No set menu to feed cities’ growing appetite

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Belo Horizonte in Brazil and Ede in the Netherlands may not have much in common at first sight, but both have become leaders in trying to tackle a growing challenge for the world’s cities – providing a reliable supply of nutritious food to residents.

In Belo Horizonte, hunger and poverty prompted the mayor in 1993 to declare a citizens’ right to food and kick-start an action plan to ensure the poor got fed – a campaign that won it worldwide acclaim as “the city that ended hunger”.

Ede’s food policy, adopted more than 20 years later, aims to create better opportunities for farmers and make residents healthier, said Leon Meijer from the city, the Netherlands’ first local councillor in charge of food. “We chose to have our own food policy because food isn’t just about production – it’s about food security, public health and people reconnecting with what they eat,” said Meijer.

Rich and poor countries alike are tasked with creating sustainable and inclusive cities by 2030 under global development goals agreed in 2015 – and sorting out how cities are fed is a crucial part of that challenge, experts say.

Almost 800 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), while about 30 percent of the world’s population are overweight, a paradox nowhere more visible than in cities.

As two-thirds of the global population are forecast to live in cities by 2050 compared with about half now, urban planners and policymakers are increasingly looking to agriculture in towns and cities as a solution to provide nutritious food.

Land used for farming in cities and the areas around them equals the size of the European Union, a recent study said, while others estimate some 800 million urban farmers provide up to 20 percent of the world’s food. Unlike imported produce, food from city farms and gardens does not need to travel far, reducing production costs, waste and fuel use.

Having your food come from sources close by is also crucial if supply is disrupted by civil unrest or extreme weather in the rural areas that still supply most of the world’s food. “Food is not just a local issue, and to become more sustainable we need to look beyond our own boundaries,” Ede’s Meijer told the “Resilient Cities” conference in Bonn this month.

Ede, located in what is known as “Food Valley” for its high concentration of food companies and research institutes, has shaped a policy that addresses health-related food issues, fosters links between urban and rural areas, and boosts food education for children.

It also aims to stimulate innovative food research and start-ups by working closely with businesses in the region.

In January, Ede was one of 12 Dutch cities to sign the Urban Agenda on Food, along with three national ministries and Gelderland province – where it is located – with the aim of strengthening the Netherlands’ food system.

Belo Horizonte, meanwhile, is focusing on healthy nutrition and the inclusion of family farmers into a localised and sustainable food system for its 2.5 million residents.

It has created farmers’ markets, now a common sight in many cities worldwide, to enable direct sales at affordable prices for the poor, and it regularly surveys and publishes market prices.

It has also implemented a national policy stipulating that 30 percent of food consumed in places like schools and hospitals must come from family farmers.

Yet despite the benefits of urban farming, simply boosting the numbers of city farmers will not guarantee that cities can feed everyone or protect their food supply, experts say.

“Local agricultural production has to be part of a diverse food system to become a reliable secure food source for growing urban populations,” Pay Drechsel of the International Water Management Institute in Colombo told the Bonn conference.

Migration from rural areas to fast-growing cities in the developing world adds more complexity as an increasing number of people living in informal settlements and slums turn to urban farming, studies have shown.

City planners face many other challenges due to the labyrinth of formal and informal food markets, and often lack a clear jurisdiction or mandate to manage food systems.

Another barrier is that policymakers tend to divide people into rural or urban, a classification that ignores the many links between the two, including flows of people, goods, money and services.

“Food systems have to be part of a sustainable city plan that creates regional linkages because food is so connected to other critical issues, like health and social cohesion,” said Tori Okner, a food expert at ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, a network of 1,500 cities, towns and regions.

This may mean planning to provide more and better land for urban farming, promoting shorter food supply chains and creating space for local people to take part in decision-making about their food supply, Okner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To tackle these issues, cities are joining forces by building networks to foster connections with rural areas as well as regional and national governments, and businesses.

In 2015, Giuliano Pisapia, then mayor of Milan, put food on the agenda when he rallied more than 100 of his peers – from cities in rich and poor nations – to sign the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact.

The pact pledges to adopt policies that support equitable access to healthy food, fight nutrition-related non-communicable diseases, reduce waste and develop dietary guidelines.

“Urban food systems need to be strengthened by linking cities closer together and boosting their cooperation regionally and nationally,” Guido Santini, coordinator of the FAO’s Food for the Cities programme, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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