Innovative Approaches Cities Can Use to Engage Farmers in Food System Decision-making Processes

20 Jun 2024

In our increasingly urbanized world – where over half the global population resides, and the number will rise up to 66% by 2050 according to the UN [1]  – cities face mounting challenges, many of them related to food. Our current food system is failing to deliver healthy and sustainable food to individuals and is contributing to problems like climate change, waste, and economic inequality. 

However, cities can be part of the answer to tackle some of these problems. Cities can design and implement food policies that empower their community, make the farm-to-fork journey sustainable, promote a zero-waste use of resources, and ensure people have healthy and sustainable diets. 

In fact, cities hold a great power to enhance the regeneration of our food system.  

However, for this urban transformation to be made possible, there is one point that cannot be overlooked: local communities and citizens must be involved in policy-making design, and co-create the policies that will affect them. 

The Food Trails project has used the “EU Food 2030 Strategy” as a guiding framework, particularly focusing on its four pillars. In addition to nutrition, circularity, and climate change, there is the “Innovation and empowering communities” pillar, which aims to ensure the involvement of communities in developing food strategies that meet their needs.

Brief explanation of the 'Innovation and empowering communities' pillar

When a city encourages inclusive policy-making processes and engages multiple stakeholders promotes innovation and empowers its communities. This collaborative approach – even though challenging at times – allows for the creation of a food system that brings mutual benefits to both the city and its residents.  

Some of the participatory processes that a Municipality can adopt are: involving all relevant stakeholders on a specific matter before taking action; encouraging the development of Food Policy Councils; actively involving vulnerable communities by identifying local leaders who can act as intermediaries and bridge the gap between the city and these communities; creating an open channel of communication with citizens and keep them updated on the ongoing projects; collaborate with organisations, academia, and external experts to integrate available knowledge and facilitate processes and negotiations.   

Farmers as a key community to foster food systems transformation

In embarking on the journey towards sustainable food systems cities cannot overlook a crucial community to ensure healthy, sustainable, and nutritious food for their citizens: farmers.  

Farmers, particularly small–scale farmers, are the backbone of our food production and are caught in a web of challenges – low profits, high risks, the looming impacts of climate change, and a chronic lack of recognition. Besides the challenges, they are very rarely part of the decision-making process, which leads to a lack of control on the policies that will directly affect their livelihoods.  

Hence, municipalities can serve as pivotal hubs for involving farmers in decision-making processes guaranteeing their voices are acknowledged. Some of the participatory methods, includes: 

  1. Engaging Farmers in Policy Dialogues: Actively involving farmers in policy discussions from the outset ensures that their perspectives and needs are considered. Farmers possess a wealth of knowledge and insights derived from firsthand experience, which can be invaluable in developing practical and effective policies
  2. Establishing Food Policy Councils (FPCs): FPCs serve as multi-stakeholder platforms that bring together representatives from government, civil society, businesses, and the farming community to discuss and develop food policy recommendations. These councils provide a space for farmers to voice their concerns, share their expertise, and contribute to shaping policies that reflect their realities.
  3. Facilitating Direct Connections between Farmers and Consumers: Promoting initiatives such as farmers’ markets that facilitate direct interaction between producers and consumers strengthens rural-urban linkages, improves market accessibility for farmers, and promotes transparency and fairness within the food system.
  4. Sustainable and Strategic Public Food Procurement: Public authorities play a crucial role in determining the source and nature of food purchases, as well as the menu options in public canteens. This influence extends to shaping the entire food supply chain. By prioritizing sourcing from small-scale farmers engaged in agroecological practices and considering factors beyond price, such as the healthiness and sustainability of products, public procurement can significantly impact the food system, driving transformative change. 

Examples of city-led initiatives that prioritise dialogue and collaboration with farmers, leading to more inclusive and effective food policy development and implementation

The ‘Qualità & Servizi’ (Quality & Services) Case history – Between legumes and local development

Qualità & Servizi is a municipal company based in the Florentine plain of Tuscany, specializing in the production and distribution of community meals, notably school catering. Following a poor ranking in a national assessment conducted by FoodInsider[2], there was a political initiative to overhaul the canteen model entirely. This led to the emergence of a new paradigm: transitioning from an industrial, price-centric approach to viewing canteens as catalysts for local development. 

This significant transformation started in 2017 with the initial step of engaging local producers. The Florentine municipalities offered fair prices for their products, establishing steady supply contracts with school canteens. For local authorities, fostering short supply chains was connected with promoting traditional local dishes, thus supporting the gastronomic heritage of the region. Additionally, local food producers and farmers actively participate in educational workshops with children, showing them the connection between students’ meals at school and their local area. 

The municipality started the procurement of fresh eggs, local olive oil, and legumes from a consortium in Lucca known for its exceptional biodiversity of legumes, notably the Slow Beans mixture comprising 14 types of legumes featured in school menus. Additionally, the flour used for bread production is sourced from a local company that transitioned a portion of its production to grow heirloom varieties, upon the municipality’s request. Consequently, the bread served in school canteens is made from heirloom wheat rather than conventional grain. 

Establishing a strong connection with the local territory was a primary objective of the company’s “new deal.” Through their involvement, local producers were empowered to organize and structure themselves to meet demand. Conversations with Qualità & Servizi often led to the transformation of conventional practices into organic cultivation and the cultivation of new ingredients for menus. This direct dialogue with local authorities has significantly influenced eco-friendly production, resulting in increased organic cultivation and the adoption of more sustainable crops like legumes, millet, and heirloom grains. 

Through political determination and direct engagement with farmers, Qualità & Servizi transformed a collective catering service into a social, environmental, and economic policy tool by creating good, healthy, sustainable, educational canteens closely connected to their local territories.

Conclusion

Cities have the potential to create a comprehensive food policy composed of different strategies that will ensure safe, healthy, sustainable, and nutritious food for their citizens. To ensure the efficacy and durability of these food strategies, the active participation of all pertinent stakeholders in the policymaking process is crucial. Among these stakeholders, farmers frequently remain neglected, therefore it is essential to involve farmers in policy discussions and decision-making procedures. Their inclusion will help to enhance the regeneration of our food system.  

This article was originally published on “Food Trails” website

Food Trails's Croscutting Managers​

Within the Food Trails Project, four vertical expert, the Crosscutting Managers, worked to support the 11 partner cities in the development of their living labs and pilot actions, ensuring they adopt a systemic approach. Each of them represent a pillars of the EU Food 2030 strategyClimate, Communities, Circularity and Nutrition. The CCM have been visiting all the 11 Food Trails cities multiple times to support and see the progress in systemic food system transformation.

The authors: Francisca Feiteira and Yael Pantzer are urban food policy officers at Slow Food Europe and Food Trails Crosscuttting managers of innovation and empowerment of communities.

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