.

I’m curious to hear about your tips and experiences!


I’m especially interested to hear about experiences with students who are not so familiar with working with conceptual models: students at universities of applied sciences, students in their first years of university or with a more technical focus, etc.

Hi Heleen - I’m not really the right person to respond to your questions as I’m not an educator, but I still had a few thoughts:

I believe the IFSTAL programme set up by John Ingram and others deals with very similar questions as yours. Most of the students that join the programme come from a non-food background (whether in social sciences, natural sciences or humanities). @rosinaborrelli may want to add more :). If you’re interested in IFSTAL’s approach, this lecture might be worth watching:

I remember from when I was a student at WUR that we used to have interesting discussions based on the MLP framework by Geels et al. (figure 2 in this article). Their framework obviously doesn’t take a food systems approach and there’s much more to say about it I think, but I’ve always found it useful as a starting point for discussions about the socio-political aspects of how food systems (or other systems) change and fail to change.

Finally, a bit of self-promotion/TABLE promotion: we’ve lots of materials on our website that introduce food systems issues and that can help explain what it means to take a food systems perspective. See for example some of our explainers:


For those following the conversation, this IFSTAL publication isquite relevant, presenting a framework for food systems literacy