Cities have the power to directly improve what their citizens put on their plate. They should use it to make healthy and sustainable food the obvious and easy choice.
Every day, we make decisions about food: what food to pick, where to buy it, where to cook it and when, where and with whom to eat it. But unlike what we might think, we do not make these decisions entirely on our own or by chance. We are heavily influenced by our so-called “food environments”.
The concept of ”food environments” has gained momentum in recent years as it presents a novel perspective for food policies. It considers that people do not choose, buy, and prepare food in a vacuum, but according to the food environment they live in, may it be digital or physical. Our daily food choices are indeed shaped and constrained by a range of factors most of which are beyond our control, such as food prices, labelling, advertisements, and what foods are available in retail outlets.
This is no secret: the current food system is not making the healthy and sustainable food choice the easiest one. Yet the idea remains that consumers alone can change their eating behaviour for the better, provided they get the right information . Such approach puts all responsibility on consumers’ shoulders while failing to hold food industries and governments accountable for the food environments they shape.
Is it consumer A’s fault for buying frozen ultra processed food from the supermarket if they live in a neighbourhood with a lack of access to fresh affordable foods? Should we blame consumer B for craving a juicy industrial burger if they have already seen it advertised three times on their way to work? Surely not.
Connecting Consumers and Food Producers
According to the United Nations, 55% of the world’s population were living in urban areas in 2021 — and that figure is predicted to rise to 66% by 2050. Cities thus have a huge potential for direct impact on people’s diets and food habits. This is why Slow Food has partnered up with the Food Trails project whose main goal is to help 11 European cities develop sustainable urban food policies.
Read Food Trails Policy Brief
But the Slow Food network is also very active on the ground, developing bottom-up approaches that guarantee citizens’ empowerment in shaping food policies in the cities they live in.
“The best way for city governments to contribute to better food environments is to develop a comprehensive and ambitious food strategy to ensure all citizens have access to good, clean and fair food”, Jannie Vestergaard, from Slow Food in the Nordic countries, comments.
And for this to happen, our political leaders need to acknowledge the central role of food in our societies, and build effective policies to overcome the disconnection between food producers and urban consumers.
With this in mind, Kate Smith from Slow Food Birmingham together with John ,created the Birmingham Open Food Network in 2019, to operate a local food hub that connects producers with consumers, as if it were a virtual farm shop in the city. Via this platform, people can purchase their local and agroecological products directly from local producers through a user-friendly online platform. The producers bring those products into the city and deliver them to John’s community pub, 1000 Trades. A group of volunteers helps organise the different shopping bags, and in the evening, shoppers come pick them up and chat around a pint, before heading home.
“Industrialised food has become the norm to feed growing cities, which is resulting in dysfunctional food environments, but we can change this, if cities develop comprehensive and ambitious food policies, just like the Birmingham City Council is doing. Their food strategy is just about to be released in May 2023”, Kate explains .
This Local Food Hub enables people to buy their milk, cheese, eggs, bread, vegetables, and more, directly from local producers and enjoy community time while doing so.
This local food hub also helps reduce food waste since shoppers buy exactly what they need, while producers harvest the exact amount of fresh produce that is required. A model that profits all, including the environment.
Empowering Citizens to Shape Urban Food Policies
But connecting people with the food they eat is only one step on the path towards better food environments. Local governments should take it further by providing tools for citizens’ empowerment.
Many European cities are experimenting new ways of involving their citizenry in local food policy. The city of Ghent (Belgium) created a Food Policy Council back in 2012, including representatives from all relevant sectors: food producers , consumers, waste processors, , academics, etc. Across the channel, Glasgow (Scotland) established the Glasgow Food Policy Partnership (or ‘Good Food for All’) and around 80 people took part in the development process, representing different organisations and community groups in Glasgow. Up east, Wroclaw’s (Poland) Participatory Office initiated a project aimed at empowering local leaders, particularly focussing on disadvantaged districts. This included training in fundraising, engaging other citizens, and facilitating a network. Some of these local leaders have become central partners for the involvement of disadvantaged groups in local food policies.
More and more cities are joining the movement across Europe, finding ways to involve their citizens in the future of food they want.
From creating Food Policy Councils and setting up community gardens on urban wasteland, to providing cooking or farming trainings for citizens, there is no shortage of ideas to inspire a “bottom-up” local food movement. “These projects are a win-win for the city and its citizens. Plus, an ambitious public food procurement should be used as a strategic tool to promote health, environmental, socio-economic, animal welfare, and other food policy objectives via people’s plates”, Jannie Vestergaard says.
“Municipalities should understand and map what is already happening in the city and support those groups and projects that are already impactful with a bottom-up structure”, adds Kate Smith.
Putting Agroecological Farmers on Cities’ Stage
Without sustainable food producers, there is no possible transition to better food. This is why Slow Food’s local chapters work to support and promote agroecological producers and farmers to bring the food they produce closer to consumers.
Jannie Vestergaard, from Slow Food in the Nordic countries, told us the story of the “Grønt Marked” farmers market in Copenhagen, one of the winners of the Slow Food Denmark Awards – an annual competition that aims to award producers or organizations that are making a difference in the country’s food scene.. “The market is part of the World Farmers Market Coalition and takes place in three neighbourhoods on consecutive weeks during the summer. This allows people to purchase local and organic food without any intermediaries.”
Another example is “Madens Folkemøde”, an annual food rally taking place every year in Denmark, where several actors from the food system gather to discuss and debate. As a partner to the event, Slow Food Denmark launched a debate three years ago about regenerative farming, which is now leading to the establishment of a Slow Food community for regenerative farming. “This is a great example of how bottom-up approaches can lead to great results at the local level”, Jannie concludes.