Everybody needs to eat

14 March 2024

“A city that is serious about tackling climate issues should have a food policy,” says Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor for Climate Environment and Housing in Ghent.

This is a statement that the neighbouring city Leuven shares. “It’s a pity that food isn’t part of the EU Mission for Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities because food is part of climate,” adds David Dessers, Deputy Mayor of Agriculture and Consumption, Climate & Sustainability and Mobility in Leuven.

Leuven, one of the 100 EU Mission Cities, has committed to becoming climate neutral by 2030 and has chosen to work on a food strategy as part of its plan to help tackle emissions.

What makes a successful urban food policy?

Both Ghent and Leuven defend the need to develop a successful food policy. For Heyse, the main ingredients to one are “doing it together with local stakeholders of the whole food system and having a long-term vision”.

Such a policy should also be “intersectoral, considering all areas connected to the food system, and interdepartmental, making it the responsibility of multiple departments in the administration,” adds Dirk Van Gijseghem, Head of Division of Rural Development at the Flemish Land Agency, which has developed a guidebook for cities on how to create a local food policy.

To succeed, cities must set clear targets and monitor their progress, says Elisa Porreca, Food Policy Officer in Milan. Porreca also underlines the need to raise awareness among locals to understand what the city is doing and how to play a part in the food transformation.

Exemplary cities

Cities around Europe are adopting food policies or signing political commitments towards creating one. The 2023 ‘Comparative analysis of urban food policies’ developed under the EU-funded CleverFood project found that 76% of surveyed cities established a formal political commitment, appointing a local politician in charge of food policy; 54% have officially adopted an Urban Food Policy; 26 city administrations established Food Policy Units; and 25 municipalities allocated a specific food policy budget.

A city that is serious about tackling climate issues should have a food policy
— Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent

These policies establish a framework for cities to implement initiatives essential to a sustainable food system transformation. For example, Ghent’s food policy has helped the city respond to some farmers’ concerns about land shortage. The city has put a moratorium on the sale of 1,800 hectares of land owned by the municipality to use it for sustainable and local food production initiatives. Leuven has introduced a similar measure, allocating the equivalent of 45 football fields of land to sustainable agricultural projects submitted last year.

Ghent is one of the first cities to have started working on the protein shift, introducing Veggie Thursday in 2009. In the last six years, the city also recovered 3,800 tonnes of surplus food that it redistributed to lower income population through local organisations.

To shorten its supply chain, Leuven has become a shareholder of a business to business (B2B) online platform owned by farmers, putting them in direct contact with restaurants and supermarkets. The city is a facilitator and an enabler, while farmers and businesses run the show.

Barriers to more ambitions

Cities are trying to broaden the conversation around, and the scope of urban food policies
— Elisa Porreca, Food Policy Officer in Milan

“Cities are trying to broaden the conversation around, and the scope of urban food policies,” says Porreca. They are getting creative with their actions; however, they encounter barriers. “We could do more, so I’m glad to be here to discuss together how we can be more ambitious,” says Heyse, turning toward the other panellists of the session on ‘Local food strategies for food system transformation’ moderated by Eurocities, at the Open Food Conference, a three-day event hosted by the government of Flanders under the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Family photo of the session panelists
From left to right: Elisa Porreca, Pasquale Di Rubbo, Dirk Van Gijseghem, David Dessers, Tine Heyse, and Madeleine Coste.

Something that would help overcome barriers like the regional dimension of public procurement is the need for “more multilevel governance and to establish national dialogues that go in this direction,” stresses Porreca. Heyse adds that clear legal obligations for cities to adopt food policies, structural funding, and more coherent policies at all levels would also make a difference.

What’s already there at the European level?

the Green Deal is under pressure
— David Dessers, Deputy Mayor of Leuven

Pasquale Di Rubbo, Team Leader of the Unit on Policy Perspectives at the European Commission DG Agriculture and Rural Development, recognises that cities are at the forefront of food system transformation with their initiatives. He also reminds cities of the tools the Commission introduced and its commitment towards more fair and sustainable food systems. These range from initiatives under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and EU-funded projects, to the EU School Scheme, and platforms for discussion and cooperation like the European Innovation Partnerships and the European Commission Urban Agenda Food Partnership.

Cities recognise that the Commission has been an ally in bringing food policies to the European agenda and have appreciated the positive elements of the Farm to Fork Strategy. However, with the European elections around the corner, Dessers emphasises how “the Green Deal is under pressure” and asks the question: what model will we privilege?

which agri-food model do we want to pursue, a question which cities are uniquely placed to answer
— Madeleine Coste, Head of Food at Eurocities

“It is clear that cities’ expectations are very high for the next European work programme: more structural funding, policy coherence, and a seat at the decision-making table,” says Madeleine Coste, Head of Food at Eurocities. “We need to ask the difficult questions about which agri-food model do we want to pursue, a question which cities are uniquely placed to answer because, as Tine Heyse has put it, they have ‘their boots in the ground’.”

What’s the future of European food policy?

“Food will remain high on the EU agenda,” reassures Di Rubbo, and the Commission will continue to work towards fairer and more sustainable food systems while reconciling different views. “Our job is to create an enabling environment for a business model that is sustainable for the people and the planet,” says Di Rubbo. He also observes that Europe’s diversity of food system models is a richness, and the transition should consider that.

The Commission recognises the need for cities to cooperate with the member states as they decide which priorities to focus on and the need to capitalise on existing expertise and create a framework for member states to collaborate and exchange. A European Platform on the model of the Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste could be an option. “We see a need to advance in this area,” says Di Rubbo. He also recognises that food systems thinking is now well established at the EU level.

Di Rubbo also acknowledges that “there’s an expectation that the Commission addresses the need for balance between regional supply needs and the internal market when talking about procurement.” When asked if there are plans to institutionalise the practice of Food Councils, Di Rubbo explains that they are invaluable in feeding the discussion about food systems transformation. Still, there are no plans at the moment to institutionalise them. However, the Commission is open to discussing and receiving advice on how to best capitalise on existing knowledge and scale it up.

Food will remain high on the EU agenda
— Pasquale Di Rubbo, Team Leader at the European Commission, DG Agri

The conversation about food systems is complex, and at a time when farmers’ protests make the headlines, it also seems to concentrate more on the polarisation of interests and on wrongly opposing biodiversity to agriculture, suggesting a gain in one means a loss in the other. All relevant stakeholders need a comprehensive food policy that focuses on cooperation rather than competition to reshape food systems. The new European mandate will have the difficult task of continuing the Farm to Fork Strategy’s vision and involving all food system actors, including cities, to find solutions together.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer