Shifting Social Norms to Achieve Food System Transformation

May 22, 2021Climate & Environment, Perspectives

For almost any advocate of food system transformation – or climate activist, or health enthusiast – watching a loved one repeatedly fill their grocery cart with items they know are bad for them and the planet, can be painfully disheartening. That six pack of sugary soda sitting in the child seat section is the poster child for the American obesity epidemic and a featured antagonist in campaigns for clean oceans. Yet, it is also tangible evidence of how systemic inequities in our food system often leave those facing poverty or living in food deserts with limited other options. How can you expect to affect any meaningful, societal transformation of the food system when those who know its merits are either not willing or not able to make change?

                We often hear about the need to shift policy (e.g. enacting a sugar tax) in order to achieve food system transformation.[1] However, entrenched social norms – defined as patterns, standards ,or expectations of social behavior – often present significant barriers to enacting desired policy changes. Ultimately, we must remember that policy is not the goal itself, but rather, an effective means to incentivize all decisionmakers – from producers to consumers – to prioritize human and planetary health. For this reason, we must not forget about the power of norms to influence decisionmakers and achieve food system transformation by bypassing, influencing, or implementing policy.


Bypassing Policy. When asked about the psychology behind food consumption, Pat Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods, quipped that “people won’t even change their diets for their own personal health, much less for something much more abstract and distant like the health of the planet.”[2] So, he set a goal of creating a product better than meat, using science and the private sector to set a new norm in society that makes eating plant-based protein as commonplace as eating meat. By focusing on making plant-based protein preferable to meat, his vision isn’t reliant on meat quotas or other policy incentives to shift diets. If people change their preferences based on taste, policies are not needed.

                In fact, it is commonly through the private sector that we see shifting norms as an avenue to achieve food system goals. Within a decade, the expectation that consumers “vote with their fork” enabled organic food  purchases to double nationwide between 2010 and 2019.[3] The organic food movement has in part turned grocery shopping into a social expression of personal values, because if you don’t pick the organic apples, what will others think about the integrity of your commitment to the health of your family and the planet? When a shift in social norms creates perceived social pressure to engage in certain activities, policy is no longer needed to achieve the outcome.


Influencing Policy. Given the competitive market forces at play in the private sector, shifting norms by circumventing policy often leaves people behind. Despite the fact many people are aware of the “right” way to grow, prepare, or purchase food, they often don’t have the financial incentives or means to do so. (This is perhaps why we still have loved ones purchasing soda rather than organic apples.) Such issues of equity in the food system are best solved through policy change, and movements are a powerful example of how shifting social norms can bring about a shift in political priorities.

                Since the colonization of the Americas, the genocide, oppression, and marginalization of indigenous peoples has stripped them of their traditional food traditions and diets, making them one of the most prominent populations that lack access to the benefits of the “Americanized” food system (one in four are faced with food insecurity).[4] To reclaim food sovereignty, tribes have been able to achieve policy wins through organizing and advocacy work, coalition building, and legal procedure. Take for example the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, who has been able to secure removal of four of the six dams on the Klamath by 2024 to reclaim their ancestral waterways and reconnect with salmon – a staple in their diet.[5],[6]

                Indigenous food sovereignty movements have provided indigenous populations an avenue to create awareness, shift social norms, and bring about policy change.[7] Through movements, more and more people, who historically may not have been involved in food systems advocacy, become aware of the issues at hand, which in turn creates a new pattern (i.e. a social norm) for citizens and voters to be involved in advocating for change. Similar to the organic food movement, food sovereignty movements elevate values and create social expectations to express those values through action. In the organic food movement, that action is voting with your dollar. In the food sovereignty movement, that action is advocating for policy change, actively building coalitions for support, and showing up to vote on issues of importance . It is in this that we see the power of movements to not only bring policy change, but to do so in a way that engages stakeholders who have historically been left out of decision-making processes.


Implementing Policy. Finally, the need to understand and address social norms within a population is an overlooked aspect of effective policy implementation. Dr. Corinna Hawkes, a food policy expert, explains that if you merely design a policy increasing access to fruits and vegetables in schools, it is likely that students still will not eat them. “Because the problem wasn’t the lack of access, but the lack of exposure, and therefore they haven’t gotten used to liking them.”[8] Preferences not only for what foods to eat, but how to grow, prepare, and even dispose of foods are a product of ingrained norms and perceptions. Addressing these norms either within or alongside policy is critical for effective policy implementation.


While there are gaps in robust quantitative and qualitative data examining the relationship between social norms and food policy, current evidence suggests the relationship is powerful enough to merit significant attention in any food system transformation strategy. The food system is complex and contextual, and any attempts to improve it should understand the local and regional normative factors that present barriers or opportunities to achieving equitable human and planetary health outcomes. And who knows, maybe one day almost everyone will overlook routine soda purchases because society and policy have worked together to influence people to reach for a refreshing glass of water instead.


[1]Taxes on sugary drinks: Why do it?” WHO, 2017.

[2]Rethinking the technology of meat production: Q&A with Pat Brown,” Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment (2021).

[3]COVID-19 will shape organic industry in 2020 after banner year in 2019,” Organic Trade Association (2020)

[4]Combating Food Insecurity on Native American Reservations,” Partnership with Native Americans, Northern Plains Reservation Aid (2017)

[5] Montalvo, Melissa, “Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements are Taking Back Ancestral Land,” Civil Eats (2021)

[6] Purtell, Joe, “Another Hurdle Cleared, Klamath Dams Closer to Coming Downv,” Sierra (2021)

[7] Clark, J.K., Lowitt, K., Levkoe, C.Z. et al. “The power to convene: making sense of the power of food movement organizations in governance processes in the Global North.” Agric Hum Values 38, 175–191 (2021)

[8] Paulas, Rick, “Understanding How Food Policies Failed To Lower Obesity,”