Cities leading the way on EU's flagship food policy

The climate crisis is at the top of the European Union’s priorities in 2021. Within its plan to tackle climate change – the Green Deal – is the farm-to-fork strategy, which aims to make European food systems sustainable, healthy and fair. But is there enough focus on cities in this process? How can urban centres contribute to the EU’s nutrition, climate and social targets, and does the strategy go far enough for Europe’s city-dwellers?  

To answer these questions, the Food Trails project hosted representatives from both sides of the discussion for a set of breakfast dialogues which touched some of the key areas of work for cities.

Treating food as a right

As the name of the strategy suggests, the link between rural producers and urban consumers is central to the EU’s climate ambitions. “It’s important to re-build the city’s link with rural areas,” said Herbert Dorfmann, MEP for the Italian region of South Tyrol and rapporteur for the Farm to Fork Strategy, at the April 27 session.

Dorfmann believes that the farm-to-fork strategy is about distributing food fairly and improving diets without spending a large amount of money. “We can do more without spending more,” added the MEP.

But if the past year has shown us anything, it is that a shock to the system like the COVID-19 pandemic can have a devastating impact on food equality and that creating links between producers and consumers is not easy under current rules. Anna Scavuzzo, Deputy Mayor at the City of Milan, said that the city worked with networks such as Eurocities and the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact to ensure people exercised their right to access food, be it through food basket distribution, food vouchers or other solutions.

But while the city has a comprehensive food strategy, can the farm-to-fork strategy work for consumers and producers across all of Europe to ensure this right? Scavuzzo highlighted the work of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and the Eurocities Working Group Food as a tool for cities to communicate with the European Commission and achieve a fairer food system and achieve goals set out in the Common Agricultural Policy and farm-to-fork strategy. “Cities are ready to cooperate,” the Vice Mayor told Dorfmann, adding: “Together, we can reach more ambitious goals.”

Improving food environments

Equally as important as a fair food system is a healthy one. The city of Birmingham knows this better than most cities – the UK’s second city has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country, with 41% of children unhealthy overweight by the time they finish primary school and 60% of adults overweight or obese.

“It’s about changing the food environment, without pressuring and blaming consumers” said Paulette Hamilton, Councillor and Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care at Birmingham City Council, on May 5. Hamilton stressed that many of thy city’s high streets are full of fast-food outlets and advertising for junk food is rife, making it difficult for citizens to make healthy choices.

In addition to their work in schools, the city has taken planning measures to restrict the growth of unhealthy food chains and is on a mission to ensure that making a healthy choice is an easy one and empowering businesses to build a healthier food economy. “There is a market for healthier, sustainable food,” said Hamilton.

The fight against advertising of unhealthy or unsustainable food is very much on the Commission’s radar. Alexandra Nikolakopoulou, Head of Unit at the EU’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety in charge of food sustainability and the farm-to-fork strategy, is aware of the importance of working with businesses in Europe – most of which are small businesses – to improve the situation.

As part of the farm-to-fork strategy, the Commission will be unveiling a Code of Conduct for Responsible Business and Marketing Practices in the coming months. Additionally, the harmonisation of front-of-pack nutrition labelling will give consumers fair information about food and contribute to a healthier food environment.

But Councillor Hamilton says this can be confusing for people and states the problem in clear terms: “The [healthy] alternatives are not there in deprived communities.”

Fortunately, in the UK, cities are not acting alone. The country is the first in Europe to develop a national food strategy, and the Councillor notes that these country-level actions can help local authorities to build healthy food environments.

Sustainability with procurement

One city that knows the importance of promoting healthy practices is Copenhagen. The city has a food strategy that aims to ensure nutritious and sustainable food from the earliest age, and it has a key tool to do this: public procurement.

In the third debate on May 6, Franciska Rosenkilde, Mayor of Culture and Leisure at the City of Copenhagen, presented the city’s goal to have 90% of its 70,000 school meals served daily in the Danish capital are organic. This is part of a wider strategy to cut food emissions by 25% in five years and achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 – a strategy where food plays a key role. “Healthy bodies, healthy earth, healthy climate,” said Rosenkilde. “They are all interlinked.”

Gijs Schilthuis, Head of Unit at EU’s Directorate-General for Agriculture, was particularly inspired by Copenhagen’s example, and added that the Commission is happy to be working with many cities on food projects funded by its flagship research and development fund, Horizon2020. “We need to nurture development and bring together different cities,” he said. “Cities are the grassroots of food policy development, but we need to link these various developments.”

Copenhagen’s impressive procurement strategy has been 20 years in the making, making use of investments in training kitchen staff, but at no extra procurement cost to the city. It focuses on shortening supply chains and creating links with local famers to improve the sustainability of the public diet by focusing on seasonal food. This brings healthy, organic food into people’s lives via school meals or otherwise, but challenges remain to drive real behaviour change, according to Rosenkilde.

In a sustainable food system, agricultural practices good for the environment will improve the income of primary producers while reinforcing EU competitiveness. That’s why the Commission stands on the side of farmers embracing the transition. “It’s our responsibility that the economic picture matches”, said Schilthuis.

Food Trails will spend the next four years helping cities across Europe to build their own food policies in cooperation with citizens and to implement pilot projects that will have a profound impact on the food systems.

With the coming years crucial for the EU’s food and climate ambitions, cities will be a key driver for the success of initiatives such as the farm-to-fork, and people across Europe stand to benefit from a healthier, fairer and more sustainable relationship with food.

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