Food Trails

The city as the driver for more sustainable food systems

Healthy and safe food

Everyone is wrestling with the question of how to make sure the poorest families get a healthy diet. Video: Pexels

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes


By 2050, 70 per cent of the global population will live in towns and cities. All those people will need healthy food that has been produced sustainably. To achieve that, our food system will need to be transformed, but how? In the European Food Trails project, cities that are already experimenting with this are getting an opportunity to take their projects to the next level. Researchers at Wageningen University & Research and their European colleagues are advising these pioneers.

Many cities are facing large increases in the number of people depending on food banks, especially since the coronavirus crisis. That is not just the case in the Netherlands, says Marijke Dijkshoorn, a social innovation researcher at Wageningen University & Research (WUR). “Now cities are looking for alternative forms of support that are also less stigmatising than food banks. In Groningen, they are considering some kind of subsidised grocery shopping but in the same supermarkets as everyone else.”

Groningen is one of the eleven cities involved in the Food Trails European research project, which started at the end of 2020. WUR is one of the scientific partners. The eleven cities have all been working on transforming their food systems for some time. Their aim is to ensure healthy, sustainably produced food for the city and surrounding area that is accessible for everyone regardless of their income and level of education. Dijkshoorn: “Copenhagen has already made great strides and nearly all the city’s canteens now offer regional and organic food. And Birmingham has successfully connected food producers in the region with city organisations such as hospitals and schools that procure food.”

Toentje and Bie de Buuf in Groningen

In Groningen, the ‘Toentje’ project is part of Food Trails. It is a ‘safe, sustainable and accessible location for working and learning’, with a vegetable garden that supplies fresh vegetables and herbs to the food bank. Toentje also runs the community restaurant Bie de Buuf, which employs people who are disadvantaged in the regular job market. “It’s a really nice initiative that has been going for years”, says Dijkshoorn. “It now provides 750 people who experience food poverty with fresh, healthy food through the food bank.”

You want to progress from separate projects to a change in the system

In Groningen, Toentje has its own production garden that supplies fresh vegetables and herbs to the food bank. Photo: Toentje

But rather than being a stand-alone initiative, Toentje needs to be anchored in the social and political structure, argues Dijkshoorn. “The same applies to all the participating European cities: you want to progress from individual projects to a change in the system. In Food Trails, cities and their partners – such as schools, businesses, healthcare providers and civil society organisations – work on scaling up existing initiatives in what are termed ‘living labs’. For example, Groningen wants Toentje to become part of a dense network of food initiatives in the city, with good connections with policymakers and with businesspeople – after all, you need investors to take the project to the next level.”

Cross-fertilisation on a global scale

In addition to scaling up initiatives in the cities, another key objective of Food Trails is exchanging know-how. Dijkshoorn: “Cities can inspire one another. But it is also important for us as scientists to understand how that process works exactly. WUR is therefore studying the various possible approaches for the exchange of knowledge between cities and how they can help make local food systems more sustainable.” In this endeavour, Wageningen is working with the universities of Cardiff (in the United Kingdom) and Roskilde (in Denmark). The knowledge base that the researchers are building will be of interest around the world, says Dijkshoorn. After all, half the world’s population lives in towns and cities and that proportion is set to increase to 70 per cent by 2050. At the same time, temperatures are rising and there is an increasing risk of food shortages. “That is why Food Trails is not just for the eleven European cities but for others too, from Rio de Janeiro to Washington and from Quelimane in Mozambique to Tel Aviv in Israel.” Dijkshoorn realises there is no one-size-fits-all solution: “An African city has quite a different food system to one in Europe, of course. We’re not looking for the one perfect solution in Food Trails, but we can still learn from one another and inspire one another. Cross-fertilisation is definitely at the heart of this project. We are already seeing it, even though we have only been going one year. For example, everyone is wrestling with the question of how to make sure the poorest families get a healthy diet – that’s a universal issue.”

Food is related to health, but it's also relevant in other areas such as spatial planning and combatting poverty. Photo: Toentje

Crucial element

Achieving that change in the system is complex, says Thom Achterbosch, a development economist at Wageningen Economic Research. A crucial element is incorporating the issue of food in all policy areas, he says. “It’s obvious that food is related to health, but it’s also relevant in other areas such as spatial planning and combatting poverty. The municipality in Groningen is now trying to set up an integrated approach so that food is taken into account everywhere, including in economic policy. You don’t just want food that is healthier and locally produced: you also want to create jobs with fair wages.”

Dijkshoorn: “The city of Milan – which leads the Food Trails project — has integrated its food policy in various other policy areas. That prevents food policy from being ‘something else we need to address too’ or something that is first to get ditched when bigger interests come into play, such as financial concerns.” Incidentally, Milan has been pioneering future-proof food systems in cities for years. In 2015, its mayor introduced the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, which has since been signed by over 200 mayors around the world. The signatories acknowledge the key role their cities play in transforming food systems, and commit to doing everything in their capacity to create a new order that is kind to people and the environment.

Dijkshoorn, Achterbosch and their WUR team are helping Groningen to adopt this integrated approach. “We analyse the projects and look at the options for anchoring them both permanently, working with the municipality and other partners.”

However great the initiative is, it still needs to be financially viable

Restaurant Bie de Buuf in Groningen employs people who are disadvantaged in the regular job market. Photo: Toentje

Those other partners are essential, stresses Dijkshoorn. “That is why we don’t just have the eleven living labs in the cities but also a pilot setup in which we work with investors – from banks and investment companies to private family wealth foundations – to examine which food initiatives they want to support as a socially responsible investment and how cities can facilitate that process for investors. Our ultimate goal is to set up a future-proof system. Part of that is to make initiatives financially viable.”

Beyond the city boundaries

Although the initiatives for food policy transformations often come from cities, it is still important to collaborate with other public authorities, argues Achterbosch. “In the Netherlands, the provincial authorities are also interested in food as an issue but they approach it from the perspective of the countryside. That is important, as cities and rural areas need one another when tackling challenges relating to the climate, biodiversity and quality of life. On top of this, the provincial authorities offer opportunities for innovation as they have the necessary resources.” The national government is another key player. Achterbosch: “Cities alone cannot arrange for healthy food to become more affordable relative to unhealthy, highly processed products. Municipalities hardly have any powers to intervene in the food system. For example, there is no legislation that allows them to set limits on the number of fast-food outlets in a neighbourhood of a given size.”

Dutch food policy at a standstill

According to Achterbosch, the national food policy in the Netherlands is at a standstill. “It could give the Netherlands a crucial push in the right direction if steps were to be taken in European policy. Examples would be an European sustainable food law that bans advertising unhealthy foods, legal limits to fat content of certain products and rules to ensure that the cost to the environment is factored into the price.” Achterbosch and Dijkshoorn admit that these are contentious policy options that are unlikely to be introduced in the short term. “But things are changing. That is evident from the global appeal of the Milan Pact, and also from Food Trails. There is good a reason why the EU is funding this project. There are also various other grant programmes that cities can make use of, because the EU sees cities as an important driver of lasting innovation of the kind needed to implement the Farm to Fork strategy (making food supplies more sustainable, ed.) and the Green Deal (the EU’s climate goals, ed.).”

The plan is therefore very much to make tangible progress in the next few years, explains Dijkshoorn. “That’s why Food Trails has linked up to existing networks, such as Eurocities with its active Food working group that lobbies and develops policy proposals. Municipalities are closest to their residents and are the first to see where things need to change. Let’s embrace their initiatives to transform the food system.”

European research context

Food Trails addresses the following European policy challenges:

  • Making food supplies more sustainable
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming
  • Reusing resources to prevent wastage
  • Transforming the food system so that everyone has access to healthy, safe and sustainably produced food
  • Empowering citizens

Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Economic Research

European countries involved: Albania, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal and United Kingdom

Duration: 2020 – 2024

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