Tackling urban malnutrition – a growing challenge

It goes without saying that the world is rapidly urbanising – and it is giving rise to the challenge of urban malnutrition. 

Global, national and local governments have to start anticipating how we will cater for 5 billion people living in cities in 2030 and how they will have access to nutritious foods in a sustainable manner. Sunniva Bloem, who works on Urban Nutrition Advocacy at GAIN, explains.

The UN predicts that over 60% of the world population will live in urban areas and that 90% of this growth will take place in low and middle-income countries.

Although many local initiatives to improve urban food systems are happening, global development policy has only recently acknowledged the issue. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) include calls to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, offering an exciting opportunity to discuss the complex issue of urbanisation in a global policy framework.

Today’s large cities are concentrated in the global south but the fastest growing urban agglomerations are medium and small cities and cities with less than 1 million inhabitants located in Asia and Africa.

Small cities can struggle with long term urban planning and fresh food supply, and national policies need to ensure the most vulnerable have access to nutritious foods. National urbanisation trends must be considered and urban policy makers need to take city size into account and anticipate what challenges each city might face.

Larger cities must deal with how to make overburdened infrastructure more efficient while smaller cities will have to plan the most effective way to implement new infrastructure to reach those most in need.

Change has begun – the city of Milan in collaboration with more than 100 other cities including London, New York, Amsterdam, Dakar, Hanoi, Maputo and Shanghai signed the Urban Food Policy Pact at part of the Expo Milan 2015. Many cities have already begun implementing comprehensive municipal food policies. A peri-urban farming ring around the mega city of Shanghai provides over 50% of the city’s vegetables. The local government of Belo Horizonte created public restaurants that sell affordable and nutritious food.

These city initiatives are a strong starting place, however local municipal policies are not enough. Many countries, especially low and middle-income countries (LMICs), will become increasingly reliant on food imports. Food trade makes the most at risk populations more vulnerable to global price increases. For low income families this means that they can be forced to substitute their diet with cheaper bulk foods that have little or no nutritious value. National and international governments must take into account urban food systems when planning agricultural policies and international trade policies.

This issue is further complicated by climate change. Making food systems more resilient must become a crucial component of urban food policy. One area to look at is post-harvest loss. We need to make sure we waste less, distribute better and in some circumstances re-purpose what could have been waste. Urban policy and planning of efficient infrastructure must take food systems such as storage and transport into account to enable the access and affordability of fresh foods.

Urban food deserts have been an increasingly important concern in high income countries such as the US where supermarkets have retreated from low-income areas, closing downtown stores and opening mega-stores on the urban periphery. The disappearance of local supermarkets has made access to healthy and affordable foods more difficult.

In Africa food deserts take on a different form. Food deserts in Africa would be characterised as urban neighbourhoods with high food insecurity with a mix of formal supermarkets and informal food markets — existing side by side but nutritious food still remains limited. These urban food deserts may have previously been ignored because food security and undernutrition has often been seen as a rural issue rather than an urban one in the development agenda.

It is vital urban planning takes context-specific consumer and private sector trends into the picture. Regulation to increase access is one step governments can take. This should include working with informal retailers such as street vendors as well as anticipating the growth of supermarkets and ensuring the nutritional quality and affordability of products is increased.

We need to continually be proactive to address how food systems are going to adapt to demographic shifts especially in Asia and Africa where most of the urban growth will continue to evolve. The regulatory environment has a key role to play at this critical juncture in time and must address key issues of sustainability and ensure the most vulnerable populations don’t get left behind.