Improving urban diets in an increasingly urban world

Cows grazing in front of tower blocks

Marielle DubbelingMarielle Dubbeling is Director of the RUAF Foundation – a global network of organisations that together constitute a leading centre of expertise in urban agriculture and city region food strategies. The RUAF Foundation works to develop more sustainable and resilient cities.

Urbanisation is rapidly taking over many regions of the world. By 2017 the majority of people worldwide will be living in an urban environment, including a huge proportion of people in less developed countries. Rapid urbanisation can cause many problems, including poverty and food insecurity, which can make it harder for citizens to eat a healthy diet.

This is alarmingly apparent in New York City where about 58% of adults are overweight or obese. Even in the Global South, people are eating more sugarfats, oils and animal products. Given that World Cancer Research Fund International’s analysis of global research shows that being overweight or obese increases the risk of 10 cancers – and the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that excess weight and obesity comes at a price tag of US$2 trillion in global healthcare costs – it is essential that policymakers take action to improve the diets of people living in towns and cities.

Improving diets in urban areas

Policymakers need to do more to promote healthy and sustainable diets that don’t harm the environment and provide fair prices to food producers. As well as enhancing access to such food at affordable prices – especially in areas that lack healthy food outlets and have limited resources – healthy consumption can be promoted through public procurement and in schools and hospitals. Governments also need to support local agriculture to produce fresh fruits and vegetables in and around urban areas.

The role of urban agriculture

Urban agriculture ensures that crops are grown and animals are raised in and around cities so that they form an integral part of the urban ecosystem. It also creates jobs for members of the urban population, utilises public and private land within cities along with resources such as urban wastewater and organic waste. Encouraging this not only allows better access to nutritious food, it also provides solutions to other problems of urbanisation by providing income opportunities and reducing waste.

Popular restaurants

Many governments are already taking action to improve urban food systems. For example, since 1994, Belo Horizonte in Brazil operates a successful public eatery offering healthy, balanced meals at very low cost to a large number of the city’s population. These so-called “popular restaurants” are serving more than 20,000 healthy and balanced meals a day for just US$1.20.

Another good example is found in the city of Ghent in Belgium which promotes “veggie Thursdays”, where residents are encouraged to eat as a vegetarian each Thursday to limit meat consumption, in an effort to make their diets more environmentally friendly. This involves schools and public sector organisations providing only vegetarian meals, and restaurants having special deals on vegetarian dishes.

As for urban agriculture, the city of Dakar in Senegal promotes micro-gardens (a soil-free farming system) to enrich peoples’ diets with fresh vegetables; this allows vegetables to be grown within the urban landscape, for example on rooftops, and also provides a way of recycling various urban waste materials.

Milan Urban Food Policy Pact

The City of Milan has taken the initiative to advocate an international Urban Food Policy Pact that acknowledges that cities – which collectively host over half the world’s population – have a strategic role to play in developing sustainable food systems and promoting healthy diets and improved urban environments.

The Pact, which engages a growing number of world cities, recommends a number of actions including: the promotion of sustainable diets; addressing diseases associated with poor diets; developing sustainable dietary guidelines; making sustainable diets accessible in public institutions; reorienting school feeding and public procurement programmes; promoting urban agriculture and encouraging joint action by the health, food and business sectors amongst others.

More than 100 cities involved

To date, 109 cities have contributed to the development of the Pact – and the accompanying Framework for Action – and have been invited to sign both documents in Milan today (15 October 2015). I would like to call on these and other cities to not only sign the Urban Food Policy Pact, but also commit to its operationalisation.

We should further monitor their actions and related impacts, continue to share good practice and engage civil society, private sector and governments in joint action to create better urban food policies.

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