How four EU food cities dealt with the coronavirus pandemic

Whether it was a shortage of flour at the supermarket or an increased reliance on food banks and meal distribution organisations, COVID-19 has laid bare food-related issues in cities.

But with the end of the pandemic now in sight, cities are putting a sharper focus on their food policy and the future of sustainable food systems in a post-COVID world – and the importance of working together is clear.

On 26 November, during the Week of Italian Cuisine, the Italian embassy in Paris welcomed four FOOD TRAILS pilot cities – Milan, Bergamo, Bordeaux and Grenoble – to discuss the effect of the pandemic and the way forward.

Dealing with a crisis

Milan, a long-time leader in food policy, highlighted the city’s capacity for innovation. Chiara Pirovano from the Milan Food Policy Office explained a pilot project that aimed to target two priority areas: food waste and sustainability. Working with its food company Milano Ristorazione, the city cut down on waste in school canteens by serving portions of fruit in the morning rather than after lunch – it was shown that pupils were likelier to eat the fruit during this morning break.

But with the onset of the pandemic, Pirovano explained that the city’s food policy shifted to an emergency state. “It quickly became a food crisis,” she explained. As such, the city created 10 hubs to expand its food aid system and managed to distribute the equivalent of 1.6 million meals in 15 weeks.

What was clear overall, as pointed out by moderator Lorenzo Kihlgren Grandi from SciencePo Paris, was the common thread through Milan’s food policy of involving all of society to bring about top-to-bottom change.

Milan’s fellow Italian city in the project, Bergamo, wants to capitalise on its location in the ingredient-rich Lombardy region by putting local cuisine first. This has seen the creation of a food council to promote the region and a focus on food education – the city is now in the top three cities in the world in this domain.

But since March this year, Bergamo has become known for something else. “We were the face of the first wave [of coronavirus],” says Christophe Sanchez, head of the mayor of Bergamo’s cabinet. As a result, the city has relied on solidarity from other Italian cities, with 40,000 food packages distributed in the city during the crisis. The restaurant sector suffered, but Bergamo performed a ‘small miracle’ in establishing a take-away platform for local restaurants, further demonstrating its commitment to local food.

Food distribution ‘reflexes’

On the French side, Bordeaux has established its own food council. As its food governance officer Morgane Scouarnec explains, the territory of the Bordeaux Metropole is 50% natural and agricultural spaces, meaning the participation of parties from every part of the food chain is crucial. The council will look at four priority actions for the Metropole, namely related to food choice, fighting food waste, improving Bordeaux’s local farming capacity and work on shortening and reinforcing food chains.

All these issues were given more importance during the coronavirus crisis. Now in its second lockdown, Scouarnec said that Bordeaux is prepared to tackle issues related to food: “The reflexes are already there.” A renewed focus was put on food distribution to vulnerable communities that may have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. But for Bordeaux, the crisis has allowed the city to recognise its weaknesses and to build its resilience for future shocks.

On the other side of France, the Grenoble-Alpes Metropole has a unique geographical location that requires some unique food policies. “Grenoble has just three days of food independence,” said Salima Djidel, Vice-President of health, strategy and food security at the metropole. As part of the city’s Inter-territorial Food Project, the city has undertaken a stock-taking exercise to establish the needs, capacity, and socio-economic particularities of the metropole. The six-priority approach considers that issues related to food are often found in much larger social or political topics.

Photo mosaic of participants in the webinar.

The fragility of Grenoble’s food system was revealed during the public health crisis. But, as Djidel explains, the city took swift and effective action. They very quickly re-established local markets with strict sanitary measures to ensure that local farmers were given the opportunity to continue selling their products, with the city even re-assigning traffic police to act as crowd control at marketplaces.

For those in precarious situations, school meals were a lifeline and often the main substantial meal for children in some families. With this being taken away with the closing of the schools, the city played a ‘financial game’, according to Djidel, by attaching food vouchers to family benefits.

Speakers agreed with moderator Grandi on the importance of cities’ constant and continuous sharing with one another. This may prove to be crucial as governments wake up to the importance of changing the urban approach to food in Europe.

With its 11 pilot projects and ample opportunities for shared learning, the FOOD TRAILS project hopes to be the catalyst for this food system transformation.

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