“There can be no food revolution without cities, so give us a role,” said Alvaro Porro, Commissioner of Social Economy, Local Development and Food Policy in Barcelona. He addressed European Commission representatives during last week’s event, ‘Bringing urban food policy to the table.’ For the first time, around said table, eleven deputy mayors from European cities and eight cabinet members and policy officers from the European Commission discussed what cities are doing on food policies and how they can contribute to the upcoming proposal for a Sustainable Food Systems Framework law.
“We know that many of you are working on bold initiatives to change the EU food system, with Farm to Fork, Food 2030 and the upcoming Sustainable Food System framework law,” said Anna Scavuzzo, Vice-Mayor for Food Policy and Education in Milan. “We ask to keep cities involved and consider our approach as we lead the change in many fields.”
Why a role for cities
As Porro’s slogan summarised, the main message from local authorities to the EU is simple: they want a clear role in the new framework. If some cities have already worked on urban food policies for years and tested different solutions, they find themselves limited in competencies and resources.
When Lukas Visek, Cabinet of Executive Vice-President Timmermans, recognised that cities have an indirect impact through urban planning, city representatives were ready to agree but also to contain expectations. For example, Tine Heyse, Executive City Councillor for Environment, Climate and Housing in Ghent, said that their attempts to limit the proliferation of places selling unhealthy food in their city through urban planning were unsuccessful because a definition of such places doesn’t exist.
Another example of the limited action of cities is public procurement. Municipalities like Guimaraes rely on big enterprises to supply school lunches because of the price. “We can’t choose based on the carbon footprint even though transporting food is the biggest cause for our footprint,” said Adelina Pinto, Vice-Mayor for Education, Health, and Housing, and Responsible for the European Green Capital Candidacy of Guimaraes.
Yet, Scavuzzo explains that public procurement is crucial, especially to impact food production and shift diets. So, cities welcome the intention to set minimum procurement criteria at the EU level, especially since the Commission recognises the need for a progressive introduction and adaptation to local circumstances and national contexts.
However, which criteria and how to measure them are still under discussion. Here’s where experiences such as Vienna, Guimaraes, Bordeaux Metropole and Grenoble Metropole can inform decisions. Commission representatives invited local authorities to share their data to be included in the impact assessment of the framework before it ends.
Such data is also crucial when it comes to food waste, an issue where cities like Milan, Warsaw and Ostend have found ways to combine multiple benefits. For example, they redistribute food surplus to food banks, low-income households, and refugees.
Commission representatives agreed that cities play an important role in the food transition. Alexandra Nikolakopoulou, Head of Unit for the Farm to Fork unit for Food Safety, Sustainability, and Innovation at the European Commission’s DG SANTE, pointed out that the upcoming proposal will provide a frame for multi-level cooperation.
However, as Porro insisted, accompanied by many nodding heads, “there should be clear and binding provisions for member states to consult with local authorities when developing their national strategies. It should not be optional, or we know that some states won’t consult us.”
All hands on deck
A food system is like a knot of many coloured threads held by different hands. To resolve it, all hands need to work together to loosen it, and none can tug too hard on its end, or it will just tighten more. That’s why cities need to work with all levels of governance and all food industry stakeholders – from producers to distributors to consumers.
An example is local food councils, where cities engage and co-create food policies with all actors in the food journey. Some cities build additional partnerships to reach out to marginalised groups. It’s the case of Birmingham that, thanks to collaborations with social organisations, has involved LGBT+ groups, migrant communities, ethnic minorities, neurodiverse people etc. “We can’t just impose our initiatives,” said Mariam Khan, City Councillor, Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care in Birmingham. “We need to involve people and ensure our solutions are inclusive.”
If involving all stakeholders is crucial for food policies, opportunities for cities to exchange challenges and solutions can help them fast-forward their process. Thessaloniki, for example, went from not having food on its radar to creating the first food council in Greece thanks to the discussions and support from other Food Trails project partners and is now ready to lead the way for other Greek cities.
In addition to projects, networks like the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP), the Eurocities Working Group on Food or the Green Cities Initiative by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) can have a valuable role in sharing knowledge. “FAO supports exchanges between cities and peer-to-peer learning,” said Maurizio Martina, Deputy General Director of FAO.
Martina also stressed the importance of applying a cross-sectoral approach when developing policies as food systems connect problems related to agriculture, the climate, the environment, health, education and social issues. “Many cities across Europe are seeing the added value of developing integrated food policies which support them to reach their environment and climate objectives and link to their social and economic development policies,” added André Sobczak, Eurocities Secretary General.
Similarly, Joke Schauvliege, Member of the Regional Assembly, Flemish Parliament and Committee of the Regions (CoR) Rapporteur for the Legislative Framework for Sustainable Food Systems, highlights how the multi-stakeholder platform on sustainable food systems involving the CoR and other stakeholders will facilitate the transition towards more sustainable food systems in Europe. “Cities and regions have a key role in shaping food environments and ensuring sustainable and healthy food are easy and affordable options for people,” said Schauvliege.
Put the money where your mouth is
If cities wish the EU to recognise their clear role in the food transition, they also observe a lack of resources. For Thom Achterbosch, from the Wageningen University and Research, an option is to combine public with private investment. “Private investors are interested in impact,” says Achterbosch, “therefore it’s important to run impact assessments of your projects.” This is something the city partners of Food Trails have done well.
Warsaw’s experience goes in this direction as the city bases its approach on the data it has collected. For example, Warsaw mapped the food flow to identify where there was food waste in the case of restaurateurs and to find bottlenecks in food distribution from the food bank.
In Thessaloniki, the private sector is responsible for almost all the food produced, sold and consumed. So when the city launched its first food policy council, thanks to the Food Trails project, it included associations, NGOs and businesses working actively on sustainable production, consumption and urban agriculture as ways to achieve climate neutrality. Ostend’s collaboration with the private sector resulted in healthier meals for care home residents, joining food and social issues.
Even if cities get creative to find resources, they also stress the importance of receiving external funding. “Ostend could not do it without EU support and funds. Europe stimulates us to be innovative,” said Silke Beirens, Deputy Mayor for Food, Agriculture, Environment & Climate in Ostend. “Outside funding allowed us to take the risk of going wrong,” added Karolina Zdrodowska, Head Director for Entrepreneurship and Public Dialogue in Warsaw.
Until now, local technicians have worked and exchanged their experiences on food policies. They have learned from each other, and they have brought what they learned to the technicians at the EU level. This advocacy work made projects like Food Trails and Cleverfood possible, giving cities more resources and opportunities to test and exchange. “Now it’s the perfect time to bring the conversation even further,” concluded Andrea Magarini, Food Policy Director in Milan, referring to the potential of having a say in the framework proposal scheduled to be published by September 2023.
This article is part of the #EUFoodCities campaign. In a time where political ambitions for a common food policy in the EU are shaking, cities want to be loud and reiterate their critical role in food systems transformation advocating for ambitious EU legislation under the Farm to Fork Strategy.