Food is central to the life of cities, but urban food policy has fallen through the cracks, say the authors of a new book published by the World Bank, RICH Food, Smart City. Based on a first-ever survey of food policies in South and East Asian cities, the researchers find that most cities lack an explicit and coherent set of food policies, which if pursued could foster reliable, inclusive, competitive, and healthy (RICH) food systems better aligned with their challenges and aspirations. The authors answer a few key questions in this article. 

What is a food policy? We don’t often hear this term.

Readers may be more familiar with agricultural policy, which is an important part of food policy. Like agricultural policy, food policy is concerned with how we grow food, with farming, and the industries that immediately surround that sector. But food policy has broader coverage and opens up the tent to a wider set of stakeholders involved in food production and consumption, and indeed its full lifecycle.

Hence, we understand food policy action to refer to policies, regulations, programs, investments, and advocacy campaigns taken by the public sector that relate to the food system - to food consumption, its production, its transformation, its transportation, its marketing, and even the management of its waste. Food policies exist, for example, to stimulate adequate food production, to ensure its safety, to inform buyers about its qualities, to prepare for food market shocks or crises, to help all consumers - urban and rural - access food, to support the livelihoods of farmers, to safeguard consumers and food chain workers, to improve public dietary health, to enhance animal welfare, and to protect the environment.

In urban settings specifically, food policies include laws, regulations, services, initiatives, and investments of authorities relating, among other things, to food businesses and markets, urban agriculture, street food, nutrition education, meal programs in schools and hospitals, food banks and charities, food safety, food waste management, and even culinary arts and tourism.  

However, something that became clear to us while writing the book is that, in the context of rapidly growing cities, the public policies that most shape food system outcomes are sometimes ones that might seem only tenuously related to food. Consider, for example, how Indian cities tend to have land-use regulations that encourage segregated zoning instead of mixed land-use. Mumbai and Chennai have such regulations in their master plans. At face value, such policies seem to have little to do with food. But they actually have a bearing on how people buy the food they eat.  

Think, similarly, of the difference between the types of food shops and eateries that you might find on a six-lane motor-vehicle road as opposed to a narrow street with slow-moving traffic, or only pedestrians and cyclists. If you think about how much uses of urban space actually shape whathowwhen, and where we procure food and eat, you gain an appreciation for how these and other policies shaping our built environment are also having some of the most far-reaching impacts on urban food realities.

Our book, RICH Food, Smart City, makes the case that cities need smart approaches to food policy to develop reliable, inclusive, competitive, and healthy ("RICH") food systems that support, rather than undermine, city priorities.

Why should cities be paying more attention to food as a matter of policy? 

Food system realities are closely tied to a great many things cities aspire to and care about. Food is a defining aspect of city life and food system outcomes are central to most cities' top priorities, from jobs growth and economic vibrance, to resilience, safety, greenness, fiscal health, and livability.

Whether formally or not, large numbers of people draw livelihoods from the urban food economy. Food fuels cities, but it also sometimes breeds and feeds disease; and their reliance on purchased food can be a source of vulnerability. Food is often the largest source of municipal solid waste; and by driving the movement of goods and people in and about urban spaces, it can be a source of traffic. Furthermore, in Asia, urban expansion is a significant driver of agricultural land-use change and a source of stress for the ecosystem services and resources upon which farming depends. Food also shapes city-scapes and urban culture, and in the best of cases, cities' reputation.

However, most of the cities we surveyed lack an explicit and forward-looking set of food policies. Holistic and inclusive approaches were found in only eight per cent of cities we surveyed.

To put this in perspective, it is important to note that urbanization and changes in the food system have increased the relevance of city involvement over time. Traditionally, food policy has been dominated by concerns about food security and, in particular, the adequacy of food supplied by an agricultural sector long viewed as synonymous with rural space. But food insecurity has, by and large, graduated from being a challenge of calorie availability to one of food access and diet quality.

What can cities do to engage further in urban food policy?

Cities lack the resources and reach of national governments but make up for it in their capacity to be nimble, experimental, cross-cutting, and closely connected to business and citizen communities. As we've seen in climate action and other spheres, cities can exert significant national and even international influence by joining forces through networks of cities.

Cities have extensive power to shape their food systems through things like land-use zoning, investment in municipal infrastructure, business technical assistance and licensing, institutional food procurement, education and professional training, and the implementation of social safety nets.

The pandemic has brought to light the need for more investment and planning in relation to the last miles of food supply chains including Asia's popular "wet" markets, which are important sources of nutritious and affordable foods. It has also reasserted the importance of chronic disease prevention, which implies more work on healthy diets, and for many cities, concerted efforts to protect peri-urban cropland and support short food supply chains.

Cities are also going to play a critical role in shaping food systems and diets that address climate change. Cities have already emerged as some of the most outspoken and active entities addressing this defining issue of our times. Many have discovered that they can act on many fronts, lead by example, and together weigh heavily. Yet, from a climate perspective, city mobilization around food is still an opportunity for the taking. Cities are being called upon to reinvent their food cultures in plant-centric and wholesome directions that will keep them and the world around them healthy and strong. This is one of the keys to climate stabilization.

What are some examples of policy decisions other developing country cities have taken that we could possibly replicate in Indian cities?

Nanjing, in China, has been proactively developed to ensure that nearly every resident lives within a less than 10-minute radius of a fresh food market or shop. Contrast this to many other cities that, whether or not by design, are making access to healthy, affordable food a dissuasive "ordeal" for many residents.

Bangkok has been relatively successful at integrating urban agriculture and food marketing into urban planning, including in the use of public spaces to promote innovations and food businesses. Singapore has incrementally formalized the informal sector by providing space for food enterprises and planning that includes community and commercial food courts.  In Indonesia, Bandung has gained attention for its attention to healthy markets tied to the promotion of local and regional producers.

Their experiences can be contrasted to those of many cities where investments in infrastructure and development, or urban sprawl, have contributed to bisecting or atomizing peri-urban cropland thereby rendering it less viable. Dynamics such as these can push cities’ food supply ever farther afield, with ramifications for affordable food access and nutrition.

Certain Indian cities have actually been front-runners in developing collaborative and people-centered approaches to raising standards among food vendors, engaging consumers in food safety, and making safe use of urban wastewater.  And while strategies and guidelines have been designed by central agencies, they are being adapted and implemented at city level in many cases, through schools and local haats. Municipalities can invest more in safe, accessible farmers’ markets, using public and commercial spaces more efficiently while addressing awareness around food safety and food waste.

Which Indian cities did you look at as part of this study?

We carried out a survey of 170 cities across 21 Asian countries, including 23 cities in India with a combined population of above 55 million people. Of those 23 Indian cities, 9 were relatively small cities of under 500,000 people; 8 were medium cities of up to 3 million; and 6 were large and mega cities with populations of up to or above 10 million. We also carried out more in-depth research in the city of Pune, which will be presented in a follow-on publication.

It revealed a range of urban food system challenges and realities, including- just for illustrative purposes - significant reliance of consumers on locally grown fresh produce, high rates of local food loss and waste due to inadequate cold chain infrastructure, limited knowledge of safe food handling among small-scale players, and limited regulation of prepared packaged foods. The analysis also points, among other things, to the need for greater collaboration among city agencies around food policy.

Pune is one of the cities where the World Bank will be carrying out an urban food pilot program, together with Pune Municipal Corporation. The program will address issues relating to food safety and nutrition, working with a diverse set of stakeholders ranging from street food vendors and butchers, to farmers’ cooperatives and markets, schools, and food safety authorities.

Our municipalities are already struggling with limited capacity to do even the things they are now tasked with. Can they really do this too, or is this a luxury that cities get to beyond a level of development?

We would actually argue that cities don’t have the luxury to wait. Poor diet quality has become the leading risk factor for premature death and disability globally, and this is disproportionately affecting the well-being and productivity of residents of cities. This is true at all income levels, though residents already affected by food insecurity and micro-nutrient deficiencies are at heightened risk. 

"Cities are also going to play a critical role in shaping food systems and diets that address climate change. Cities have already emerged as some of the most outspoken and active entities addressing this defining issue of our times. Many have discovered that they can act on several fronts, lead by example, and together weigh heavily."

We’re talking about diets increasingly high in sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars, and low in fiber, healthy fats, and protective phytonutrients - or in other words, low in a diversity of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, and increasingly rich in ultra-processed and animal source foods such as dairy. Cities cannot afford to deal with, on top of the other issues they already face—and those include still high rates of malnutrition - an epidemic of preventable diet-related disease: more heart attacks and strokes, diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative aging.

Prevention is not rocket science, and the time to act is now, while eating patterns are still transitioning. Indian cities should be aggressively protecting affordable sources of fresh produce that come from their hinterlands, preventing predatory food marketing to children and the hungry, and generally leveraging their full battery of tools to give cities a “AAA rating” for healthy food being affordable, accessible, and appealing. India is one of the few countries that does not under-consume pulses, which are nutritional powerhouses; and cities should be making every effort to ensure the continued relevance of this food group to consumers. In the long run, cities have everything to gain by influencing the trajectory of diets in healthy directions.

But you raise an important challenge: of course, financial, administrative, and human resource constraints are going to have an influence on the food system issues cities can or cannot take on -  whether they already have a mandate to do so or not, for that matter. The fragmentation of responsibilities and the complex web of accountability and incentives that many cities live with can present additional layers of challenge. But at least one reason for optimism - and the reason why many of India’s cities can in fact engage more proactively and constructively in their food systems—can be drawn from the survey of cities we carried out.

We asked cities all over South and East Asia to report how much and in what ways they are engaging in their food systems. And, excepting the smallest cities, city size and wealth were poor predictors of how "food-smart" their policies could be considered to be, in our analysis. The results of our survey point to the potential roles of leadership, the mobilization of civil society, the strength of cities’ ties to an agricultural hinterland, and other factors in determining cities' level and quality of engagement in their food system. In other words, the extent to which cities engage at all, or do so in proactive, holistic, and inclusive ways, is not strictly about resources.

Something else we learned - and this will hopefully inspire cities to start engaging more and better in their food systems regardless of where they stand in this process - is that there is no right or wrong place to begin. Cities can build their capacity and motivation to pursue, plan, and coordinate food policies with growing intention. For large and small cities, developing “smart” food policy is a journey, not an end game.

Cities that, today, have put quite sophisticated mechanisms in place to develop and coordinate food policy - like Seoul for example - did not start by creating a grand master plan or even putting an agency in charge. They grew those mechanisms organically, over the course of several years, as various food system issues gained the attention of the public or an organized coalition. Initially, Seoul was pushed in this direction by controversies over school lunches, and rising interest in food safety and urban farming among other issues. And over time, the city moved from a reactive stance to one that has become more strategic and organised.

What has changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has brought to light many opportunities to do things better, and for cities, food policy has been one of them. When it began, we saw panic buying and some temporary curtailing of trade. Quickly, social distancing and movement control orders directly and indirectly caused supply chain disruptions, including in downstream and often urban segments of food supply chains. And over time, the domino effects of forced economic shutdown and job loss have created a surge of food insecurity. In parallel, the pandemic has heightened concerns about food safety and market hygiene, though they were already present before the crisis.

By the same token, the pandemic also seems to have stimulated strong growth in takeout and packaged food sales. In one sense, this reflects how urban food systems have shown a capacity for innovation and resilience in the face of adversity. But on the flip side, some of the promising business models of the moment are also adding to the massive plastics and pollution problems that cities were already having to come to terms with.

How can cities take this agenda forward?

Both national and lower-level authorities, including municipalities, will have roles to play in developing urban food policy and building "RICH" food systems in urban settings. The book includes examples of actions that have been taken by a range of stakeholders. While context-relevance is an important feature of good urban food policy, there is no need - or indeed capacity - for every city to reinvent the wheel; and this is where national ministries have to come in, laying out frameworks and blueprints for all cities to draw on, for example. They can also help put in place requirements and incentive structures that empower municipal leaders to pursue "smarter" food system policies and pay attention to food policy in the first place. 

For most cities, large and small, the process of developing a coherent set of policies has to be an organic one that grows out of the challenges and opportunities that cities are already facing and mobilized around. As noted, successful urban food system governance rarely develops from the top down, and meaningful engagement does not need to start with a master plan. Some of the leading cities in matters of food system governance started out by addressing burning local food system questions and engaging a widening set of stakeholders and municipal agencies in deliberation and decision-making. This playbook is accessible to all cities, and the menu of actions they can begin with is long.