Private Sector Solutions to Urban Food Insecurity

The Reset the Table essay series is published weekly, describing today’s challenges to global food security and proposing U.S. government responses.

The viability of cities has become a newsworthy issue during the Covid-19 pandemic as cities have been disproportionally affected by the virus and have faced immense health and economic pressures over the past eight months. Equally important is the fragility of food systems in cities, which has become more visible during this same period. Food price hikes, ranging from 10 percent for eggs in New York City to 22 percent for rice in Lagos, have pushed vulnerable households to reduce their food purchases or opt for cheaper, but unhealthier, food options. According to the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of adults in the United States have utilized food banks, and cities in Africa and Europe have seen similar figures. These trends are further exacerbating “hidden hunger”—vitamin and mineral deficiencies—as well as decreasing immunity levels and fostering dietary-related health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

With rising urbanization rates, growing levels of congestion, and higher costs of land and real estate, cities are dependent on imports from global markets or from suburban and rural areas, exposing them to price hikes and shortages linked to temporary or prolonged disruptions. For example, Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity, is largely dependent on farmers in neighboring Ogun and Oyo states, aggregators from across the country, importers, and a few large multinational companies. Any slight disruption in these supply chains or transportation routes directly impacts Lagos residents. Cities in the United States and across the globe face similar dynamics, which, if left unchecked, will further exacerbate food insecurity and the associated health risks, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

To ensure food security in our cities during and beyond the pandemic, urgent, collaborative action is needed from key actors in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. There are at least three critical steps that we must take to build more food secure cities.

First, city governments should redesign their food systems to ensure efficiency. Every city should create a cross-sector food system task force to ensure effective planning, management, and governance. This task force should be composed of leaders from the agriculture, health, education, technology, manufacturing, trade, transportation, water, climate, gender, financing, entertainment, and communications communities who commit to working collaboratively to redesign food systems to meet the needs of all citizens, especially the most vulnerable. The task force should leverage technology to accurately track the supply and demand for food in their cities, the level of food waste, and food prices to understand where the bottlenecks and gaps exist. This will require greater collaboration between all key stakeholders in the food system to share data via open-source platforms. Understanding where there is an abundance or shortage of food—and who needs it most—will enable key actors to design and implement rapid and effective interventions to meet urgent needs, and also to plan for the medium and long term.

Two distinct global city governments—Austin, Texas and Nairobi, Kenya—have demonstrated the promise of cross-sectorial governance and strategic policies to address food security. In Austin, the city government created the Austin-Travis County Food Policy Board focused on improving “the availability of safe, nutritious, and affordable food that is grown locally and sustainability for all residents, particularly those in need.” Through broad-based consultations and convenings the city developed the Austin Healthy Food Access Initiative, which led to the emergence of the Fresh for Less program, enabling the provision of fresh fruits and vegetables to 19 communities through healthy corner stores and mobile markets operated by community and nonprofit organizations. The city also surveyed 900 food retail establishments and invested in extensive research captured in the annual State of the Food System report to inform policymaking, strategic planning and investments.

The Nairobi City County, through the introduction of the Urban Agriculture Promotion and Regulation Act in 2014, provided a comprehensive regulatory framework to support urban agriculture, promote food security, and ensure standards for food safety and organic waste management. This Act has fostered the emergence of a wide range of urban farming initiatives and created an enabling environment for food processors operating in the city.

Second, private sector companies operating in cities should invest in increasing the availability and affordability of nutritious food. This will require leadership from the food processors, logistics providers, wholesalers, retailers, food service providers, restaurant owners, cooks, and chefs to leverage innovation and technology to reduce the costs in critical value chains and share infrastructure, including trucks and storage facilities. These actors should also invest in research and development to create new, affordable, and nutritious food products.

Equally important is minimizing nutrient loss during the process of transporting, processing, packaging, and retailing food. Companies should comply with food safety protocols and fortification standards to address hidden hunger. Through strong, city-based industry associations, companies should self-police to ensure that they maintain food safety standards and minimize food fraud. They must resist the urge to price gouge or horde and rise to the higher ideals of shared corporate values, where they put the needs of their customers ahead of their requirements for profits and shareholder value. Multinationals should also ensure equity and inclusion in their supply chains and distribution channels, in all the cities in which they operate, with zero tolerance for double standards between their operations in cities in, for example, North America versus on the African continent.

Through the Strengthening African Processors of Fortified Foods (SAPFF) program, companies operating in cities such as Lagos have recommitted to complying and even exceeding compliance standards. SAPFF works with leading food processing companies in Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania to improve their capacity to produce and sell fortified foods for local markets. Through the Micronutrient Fortification Index (MFI), it also strengthens peer review and corporate measurement.

Third, educational institutions, community groups, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations should invest in and support innovative approaches to growing food in cities. This should include promoting urban and soilless farming, rooftop and community gardens, physical and digital farmers markets, and innovative approaches for minimizing food waste and recycling food. If communities are empowered to grow healthy food nearby and create spaces for innovation and sharing, they will be more cohesive and stronger. Similarly, the media and faith-based organizations should raise consumer awareness and empower communities to make more informed food choices and demand nutritious food.

It is promising that the Green Cities Initiative, launched by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2020, mirrors many of the recommendations outlined above. This initiative hopes to improve the livelihoods and well-being of 1,000 cities by 2030, fostering the “development of local government and community capacities, promoting local food production and short supply chains, while reducing the urban and peri-urban environmental and climate footprint. It also plans to promote green agro-processing hubs, efficient food distribution, improved food environments and management of water resources and food waste along circular economy principles.” Through the Green Cities Network, cities will share best practices, successes and lessons, and collaborate on shared visions.

Ultimately, the collective actions of the city governments, private sector, community organizations, and the media will foster the availability and affordability of more nutritious food in our cities. In addition, focused efforts to strengthen and connect the entire food ecosystem will ensure greater resilience to future shocks.

Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is the co-founder of AACE Foods, Sahel Consulting, and Nourishing Africa and has over 25 years of international development experience. Her book, Food Entrepreneurs in Africa: Scaling Resilient Agriculture Businesses, will be published by Routledge in 2020.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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