Reflections From The 2019 Urban Food Policy Conference

How often do we stop to think about the importance of food in our lives? Having access to healthy, cheap and quality food is fundamental to our overall health and wellbeing. However for billions of people around the world, their cities are not set up for this. I was recently at the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact Conference in Montpellier in France. It was a congregation of over 200 mayors and city representatives from around the world to discuss issues relating to food policy. Over the three days there were a series of sessions with the objective of cities to share their best practice insights about how they are transforming policy to meet the growing needs of food in the local environment.

Recap of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact

Earlier this year I met the team behind the pact in Milan to learn more about their work and the impact. The Pact illustrates the role of cities in fostering sustainable urban food systems that are inclusive, resilient, safe and diverse, that provide healthy and affordable food to all people in a human rights-based framework.

It is a framework for action, listing a set of 37 voluntary, concrete actions, articulated in 6 categories, that every city Mayor around the world can use to improve food systems including governance, production, consumption and waste management. 

You can read more about the pact in our previous article here.

To date there are over 220 cities from around the world who have signed up to this pact. They are responsible for more about half a billion people. The five focus areas of the pact are:

  1. Ensure healthy food and sufficient drinking water as primary nourishment for everyday life
  2. Promote the sustainability of the food system
  3. Understanding food
  4. Fight against waste
  5. Support and promote scientific agri-food research

The Broken Food System

Over the course of the three days there were many themes discussed which were thought provoking and fascinating. Many speakers spoke about the topic of nourishment.
In the world today there are 820 million people who are chronically hungry. There are also over 2 billion people who are overweight and 672 million people who are obese. Food production is not the issue at the moment, it is the global system for access and distribution of quality, healthy food that is the problem.

On one panel, speakers discussed the issue of malnutrition from both obesity and poverty perspectives. The issue of supply and access to quality, healthy food manifests itself differently in different areas of the world. However, there was a common understanding that contextualising the local food system is critical to meet the immediate needs of the community. The conference allowed people to collaborate on common problems and share their insights about past experiences of tackling these issues. In many cases though, the insights and ideas could be in part transplanted to other areas of the globe. For example although Vietnam is still developing as a nation, they are experiencing a rise in obesity related diseases. This is being driven by urbanisation and busy lifestyles leading to poor food choices. It results in more processed unhealthy food being more convenient and cheaper as well as more people eating out or eating on the move.

The Role of Cities

Today approximately 55 percent of the global population live in urban environments and it is estimated that this will grow about 68 percent by 2050. According to the UN, the growth of megacities was likely to stem from an accelerating shift from rural to urban-living areas around the world, particularly in Asia. In North America, 82 percent of people were found to live in cities, compared to 74 percent in Europe. In Asia, around 50 percent of people were based in metropolitan areas, while Africa was thought to be the least urban-populated continent with only 43 percent of its population situated in cities. However, the UN projected this trend would change over the coming decades, with India, China and Nigeria accounting for 35 percent of the estimated growth in urban populations between 2018 and 2050.

Currently, urban environments equate to 70 percent of global Co2 emissions and the concentration of people creates challenges for resource efficiency but also opportunities for sustainable growth with strategic urban planning.

There were many aspects of the food system discussed over the 3 days. Most of the themes focused on food access including education, supply and affordability. Here are some reflections:

School Food and Nutrition

Education about the importance of healthy food is equally as important as access to food. Although there are areas around the world with access to quality food, obesity is still a major issue. Many speakers discussed the importance of using public schools as a way to nourish students through school canteen as well as education with school vegetable gardens and broader curriculum. For many of the western nations, meat consumption was targeted as an area to shift consumption habits. When we were walking into the conference Greenpeace were protesting and calling on all city mayors to find ways to reduce their city’s consumption habit.
However at question time during a session, one of the representatives from Zambia asked the question, ‘As a young nation who wants to progress economically at a fast rate using industrialisation of agricultural practices including meat production, how do we strike the balance of chasing growth that is not at the expense of the planet?’ He spoke about meat consumption and how that is a focus of the conference, however on average Africa consumes about 10 times less meat than western nations.
The panellists shared that the industrial revolution should not be seen as the only method for economic growth and that this new era presents an opportunity to be creative and innovative with food production. A panellist referenced how in Africa many countries have leap frogged landline phones and gone straight to mobile phones which has opened up new methods of finance, communication and education that the western world took decades to produce.
Finally, a panellist said we need to stop thinking of the developed and developing world as a way to categorise countries. This ultimately creates a sense of ‘otherness’ when we should be collectively looking at how we can solve these global challenges together.
Example: Montpellier in France improved the sustainability of their whole food supply chain, by focusing local food to school canteens. The initiative reached 50 percent of organic products, replaced plastic trays with compostable ones, provided 14600 meals per day to vulnerable groups and reduced food waste by 24 percent.

Public Procurement

Cooperatives and platforms for small landholder farmers to coordinate supply of food production was referenced multiple times as a way to increase the relationship between urban and regional environments. In particular a few countries including the UK, Burkina Faso, The Netherlands and France shared how cooperatives are being used for tenders in government procurement processes. This process links fresh food from farmers to public channels including schools, hospitals, retirement homes and even prisons. This creates more economic certainty for farmers and a new market as well as increasing the nutrition of meals in the public sector.
By having policies in place to procure food from local sources, it cuts down on emissions as well as providing stronger economic growth.
Example: New York City Council in the USA is responsible for over 230 million meals per year through their schools, senior centres, kindergartens and other public run places. They have introduced meatless Mondays across their network to reduce the carbon footprint and to have a more balanced diet. They are also overhauling their procurement system to reduce the amount of processed food and encourage more purchasing from local farms. 

Connecting People to Food

Farmers markets were commonly discussed as a way for people to shorten the supply chain and get access to fresh, green produce. There were also layers to this topic that were quite interesting including using farmers markets to increase gender equality as well as how to educate local people about the importance of fresh food.
Example: Mezitli City in Turkey was the first city in Turkey to create a women’s farmers market to empower women to start their own businesses and become financially independent. There were so many benefits to the program beyond financial empowerment, they also have created a community for women in business and are now helping the next generation of women to start their own ventures. They had a very moving short film about the impact of educating and empowering women.

Reducing Food Waste

This was a topic I was expecting to hear more about however the conference seemed more focused on public health. It is a massive issue because FAO estimates that 1/3 of all food produced in the world is thrown away!
The issue of food waste around the world tends to happen at different points in the supply chain. For higher income countries (Europe, North America & Oceania and Industrialised Asia) food waste occurs more at a consumption level as opposed to lower income countries where it is lost in the processing and transport phase of the supply chain. For lower income countries, working on creating better connectivity and efficiency in the supply chains will help reduce waste. Whereas in higher income countries, education and awareness is needed at a consumer level. Also portion control at restaurants and in supermarkets can help reduce this waste in higher income countries.
I think will become a growing topic over the next few years as the circular economy and closed loop agriculture become more common.
Example: Tel Aviv City in Israel was responsible for making the recent Eurovision a zero-waste event. They developed a strategy to reduce waste at the event and to create recycling systems that ensured nothing went to landfill! Their approach to working with vendors, local NGOs and the Eurovision committee was really inspiring and will hopefully set a new standard for big events like this in the future. 

Building Strong Networks

As the pact continues to grow through more cities around the world, it is evident that the stronger countries are the ones with developed networks. There were many references to regional working groups and how food policy offers from different cities are working together to solve common challenges.
Example: The United States of America has a food policy advisor network of 17 cities who share their work and insights to allow other cities to grow their impact. A Baltimore City representative spoke about how they shared their food mapping tool with Austin which helped them to research and implement the project with greater efficiency. They also now have a food fund because they were able to use an existing model from other cities that had already implemented it.


The food system is complex which needs a mix of partners to solve the challenges faced. Many of the examples seemed like small initiatives however they were all part of a broader plan by local cities to transform the system to ensure environmental sustainability and healthier population. The cities that seemed most effective were the ones where the mayors truly believed that food is important and requires dedicated resources to drive the change. Many food policy officers spoke about how their role is unique and that in many cities around the world there still are not dedicated roles. Another trait of successful food policy in cities were often led by residents. The teams who engaged their community early to help establish the food policy agenda often saw higher adoption of programs which increase the impact. Lastly, it was evident that successful leaders focused on policy rather than a series of high cost programs or initiatives. Focusing on the policy first allowed for more systemic change and then programs or initiatives underpinned the policy. This allowed for more sustainable, long term outcomes for both the city and the residents.

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