European Cities Pave the Way for Healthy, Fair and Sustainable Food Systems

13 May 2021


Slow Food is a proud partner of the Food Trails project, a four-year initiative that will enable the design of pilot activities in 11 European cities in order to help them co-create urban food policy. The goal is to empower communities, promote a zero-waste use of resources, promote environmentally friendly behavior change and ensure people have healthy and secure diets.

The sustainability of food systems at all levels is one of the European Union’s top priorities for this decade, and it has taken the first steps towards making European food systems sustainable, healthy and fair, by adopting the EU Farm to Fork Strategy. But what role has been assigned to cities in this process, and how can they contribute to the EU’s nutritional, climate and social targets?

To answer these questions, the Food Trails project hosted representatives from partner European cities and European institutions for a set of breakfast dialogues.

Ensuring equal access to good food

“In the last decades, the gap between urban and rural citizens has widened. Supermarkets can sell farmers’ products but the most important is for citizens to see the farmers in the city. On this point, the Farm to Fork Strategy will be a critical tool”, highlighted Herbert Dorfmann, MEP for the Italian region of South Tyrol and rapporteur for the Farm to Fork Strategy, at the April 27 session. Re-establishing a link between rural producers and urban consumers is indeed central to achieving the EU’s climate ambitions.

Yet, the past year has made this pledge particularly difficult to fulfill: the COVID-19 pandemic sideswiped the global system with a devastating impact on food equality. So, cities that had established strong relationships with actors from the whole food chain, adapted better to the new circumstances.

Anna Scavuzzo, Deputy Mayor at the City of Milan, presented her city’s collaboration with networks such as Eurocities and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact to ensure that people had access to food, be it through food basket distribution, food vouchers, financial aid, etc. “The pandemic was a shock: we couldn’t have imagined there’d be such desperation. We tried to make sure that even poor people could afford and access good food, and we managed to overcome the lockdown. This is what can happen when a food policy starts to take shape”.

Improving food environments

Equally as important as a fair food system is a healthy one. The city of Birmingham knows this issue firsthand – the UK’s second city has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country, with 41% of children being overweight by the time they finish primary school, and with 60% of adults being overweight or obese.

In addition to its work in schools, the city has taken measures to limit the growth of fast-food chains, to ensure that healthy food choices are easier to make, and to empower businesses to invest in a healthier food economy. “It’s about changing the food environment, without pressuring and blaming consumers” explained Paulette Hamilton, Councillor and Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care at Birmingham City Council, on May 5.

The fight against advertising of unhealthy or unsustainable food is also on the European Commission’s radar, which will be unveiling a Code of Conduct for Responsible Business and Marketing Practices in the coming months. “It will encourage the food industry to commit to increasing the availability of healthy and nutritious food”, promised Alexandra Nikolakopoulou, Head of Unit at DG Sante. Additionally, the Commission’s proposal for a mandatory, harmonized front-of-pack nutritional label should be out in 2022, with the aim to help consumers shop for healthy food.

Sustainability via public procurement

One city that knows the importance of promoting healthy practices is Copenhagen. The city’s food strategy aims to ensure nutritious and sustainable food from the earliest age, through its advanced public procurement strategy.

In the third debate on May 6, Franciska Rosenkilde, Copenhagen’s Mayor of Culture and Leisure, presented the city’s goal of having 90% of organic school meals. This is part of the city’s wider strategy to cut food emissions by 25% within five years and achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 – a strategy where food plays a key role. “Healthy bodies, healthy earth, healthy climate,” said Rosenkilde. “They are all interlinked.”

Copenhagen’s impressive strategy has been 20 years in the making at no extra cost for the city in terms of procurement. It focuses on shortening supply chains by creating links with local famers and opting for seasonal food. This brings healthy, organic food into people’s lives via school meals, “but challenges remain to drive real behavioral change”, concluded Rosenkilde.

Gijs Schilthuis, Head of Unit at EU’s Directorate-General for Agriculture, added that the European Commission is happy to be working with many cities on food projects funded by its flagship research and development fund, Horizon2020 and highlighted how cities are the grassroots of food policy development, and it is important to link the developments at the different levels.

Food Trails will spend the next four years helping cities across Europe to build their own food policies in cooperation with citizens and to implement pilot projects that will have a profound impact on the food systems.

Couldn’t attend the breakfast dialogues? Watch the replay

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