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  • Writer's picturemariannelefever

A healthy city, beyond cycling - #03: Healthy food for all

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

Cities around the world are rushing to create more cycling paths in the wake of the current pandemic. Cycling is a great starting point for creating healthier cities. However, it does not end there. In this series, we'll take a look at some other key aspects of a healthy city. Today's topic is Food Security. How can we provide healthy and affordable food for all?

Authors: Martina Germanà, Michelle Blom and Marianne Lefever

Previous topics in this series: #01: Child-friendly Cities, #02: Proximity

A healthy city can not exist without healthy food for all. We all need this fuel to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Amid the current crisis, food banks in Europe, Canada, and the USA have seen demand spike anywhere from 10% to 50%. This shows just how tight a budget many people are living on, even in good times. Food security is a growing problem, also in Western cities.

Food security is a complex problem that touches on many aspects of society. It is linked to the organization of our food value chain and how much land is available for agriculture. Urban sprawl, for example, can have a serious impact on the remaining productive land. But also rising housing prices, public transport access, or zoning bylaws play an important role. In many cities, families are spending an increasing amount of their income on housing and transit, leaving less on the table for everything else, including healthy food.

However, food security is not just about affordability, it is also about accessibility. As we mentioned in our previous article on Proximity, over 2% of all US households live in a food desert or a food swamp and in the UK it affects just over one million people. These are areas where not everyone owns a car and a supermarket selling healthy and affordable food is more than a mile away. There might be plenty of unhealthy food available in these areas - hence the “swamp” - but it is the healthy food that matters most.

source: Photo by Khaled Hossain from Pexels

Health Impact

High income or low income, almost every city in the world is affected by food insecurity and some form of malnutrition. In low or middle-income regions, undernutrition is often the main challenge. Leading to low birth weight and stunted growth in children setting them back early in their development. In upper-middle to high-income regions, food insecurity is strongly linked to increasing overweight and obesity. These areas often lack easy access to affordable healthy food but there is ample cheap fast food available. Especially children and adolescents are at risk here. There is, for example, a strong link between obesity rates and the presence of fast food within 400m around schools. If cheap fast food is readily available, it is the logical choice.

Food insecurity and malnutrition do not just affect our health and development though. They also impact our economy and aid in perpetuating poverty through lower productivity, poor cognitive function, learning deficits, and increased healthcare costs.

On the road to food security

Our food system is increasingly acknowledged as an integral part of our cities, just like transportation and housing. Though the topic of food is complex, urban policies and spatial design can play a significant role in shaping our food cycle, and its connection to our home, our workplace, public spaces, and public institutions. There are many examples of cities and organizations that have found interesting solutions to tackle food insecurity. So what can we do on a city level? The visual below provides some ideas on how urban policies and design might help in each stage of the food value chain.

source: PosadMaxwan/ Healthy City Global


Although centralized industrial food production can deliver cheaper products and dominate the market, it is often not the healthiest or most sustainable option. Local food production can provide a more sustainable, healthy, and resilient food network. However, it is challenged by competition in land-use, cost of labor, and planning policies that make local agriculture close to the city and the consumer difficult and a more expensive option.

How can planning help?

Urban policies can, directly and indirectly, help promote local food production. Municipalities’ planning and zoning by-laws can control farm sizes allowing for flexible food production in rural areas. They can reduce suburban expansion into prime agricultural lands and promote urban agriculture with flexible zoning and allowances, being it a more traditional urban farm or a high-tech vertical one. Influencing zoning law could also mean proposing farming as a temporary land-use for vacant lots or new programming for abandoned buildings (indoor vertical farms).

What’s already happening?

  • Stichting Eemstadboerderij, a community farm in Amersfoort, NL. Anyone can buy a share or subscription for this local urban farm and enjoy its vegetable, flower, or egg harvest.

  • FAO has been supporting neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia, to build community gardens. More than 7500 families are now growing their own food with the possibility of selling the surplus. Based on the project’s success, Colombia is now developing political, , and governmental initiatives to promote similar schemes across the country.

  • Detroit is the biggest urban producer in the USA with a grassroots network of over 1400 urban farms. With 70% of the population obese or overweight, the lack of healthy produce is weighing on the local communities. This grassroots movement is not only tackling the food access issue but it is also creating a sense of community, jobs, and safer neighborhoods.

Source: By Geomartin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Similar to food production, small and medium-sized processing businesses are pushed out of the market by larger global competitors. Local food producers often face high property tax for on-farm processing, forcing them to ship their local produce to centralized processing plants far away. Locally caught Belgian shrimps, for example, are sent all the way to Morocco for peeling and are then imported again for local consumption.

How can planning help?

Municipalities should aim to direct their policies to promote processing facilities in a community processing center or on the local farmland itself. Policies can support various local types of processing facilities like mobile abattoirs or incubator kitchens. This could happen through zoning allowances (allowing food processing in urban areas), lowering taxation of local food processing plants, and community involvement in the access of farm-fresh food.

What’s already happening?

  • This German mobile abattoir is keeping meat processing local and avoids the supermarket as an intermediary seller, keeping the food chain short and simple.

  • In Amsterdam PLUK! Groenten van West is an urban farm where paying an annual fee, anyone can go and harvest their own food weekly. Just one example of many similar initiatives around the globe.

Distribution and Consumption

As we discussed in our Proximity article, having all basic needs within walking distance is a fundamental goal for every neighborhood. It is especially important when it comes to affordable and healthy local food. While local organic shops and farmers’ markets can be popular in certain neighborhoods, they often come at premium prices. But changing one’s diet does not only depend on access and cost. It is also influenced by so-called ‘Foodscapes’ - the convergence of public space, public life, and food spaces. Especially youth and children are highly susceptible to this when in search of a quick bite and a place to hang out. If the cheapest, closest option with the friendliest staff is a fast food place, then that is where they will go every day.

How can planning help?

Mobile food markets and farm-to-table initiatives can bring healthy and affordable local food to underserved communities. By providing public space and easy permits for them, policies can boost these initiatives. When it comes to foodscapes, concrete guidelines like these from Danish Gehl Studio’s research could be incorporated into policy and project briefs.


What’s already happening?

  • In the 1990s, Belo Horizonte in Brazil was one of the first cities to create a comprehensive food security plan and integrate it into its city planning process. Appointing a municipal secretary for food supply, security, and nutrition changed everything. Today, this approach is still looked at as a global best practice.

  • In Toronto, the YMCA operates a Harvest Share Program. A membership program that delivers a share of their local organic farm’s harvest at different YMCA centers where you can pick it up on a weekly basis. Bringing the farm-to-table concept into an environment that many vulnerable groups feel comfortable with and linking it with food education through their youth camps that help out on the farm.

  • Mobile Food Markets are popping up all over North-America. In Washington D.C. for example, a retired school bus is bringing local, sustainable produce to schools, parks, churches, and senior living facilities in underserved communities. Almost half of their produce was sold to customers who are depending on some type of government food support.


Cities often lack the capacity to collect and process food waste in a sustainable way. However, when we look at waste as a resource and the food value chain as a circular process, food waste collection and reuse can have very interesting applications and contribute to better food security.

What is already happening?

  • Community Composting Rochester, NY Compost Service is a great initiative launched in a district in New York to collect all organic waste and reuse them for the new planting season. A good habit for each community member and an important boost to curb the need for landfills, replenish our soils, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

  • A collaboration between Canadian retailers and food banks provides almost 13 million lbs (5million kg) of food to food bank users on a yearly basis. Food that would otherwise go to waste and end up in a landfill.

As food insecurity threatens an increasing part of our urban population, we can no longer neglect the role city planning and design can play in tackling this challenge. When we want to build healthy cities, access to affordable healthy food is a crucial part of the story. Entire communities and even cultures are built around food. Local healthy food can create jobs, community, and provide children with a good start in life. Making that healthy food transition happen in our cities means improving every part of the food value chain so everyone has equal access to the healthy nutrients we all need to thrive.

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