Covid-19 and cities: Lessons on maintaining access to good food

Covid-19 and cities: Lessons on maintaining access to good food

in News
This news is part of the following focus area:
Giulio Nascimben
International Communications Volunteer

“First, it is time to acknowledge the key role that cities and local governments play in ensuring access to food; second, it is time to rethink and build back better, making urban food systems more sustainable, inclusive and resilient” was the concluding message shared by Jamie Morrison, Strategic Programme Leader of the Food Systems Programme at FAO during the webinar “Cities and Covid-19 - food access for vulnerable communities in practice”, held on the 15th of May.

Rikolto, together with FAO, RUAF, ICLEI and UN Environment, organised this event focused on how three different cities, New York, Kampala, and Quito, responded to prevent the food insecurity generated by Covid-19.

The webinar, moderated by Charlotte Flechet, Rikolto´s International Food Smart Cities coordinator, is part of a series of webinars on the Food Systems Approach in Practice promoted by the One Planet Network’s Sustainable Food System Programme.

It is time to rethink our food systems and build back better

According to a FAO survey of over 500 local governments, the measures that have mostly affected urban food systems during the pandemic have been the suspension of school meals; the closure of restaurants, canteens, and street food outlets; restrictions on mobile street vending; restrictions on access to stores/markets and on the use of public transport.

Cities with high population densities are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic and many do not have adequate capacity to address the disruptions to their food system. This feature has highlighted the vulnerability of urban food systems, particularly for the 1.9 billion people living in the congested and overcrowded informal urban settlements.

Feeding New York

According to Kate MacKenzie, Director of the Mayor's Office of Food Policy, New York City has been dramatically affected by the disease which has also contributed to very large increases in food insecurity: from 1.2 million people to a projected 2 million people in early May. To address the emergency, the administration focused on two central workstreams: enabling food security and ensuring the continuity of the food supply chain while respecting security measures.

Citizens in need can subscribe to an emergency home delivery meal programme through different channels. Working closely with State and Federal governments and various stakeholders, the city developed specific policies and set up an architecture of nine food hubs where meal boxes are dispatched and then distributed to recipients by taxis, for which this is an alternative source of income. Up until recently, more than 22 million meals have been delivered. Moreover, 520 schools are open for grab ‘n’ go meals for both children and adults.

In order to ensure a robust food supply chain, it is important to maintain a close relationship with local and regional producers.
Kate McKenzie Director of the Mayor's Office of Food Policy, New York City

In order to protect food distribution while supporting the city’s food industry workers, the administration ensured that food carriers were able to access areas that were more affected by Covid-19 and developed relationships with producers and distributors to gather information to face a possible shortage. Finally, childcare provisions were restored for those people who work in the food sector.

Ensuring the continuity of Kampala’s food markets

During the daytime, Kampala hosts five million people, 70% of whom are employed in the informal sector. Food markets are the main source of food supply for the population, so when the country entered into lockdown, the city’s response focused on securing access to food markets, particularly in a context of informality.

Dr Esau Galukande, Deputy Director of Production and Marketing at Kampala Capital City Authority, shared the city’s experience in making sure that congestion in markets was reduced while maintaining a constant and safe delivery of food and safeguarding the livelihoods of vendors. Public and private mobility was suspended, whereas motorcycles, trucks and delivery vans could only transport goods. In addition, while seasonal and mobile markets have been suspended, permanent markets were allowed to operate under safety protocols. Still, the number of vendors has fallen by a third.

Even though the system is new to consumers and vendors, it has gradually been understood and accepted, securing and creating jobs along the food distribution chain. More than 400 cyclists joined the deliveries and at least 200 food distributors are involved at the moment.
Esau Galukande Deputy Director of Production and Marketing, Kampala Capital City Authority

After consultations with vendors and e-commerce operators, different options for food delivery were set up. E-commerce platforms were encouraged to include fresh food and were linked with participating vendors. On the other hand, citizens who used to buy food from local markets had to obtain the contact number of one of the vendors and provide them with a food shopping list. The products are then delivered by a trusted cyclist or “boda-boda”.

Quito’s resilience strategy to the rescue

Quito’s administration, together with the PAQ (Quito’s AgriFood Pact), a multi-stakeholder group focusing on Quito’s agrifood system, developed a resilience strategy to face manmade and natural hazards affecting the food system. The strategy proved to be useful during the pandemic, even though it was initially intended to face a different kind of challenge.

David Jácome Polit, Metropolitan Director of Resilience at the Municipality of Quito, shared his experience of how the resilience strategy helped inform Quito’s response. As part of the strategy, a team analysed food insecurity in the city and came up with various strategies across different scales and different stages of the food chain.

The first step was to identify and locate vulnerable populations in order to distribute resources more efficiently. In addition, the administration has been monitoring the city’s food supply and capacity to produce food by making monthly projections of sales and consumption in order to evaluate daily food availability. According to the results, food production has been stable, but distribution has had to be restored. Moreover,the city’s food storage system appeared to be inefficient.

In order to improve the resilience of cities, one needs to determine what makes the food system work, recognize who the actors of the system are and what their roles are, how regulations are affecting the way the system is functioning, analyse the interdependencies with other systems, and assess how the food system could be improved.
David Jácome Polit Metropolitan Director of Resilience, Municipality of Quito

In the second stage, the city coordinated food distribution among public and private actors to identify where additional efforts were needed to bring food to vulnerable populations. Neighbourhood organisations and the urban farming programme AGRUPAR have been key in identifying people who needed assistance and lowering the number of people who needed to leave home to provide food for themselves. Food banks and private donations have also been working well and their effort has been of great help to the city.

Final message

In conclusion, a resilient urban food system requires the active collaboration of various categories of actors across different sectors – working in silos will only lead to more problems down the road. Urban food resilience depends largely on the strength and flexibility of networks within the food system that are able to quickly convene and organise collective action.

Multi-stakeholder cooperation can serve as a flexible and inclusive platform for advising local governments and determining specific priorities tailored to local needs. Its function is to examine what works at different scales, understand how different parts of the system are interconnected and locate the links that are missing, so that regulations can be modified or designed to reduce the causes of food insecurity.

The experiences shared in this webinar showed that short supply chains, food SMEs, smallholder farmers and the informal sector play a key role in maintaining access to food during crises. In times of prosperity, let’s make sure that they are rightly valued and that we invest in the kind of multi-stakeholder processes that collectively help us build back better.

Did you miss it? No problem, check the recording and remember to share these lessons to inspire all actors in the food system to take action today for the the future of our food.

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Do you want to know more about how Rikolto is supporting cities to start initiatives to improve the quality and sustainability of their food systems? reach out our colleague via mail or comment on her LinkedIn page.

Charlotte Flechet
Charlotte Flechet
Good Food For Cities programme director