People power for climate

Vantaa, the fourth most populous city in Finland, is thinking on a global scale. This is particularly so when it comes to living up to global climate commitments.

“Our target is to be a carbon neutral city by 2030,” says Ritva Viljanen, the city’s mayor.

According to the city’s plans, this means that Vantaa must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent on 1990 levels, as well as compensating the remaining emissions through actions such as funding low-carbon projects elsewhere.

Already, its ‘Roadmap to Resource Wisdom’ has set out clear targets and actions the city must take to achieve its goals.

“We will take a really big step when our electricity production will be carbon free by 2022,” says Viljanen, referring to a plan to ensure the energy plant jointly owned by the cities of Helsinki and Vantaa will stop using coal.

In addition, Vantaa has set targets in transport and city planning, in the use of materials and in its procurement processes.

“But one point of participation,” points out Viljanen, “is that we must wake up our citizens.”

Shared table

The city administration is actively encouraging citizens to take part in achieving these ambitions by reducing their own carbon footprint.

“We educate our children in schools, we give information to homes that don’t use electricity,” and “we help people change their heating system to some more green heating systems,” comments Viljanen.

At the same time, the city is taking active steps to improve the well-being of citizens. One example of a project combining these objectives of achieving carbon neutrality and improving social wellbeing is Vantaa’s Shared Table project.

The idea, a brainchild of cooperation between the city of Vantaa and the Vantaa parish Union, is to get rid of bread queues in Vantaa, to develop the city’s network of food assistance, and to minimise the production of surplus food.

“We are pioneers in talking about the ecological side of food aid” explains Hanna Kuisma, who leads Vantaa’s city unit, the surplus food terminal, “we collect the surplus food and use it to benefit people who are not in a good place in their lives.”

The surplus food terminal aims to make surplus food, collected from wholesalers, available to the city’s network of more than 80 local organisations, reaching around 5,000 people per week.

“Before the city has not taken a role in food aid,” says Kuisma, “now in Vantaa we have shown that it can be a role of the city.”

Essentially, Kuisma continues, this is “a new kind of service model between the public sector and third sector.”

The network of local organisations, which range from drug centres to youth clubs, receive coaching from the city services on how to ensure the food distribution is carried out in as human a way as possible. For example, not all recipients of the food aid programme are homeless or hungry per se, some may be lonely or simply struggling to make ends meet.

“In Vantaa we didn’t want to do only the food bank, we also wanted to change the action culture in the food aid” adds Kuisma. “We really try to do something beneficial with it and do some community work.”

A social circular economy

“We try to give jobs to long term unemployed people and give them some hope and experience” says Kuisma of the surplus food terminal, which employs around 15 people.

These workers are subsidised 50% from the state of Finland and 50% from the city, which has been a real boost to Kuisma’s unit, as it has to deal with a huge logistical hurdle every day.

“We often do not know what we are going to get,” she explains. The terminal also makes use of other kinds of groceries, including soaps, detergents and diapers. It’s then down to the skills and knowledge of the terminal’s staff to ensure these items are fairly distributed throughout its network and that more specialist items go to the appropriate partner.

In fact, according to Kuisma, “one logistics professional who visited said that it was impossible to do this and yet somehow we manage.”

Each week, the terminal deals with around 20,000 kilos of unwanted products. “20,000 kilos per week sounds like a lot,” says Kuisma, “but in Europe we really waste food in a way that is not sustainable.”

The surplus food terminal has sought to work closely with other experienced professionals within the city, to learn, for instance from the city unit that takes care of food safety.

“Vantaa’s surplus food terminal is known for good quality” and one reason for this, says Kuisma, is that “we are bold and can say ‘no to the biowaste’ and that is something new in food aid,” meaning that the terminal will sometimes reject surplus food that does not meet its quality standards.

“10 years ago a shopkeeper might have thought this food is biowaste and useless,” says Kuisma, but now, thanks to the work of her unit and the Shared Table model, there is an understanding in the city that much more can be done.

International inspiration

Shared Table was itself inspired by the Berliner Tafel with some slight adjustments. Since then, the Finnish innovation fund, Sitra, decided to invest money and spread the ‘shared table’ model.

So far 15 areas in Finland have already wanted to hear from Vantaa’s experience and have started some actions of their own to do something similar. Although not all are city-led, as in Vantaa’s case, in all the city nonetheless does play a key role.

​“Sitra was originally interested in this model because of the circular economy,” says Kuisma, “but then they learned that there is also this social circular economy impact in Shared Table because we work to improve the lives of less fortunate citizens and this is something that can be added to other areas.”

“It’s really interesting that you can do so much with surplus food. First, we had surplus food, then we do community work and employment. It has generated lots of good side effects.”

“There is something almost magical in this” Kuisma concludes. “That in something totally unnecessary, in surplus food, now there is so much around it. We have a feeling this is really useful work.”

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer