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Julia Munroe: “Now is the time to stop looking at food as an economic asset.”

· 7 Minute Read
Julia Munroe

In order to tackle the social and ecological problems within the global food system, more cities are turning to urban agriculture. Although this might seem like a logical step, it is only part of the solution, according to researcher Julia Munroe. “If city governments shift their perspectives from looking at food as an economic asset towards something everyone has an equal right to and we can use to regenerate the planet, the difference would be incredible.”

During her Anthropology studies, Julia Munroe became interested in how we can alter social structures through systemic change. She currently works for United Cities Local Governments, and is a fellow of the 36×36 feminist network, which seeks more just economic pathways for planetary wellness. She is also completing her Master research on the role of city governments in promoting sustainable food transitions in Cape Town and Vienna. “When it comes to the potential of systemic change, one of the best systems to tackle is the global food system. Because it is an incredibly destructive and socially unjust system.”

Cities have a responsibility to ensure citizen’s right to food is met

Considering seventy percent Source: EU Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, 2019. ‘European Cities Leading in Urban Food Systems Transformation: Connecting Milan & FOOD 2030’. Page 5. of the world’s food gets consumed in cities, and city governments are responsible for many policies that determine urban dwellers’ relationship with, and access to food, this is where Julia decided to focus her research on. What are the ways city governments can maneuver to influence systemic food transitions within the boundaries of national mandates? How can they influence those mandates? And who do they need to collaborate with to do so?

In need of a holistic approach

According to Julia, one of the key challenges is the fact that local governments tend to focus on their own influence sphere to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes. This often leads to narrow policy decisions that don’t address the food system as a whole. “Over the last decade, sustainability has become a hot topic for cities. As a result, many city governments have put an emphasis on food in their policies, mainly by focusing on urban food production. In terms of giving people access to fresh and nutritious food, shortening food chains and boosting social cohesion, this trend holds potential. However, urban agriculture should not be used as a way to shear off responsibility for access to food, especially when appropriate support, funding and access to land are not provided.”

We have public healthcare systems and public education systems: what might a public food system look like?

The principles of ethical urban agriculture

If cities do wish to pursue urban agriculture, Julia suggests the following considerations:

  • Enable and support local people who feel confident to farm their own food and have the knowledge to do so
  • Incentivize both engaged citizens and businesses to grow food in an ecologically sound way, for example through subsidies or funding continued education
  • Access to land is crucial. Make sure urban food producers have access to land and they do not run the risk of losing it to urban development, both in the near and far future

Nevertheless, a broader, more systemic approach beyond ‘food-as-agriculture’ is critical as cities’ mandates touch on many more points of the food system.

A public food system

The current global food system is being dominated by a handful of private players who have little regard for people, animals and the planet. If city governments wish to create a fair, equitable and sustainable food system, they would do well to develop strategies which create enabling environments for a multitude of actors to take a more central role, rather than consistently favouring powerful corporates. “As highlighted by Kurt Ackerman, of the South African Urban Food and Farming Trust: ‘We have public healthcare systems and public education systems: what might a public food system look like?’ It is time cities began fulfilling the mandate of access to healthy, nutritious and sustainable food, instead of allowing big supermarket chains to decide who will and will not be able to afford it.”

Urban planning

This is where urban planning comes in. “Cities should literally be creating space for a more inclusive food system within their boundaries”, Julia says. “So instead of allocating an urban area to yet another big supermarket, reserve the space for a market where people can sell their local and regional produce. Incentivise informal traders and agro-ecological producers and processors by giving them space, funding and access to markets. This also protects farmers near cities who produce for the city. Because if you grow all the food for the city in cities, you run the risk of starving the livelihoods of the rest of the country.”

The call for a more fair, sustainable and equitable food system is in essence a feminist mandate

Public meals

Another big challenge, next to corporate domination, is the fact that many cities tend to place the burden of eating sustainably and healthily on individual citizens, Julia explains. “In Vienna, the government makes sure all schools, hospitals and nursing homes serve healthy, and where possible, organic and ecologically sourced meals. These types of feeding schemes are brilliant and should be more prevalent throughout urban environments. So that every single urban dweller has access to nutritious food on a daily basis, no matter what their circumstances are. By spending public budgets on agroecological and ethical practices, governments are setting an example, and ‘voting with their money’ for fairer systems.”

In addition to local governments providing the meals themselves, African Centre for Cities food systems expert Jane Battersby has highlighted the possibility of incentivizing small sized entrepreneurs and informal traders to sell healthy and affordable ready meals at hubs such as train stations. This could be especially effective in places like Cape Town, where many people are time poor, Julia explains. “They leave the house at five in the morning, spend hours on public transport and return late, after a long day. Rather than preaching self-sufficiency – expecting individuals to then cook a healthy meal, attend to their garden etcetera – local governments could take a more leading role in ensuring an enabling environment for accessing healthy meals.”

International city networks

If government officials feel constrained by national mandates or a lack of political support and funding, joining an international network like the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact In 2014, the Mayor of Milan decided to launch an international protocol aimed at tackling food-related issues at the urban level, to be adopted by as many world cities as possible. The Milan Urban Food Policy Pact was signed on the 15 October 2015 in Milan by more than 100 cities. You can find out more about it here: could be a step in the right direction. “Come together with other cities and co-create a set of food related goals that you as cities want to achieve before a certain point in time”, Julia says. “Then go to your national government and tell them: ‘Look, we have just signed this international agreement, other cities are working on this as well, so it is key you prioritize this and these are the ways in which you can enable us to enact it.”

Care and the city

For everyone who plays a role in shaping the urban future and is looking for an inspiring vision in order to do so, Julia suggests turning towards feminist frameworks. “The call for a more fair, sustainable and equitable food system is in essence a feminist mandate, because it is about caring for people and the planet. Feminism values ecosystems and all people for their inherent worth, not for their ability to maximize economic value. As soon as we start to embrace this worldview, systemic change becomes a possibility.”

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