Preventing food crises through collaboration

24 May 2024

“The crisis started in 2024 when the supply of soy from Brazil and palm oil from Indonesia stopped. I never thought I would struggle to find meat, fish, and other basic groceries for me and my kids in Germany!” This fictional scenario shared in a video by Christopher Hegadorn, Food Crisis Expert at SciencePo Paris illustrated how “crises are coming faster and stronger, and they all have an impact on food systems.”

He presented the work done with ‘Food Alert: stress testing the EU food system’, a crisis simulation workshop where 60 participants from academia, experts, NGOs, and different government levels were invited to ‘play’ crises managers in scenarios such as the above.

Crises are coming faster and stronger, and they all have an impact on food systems.
— Christopher Hegadorn

Stressing the food system to be better prepared

While working on their fictional scenarios, participants in the workshop also got a taste of how a crisis could start. Outside the doors of their building in Brussels, farmers were protesting and three days later the supermarket shelves were empty.

So, while we already use stress testing in many sectors, like banking and critical infrastructure, it is high time that we do the same with food systems, explained Hegadorn. After all, “we’re all in the same boat,” he added, “the food system is connected”. That’s why it is crucial to test what happens when there’s a shock to the world’s agricultural production and exports, due to extreme climate events or to geopolitical tensions, understand the impacts and how to be ready, not only from a theoretical point of view, but also practically.

The initiative produced a report including 12 policy recommendations that will help cities and other stakeholders put their contingency plans in place. “Get your plans in place and exercise them,” invited Hegadorn. “Choose your priorities and be innovative. Innovation includes policy and the work you do. It’s about thinking differently how to tackle challenges.”

Innovation includes policy and the work you do. It’s about thinking differently how to tackle challenges.
— Christopher Hegadorn

Building relationships to collaborate in crises

Hegadorn believes that “cities are where the action is,” that’s why he saw a specific interest in presenting his work in front of the Eurocities Working Group Food members, as well as members of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and partners of the Food Trails project meeting in Warsaw.

Family picture of all participants to the event
Food Trails partners, Eurocities Working Group food members and Milan Urban Food Policy Pact signatories meeting in Warsaw.

“An experience like the ‘Food Alert’ helped us be better prepared for the future,” said Andrea Magarini, Director of Milan’s Food Policy Department who participated in the experiment. In fact, Milan already recently “faced five crises that started from external factors,” said Magarini. “These impacted our city as a whole and our food services.” For example, two years ago, Milan’s food supply was impacted by extreme droughts, last year storms disrupted the city and resulted in around 4,000 trees falling down and disrupting the supply of food to the city, while only two days ago, one of the city’s cooking centres had to be moved due to flooding.

Luckily, the experience during the Covid pandemic had already changed the way the city tackled emergencies and these are now addressed in a collaborative and efficient way. “Before Covid, the civic department was responsible for managing and coordinating emergencies,” recounts Magarini. However, during the pandemic, limited resources and the spread of the crises resulted in all local departments being involved in coming up with solutions. “We shared information, resources, knowledge and infrastructure. It was powerful and useful,” added Magarini.

Since Covid, the city has introduced a one-hour call in case of emergency where all departments are involved. Each department assesses its own situation, discusses challenges and needs during the specific emergency and all colleagues find solutions together. “We have learned to work together and find solutions rapidly in crisis,” said Magarini.

In this sense the work that Milan started in 2014 to develop their food policy was precious as it nurtured relationships with all stakeholders in the food system and within the administration. From yearly thematic gatherings to stakeholders engaged with conversations that are relevant to them, to symbolic actions, such as involving them in the Earthshot Prize 2021 ceremony, Milan has and continues to put a lot of effort in cultivating their network.

We shared information, resources, knowledge and infrastructure. It was powerful and useful.
— Andrea Magarini

How setting up food hubs teaches a city to be effective in a crisis

The resources Milan invested in developing their food policy since 2014 also resulted in a network of permanent food hubs that are compact yet can receive important quantities of food donations that are collected and distributed within 24-48 hours. An efficient system that also allows the city to have good results in terms of the redistribution of food waste.

After analysing their situation, the city had observed a gap between food waste and food redistribution and decided to make the most of this opportunity. In creating the food hubs, Milan also exchanged with the food bank, as their existing system was more centralised and less efficient. Results can also be found in the numbers today: the city went from recovering and redistributing 170 tons of food in 2021 to 615 tons in 2023.

Thanks to Food Trails, Warsaw, one of the project’s partners, has also been working on improving the redistribution of food donations. After a deep analysis of the food flow in the city and numerous exchanges with relevant stakeholders such as the food bank, supermarkets, restaurants and many others, they identified a few challenges they wanted to address.

One of them being as simple as improving the way donated food is stocked and organised. During their research the Warsaw team found that a preexisting issue in food distribution and donation is that “you never know what will come, in what quantities and what will soon expire,” said Natalia Boitot, International Projects Officer at the City of Warsaw.

Clear instructions go a long way

The “optimisation of food distribution,” as Boitot puts it, became ever more evident in Warsaw when the municipality was hit by the refugee crisis due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In response to the rapid inflow of refugees, many grassroots initiatives gathered quickly and spontaneously to provide food. This touched the staff in Warsaw, but also raised concerns of safety and food waste.

While observing the challenges of the food distribution flow, the city noted and decided to address the under-utilisation of certain ingredients and the high staff turnover of food distribution centres. “Finding where the problem is and who is responsible for it helps to work on it,” explains Boitot. The city set up better storage solutions, for instance taking into account how certain ingredients interact and can deteriorate faster if put next to each other. In each centre they also added clear instructions, so that even a new staff member would be able to quickly understand and follow the system, thus preventing further food waste.

Our success comes from our multidisciplinary team, using an evidence-based approach and behavioural insights.
— Natalia Boitot

Warsaw also involved retailers and wholesalers that donate to the food bank into the conversation. The city wanted to understand what they considered beneficial in donating food, while highlighting the importance of qualitative donations rather than quantitative ones, and clarifying the legislation around food donations for businesses. “Our success comes from our multidisciplinary team, using an evidence-based approach and behavioural insights,” said Boitot proudly. “It’s also about understanding the needs of our users and change their environment to make some choices easier to them. We needed this cocktail of competences to address these challenges.”

The garden of Warsaw's 'Red bike' social reatsurant
Warsaw's 'Red bike' social reatsurant
Warsaw's vertical farm

It’s exchanges like these that result in cities’ realisation that sometimes what blocks is the lack of information. In Warsaw, for example, small restaurants refrained from donating leftover food as they feared fines from the Polish legislation. Once the city realised this, it created an easy, four steps guide for restaurants to understand the process. The concrete steps and the guide are also promoted in a wide campaign inviting restaurant owners to connect with food aid organisations. The campaign runs on social media, but also offline through stickers, posters, events and cooking sessions.

In times of peace and war

Emergencies force governments of all levels to realise to what extent our food system is connected. “As Europeans we realised how everything was connected when Ukraine wasn’t able to sell their grain due to the war,” said Pietro Pipi, Director of the Ukraine Office of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Pipi also shared that Ukraine is already facing issues of water and soil poisoning due to the conflict that will affect crops for years to come.

“So far, we managed to cooperate with local authorities and central state agencies to have a shelter cuisine with the idea of preparing school meals for children,” said Pipi. This would help locals get a feel of normalcy and have their children fed. However, “during the project we realised the children were not there because there were too many strike alarms going off regularly; so we had to launch a delivery protocol,” added Pipi.

Local authorities are both more exposed and quicker to react in times of crises due to their closeness to the people. They can also greatly support each other. For example, cities organised a platform for cooperation to support their Ukrainian sister cities, “we believe it’s important to keep the issue in our mind, high on our agendas,” said Magarini.

All voices need to be heard if you want to develop impactful projects.
— Sarah Pullen

Going hungry isn’t an option

The pandemic and the war both contributed to the cost-of-living crisis, with rising costs of food, fuel and the inflation affecting negatively people’s way of living. In Birmingham, for example, a fourth of its population is food insecure today, while around 52% of the city’s children live in poverty. Food insecure households have been increasingly relying on food banks, but these are struggling to meet the rising demand.

Four stacks of guides
Birmingham’s toolkits

Since 2022, while already working on a food policy before the crisis, Birmingham focused on finding short and long-term solutions for this emergency. Based on evidence collected through the Food Council and the Food Justice Network, Birmingham proposed Emergency Food Aid Grants and organising activities and school meals for children during the holidays. Other cities can learn from Birmingham’s experience as the city developed a tool to tackle food security crises, the Global Food Justice Toolkit.

In the long-term, the city is planning to invest in new kitchen equipment and looking at improving the distribution of surplus food based on where people that are most in need live. “All voices need to be heard if you want to develop impactful projects,” said Sarah Pullen, Food System Lead at the Public Health Division in Birmingham. Engaging a diversity of voices also meant that the Food Justice Network was developed independently from local political changes. In fact, the Birmingham Council works to support civil society organisations and other stakeholders do what they are best at, rather than coordinate the network.

Getting political buy-in

Yet, having political support and commitment is crucial for cities to start and support food systems transformation. Sometimes this can be nudged by tools like the Barcelona Challenge, which roughly calculates the co-benefits of food solutions in terms of environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emission reductions.

By joining the challenge, cities commit to food system transformation to combat climate change. “It’s an accessible tool that gives visibility to cities’ actions and can motivate politicians to follow-up on the promised actions on the platform,” explained Maria Solé Congost, Sustainable Food Manager at the City of Barcelona. “It’s a motivation tool.”

Magarini summarised it best when it comes to what helps cities become more resilient in the face of crises: “engage relevant departments and other levels of governments in stress test simulations and conversations with relevant stakeholders in the food ecosystem, so that collaboration can be established and the complexity of food systems and impacts proven.”

Cities interested in getting involved in food systems transformation can follow one of the upcoming Food Trails webinars, read more about the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, join the Cleverfood peer-learning programme, or become a member of Eurocities and ask to join the Working Group Food.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer