Cities ‘taking matters into their own hands’ to fix food system, report states

The report said that an inclusive process as the policy moves forward — involving communities, civil society and actors from across the food system — is what matters most, helping to align policies with needs and creating a broad support base to help with implementation.©iStock/lighight

Urban cities are emerging as frontrunners in driving food policy forward, according to a report, taking on a governmental role in finding innovative ways to address today’s global food system challenges.

The report, from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), highlights that food policy is no longer the domain of national governments alone.

With 54% of the world’s population living in urban areas in 2016, cities have moved to develop and deliver urban food policies in the last two decades to tackle climate change, combat the obesity epidemic and build infrastructure and resilience.

"Cities are taking matters into their own hands to try to fix the food system," said lead co-author professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London.

"Hundreds of cities around the world are taking concerted policy action — whether it be to ensure access to decent, nutritious food for all, to support farm livelihoods or to mitigate climate change."

The report, entitled ‘What makes urban food policy happen? Insights from five case studies,’ details the approaches five cities across the world have developed and implemented urban food policies.

Food industry involvement

In Europe, The Amsterdam Approach to Healthy Weight did not view childhood obesity as just a public health matter with all governmental departments including public health, education, public spaces and physical planning asked to address the structural causes of overweight and obesity.

As well as a national approach favouring healthy, voluntary commitments by food companies on healthy food and advertising, local governments are also responsible for devising, implementing and funding public health policies tailored to local issues and circumstances.

The approach also extends towards involving community groups, religious organisations and citizens in the ‘neighbourhood-based’ pillar of the initiative.

Here, public meetings are held to aid individuals and community groups change practices and policies to promote healthier eating and exercise.

The initiative also features private sector involvement with a partnership formed with Albert Heijn, the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands.

In commenting on the often-controversial involvement of the food industry in affecting change and deciding policy the report said that the programme “avoids engaging private firms that pay lip service to public health without fundamentally changing practices.”

Private sector influence also feature in another case study ‘Belo Horizonte's approach to food security.’

As well as being programme partners, food industry members of the country’s Food Supply and Food Security board (FOMASA), advise the Municipal Secretariat for Food and Nutrition Security (SMASAN).

“The role of the private sector is often contentious,” the report commented. “Especially so for large-scale industrial producers and suppliers.

“In Belo Horizonte, SMASAN has a long history of partnership with small businesses and family farms, but the creation of FOMASA sparked concerns that excessive private sector influence could dilute the policy’s core values.”

Closer to home, the report goes on to mention the Bristol Food Policy Council in the UK, which aims to improve resilience of the city’s food system by reducing the food industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“The food industry can help in reducing the environmental impact by taking a circular economy approach,” said Dr Jess Halliday, co-author of the report. “They’re really embedded in this territory.”

“For me, one of the fundamental questions is ‘To what extent should the food industry be involved?’ given that there is such a different frame of understanding around sustainability and the range of conflicting views.  There is also the issue of power over the food supply chain.”

No ‘cut and paste’ approach 

Other case studies featured describe Canadian collaborations between local governments within a city region, and other organisations with interests in the food and farming economy.

The report also profiles the US city of Detroit as they attempt to negotiate over State-level legislative frameworks to have the authority to regulate and support urban farming, a burgeoning activity in the city.

According to the report, these case studies had a number of common factors or 'enablers' that allows policy to progress.

These enablers include background and baseline research that supports design of urban food policies to address challenges. These policies must be relevant to the needs of intended users, and are effective and achievable.

Other enablers include impact monitoring and data collection throughout implementation to enable gradual improvements to policy and evidence of effect to help secure political commitment.

“It’s important to remember that every city exists within its own context,” said Dr Halliday.

“It has its own powers and responsibilities handed down to them at the national level along with different social, economic and geographical factors.”

“We would never say there was a ‘cut and paste’ approach to all cities, but we did find some very strong factors that recurred no matter whether the city was located in the global north or global south.”

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