The Human Face of Urban Food Systems

Navigating a market in Delhi, India. Photo: J.Hodur/A4NH

Today, half the world’s population lives in cities. That share will jump to two-thirds by 2050, with much of the growth occurring in Africa and Asia. Given the pace and scale of urbanization, combined with global pressures on food systems such as climate change, a number of initiatives have emerged in recent years to help the world’s cities build sustainable and resilient food systems.

Among them are the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, which is rallying 184 city mayors around “food” as the entry point for the sustainable development of growing cities; the C40 Urban Food Systems Network; the Food for the Cities Programme; and ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability.

These organizations and networks are working to provide resources, frameworks of action, and assistance to guide cities toward resilience. Participation in them is voluntary and open to cities from the wealthiest to the poorest countries. Their focus is on key aspects of development, such as urban planning, technology, the built environment, resilience and adaptation to climate change, and governance.

While these initiatives are critically important to support healthy and sustainable urbanization, they need to be complemented by evidence-based actions that will support the urban poor’s access to healthy diets in low- and middle-income countries and enable them to achieve optimal nutrition and health.

Meat for sale on a street corner in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: J.Hodur/A4NH

Rapid urbanization has created unprecedented challenges for food systems, and as cities in these countries continue to expand, they are struggling to provide affordable, healthy diets for everyone—let alone the most vulnerable populations. As a result, urban centers are increasingly facing challenges of both undernutrition—in the past, a problem primarily associated with rural areas—and the rising prevalence in overweight and obesity and diet-related noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and some forms of cancer.

To reverse these trends, we need to go beyond asking how we can make cities more resilient to also asking how we can build resilience among city dwellers. This means complementing ongoing efforts with evidence-based program and policy actions that take into account the human dimensions of urban vulnerability—particularly, the problems the urban poor confront daily. This approach requires a new way of looking at cities—one based on the awareness that they are home to diverse populations with different cultures and traditions as well as challenges, constraints, and needs.

Good data is key to this effort. Yet all we currently have is a patchwork image pieced together from data collected too long ago and often from developed countries facing different problems altogether.

To understand the unique needs of the urban poor, we need up-to-date, wide-ranging data that provide a multidimensional, real-time picture of their lives and vulnerabilities. For example, we need to know what the urban poor are eating and where they source their food—from informal markets, supermarkets, or urban gardens; how personal preferences, gender, time constraints, household structure, and characteristics of the food environment shape these patterns; and how all these factors vary among those living in lower-income neighborhoods vs. those living in slums vs. those without fixed residences. We must fill these knowledge gaps. This means conducting new research using cutting-edge and standardized methodologies across a spectrum of cities in different regions and countries. Building this evidence base—in addition to documenting, evaluating, and learning from current and past initiatives and policy interventions—will enrich the policy dialogue and enhance global efforts to improve the well-being of poor urban dwellers.


Marie Ruel is Director of the Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division (PHND) at IFPRI, and serves on A4NH's Planning and Management Committee as IFPRI's representative.

This post is excerpted from a post that originally appeared on IFPRI's website, which IFPRI Senior Editor Tracy Brown and PHND Senior Research Fellow Jef Leroy contributed to. Read the full post here.