Food citizenship is a movement “which imagines and creates a different way that we can all meaningfully participate in a more just and resilient food system and food future”. This idea of a ‘citizen’, rather than a ‘consumer’ is championed by the Food Ethics Council, which has researched and spoken on the potential of collective effort and community resilience. For example, looking through the lens of Food Citizenship allows the reframing of food poverty as disempowerment. This means rebuilding the issue as not simply an economic concern (with economic solutions). Instead, with citizenship and community resilience comes social, environmental, political, and emotional dimensions.
With the recent UK government response to the National Food Strategy criticised, even by lead advisor Henry Dimbleby, is now the time to rethink our approach to improving food systems and hand back full control to citizens, including local and City community leaders,who can provide innovative solutions knowing how best to serve their cirizens? Recommendation 14 in the recent UK National Food Strategy called for local authorities to put in place a food strategy in partnership with the communities that they serve, discussing the need for a joined-up approach not only within Government but across the food industry and communities”. In this article, we’ll take a look at some examples of joined-up approaches between local communities, cities, and countries demonstrating food citizenship in action.
But first, why exactly does community matter, and why is it so important?
Community matters because as humans we crave meaning in our lives. In connecting meaningfully with others, we feel belonging and a greater sense of purpose. From an evolutionary and survival perspective, human beings came together because there was safety in numbers. Times have certainly changed, and in our modern-day climate, we now foster communities for a wide range of social and welfare reasons, both in person and increasingly online through social media platforms. So how can we harness this ever-evolving community spirit to make positive changes to our food systems?
Below are a few examples of local or city initiatives, focussed citizens as active participants within the food system, that made positive changes in their communities, countries, or the wider world. Many started off small and grew to make a huge impact. Covering different cities and countries around the globe, they highlight the power of citizenship and community spirit in taking action to make real, tangible differences to food systems, population health, and livelihoods.
In France, as seen around the globe during the pandemic, COVID-19 compounded existing food insecurity concerns. As a result, and in a swift response, citizens and communities banded together to provide emergency solidarity food baskets supporting both low-income families & farmers. What started as an initiative in one small region quickly spread across the country. Launched in April 2020 in the Nord-Pas-de Calais region, a program initially inspired by the European food solidarity baskets approach was designed to provide a food systems solution. This solution supported multiple target groups whilst improving the determinants of health (the range of personal, social, economic, and environmental factors that influence health status) for citizens and food producers, which include food security concerns for those struggling during the pandemic, as well as risks to physical health and mental wellbeing due to changes in diet and isolation during national lockdown periods. From the outset, the solidarity baskets scheme only purchased market-quality food from local producers. The goal was to provide those in need with a more nutritious and varied diet, creating the opportunity to explore a diversity of foods that may not otherwise be affordable or accessible. “It’s interesting for children because they discover new names for fruits and vegetables, new varieties, new flavours”, said Saadia Pin, a resident from the village of Roussillon village where partners and citizen groups in the community distributed 500 baskets to families facing an increased risk of food insecurity.
As data suggested that lockdown increased social health inequalities, with less instances of home-cooking by those experiencing financial difficulty – the emergency food baskets were not only free, but supplemented by a range of support services. At collection points, dietitians suggested recipes, provided meal preparation guidance, and shared healthy eating tips with the goal to help recipients make the most of the food provided and learn new skills for the future. The food baskets also benefitted farmers by stimulating much-needed demand for local food products during a tumultuous period. In some cases, families were even encouraged to pick up their baskets from the local farmers themselves. “This allows them to get to know the producers and then get into a certain habit of consuming locally,” explained William Meurillon with MSA Nord-Pas-de-Calais. As a result of the solidarity baskets, farmers were able to take advantage of new short-term markets for their products, avoiding lost income whilst reducing food spoilage. In the long term, the hope is that the initiative will lead to greater demand and interest in locally produced foods, shortening supply chains in the future.
In addressing several determinants of health and well-being (including food security, physical and mental health) through connecting families and citizens with local farmers and different social services – the food baskets scheme is a great example of an emergency response improving food security through community resilience and people coming together.
In Nigeria, the Lagos Food Bank Initiative (LFBI) advances multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) whilst bringing communities together through its work to end hunger and improve health. LFBI has demonstrated that it’s possible to address immediate food needs while also tackling root causes of food insecurity, such as malnutrition and poverty. After urgent need for food bank services (with an estimated 8.4 million people living in food insecurity in Lagos alone) the LFBI initiative was founded by Michael Sunbola in 2015. It continues to grow, driven by a mission to end hunger, reduce food waste, and address inequality through the provision of food, nutrition support services, education, and training.
Recognizing issues in both acute and chronic malnutrition, LFBI prioritises sourcing and distributing healthy and nutrient-dense foods which both satisfy immediate hunger and provide necessary vitamins and minerals required to prevent consequences of insidious chronic malnutrition such as diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), e.g. diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain cancers. Additionally, to reduce food waste and support local suppliers – LFBI procures food supplies from farms, retailers, and other partners to prevent excess food and crops from going to waste.
Complementing food bank provisioning which serves immediate food needs, the LFBI runs additional programs which look to the future by combining nutrition, livelihood development, women’s empowerment, and education to improve health outcomes and alleviate poverty over the long term. The programs include a school lunch provisionment for vulnerable and food-insecure students, a diabetes self-management program, an affordable meal plan program for pregnant women and children, a family farming program supporting urban households to start small-scale farming operations near their homes, as well as many others. These programs are offered both independently as well as collaboratively with the support of citizen and community groups, national, and international partners, showcasing the scope and impact potential of LFBI’s operations.
While LFBI primarily serves Lagos state and the city that goes by the same name, the organization is now expanding its reach to other states in Nigeria alongside the support of more than 100 partner NGOs and 14,000 volunteers.Today, the initiative has reached over 2 million people in 160 communities. “Since 2015 we have served up to 160 rural and under-served communities in Lagos State and over 2,000,000 beneficiaries, especially, children between the ages of 0-16 years, the youths and vulnerable women in the rural communities have been impacted” – LagosFoodBank.org. This case study provides a great example of how a collective community initiative in one city can develop to inspire and make positive impacts to food systems in multiple cities on a national scale.
Additionally, some UK cities are also taking matters into their own hands to come together to support citizen movements to improve their food systems. As part of the Birmingham Food Revolution, the city recently launched an ambitious Food System Strategy running from 2022 – 2030, which aims to lead the way nationally with food system regeneration and food justice. According to the Birmingham council website, “the strategy is owned by the city and is driven by every citizen, organisation, and business in Birmingham collectively levering change, innovation, and development to create a future food system that every citizen is proud to be part of.” The Birmingham Food Strategy has a strong vision to “create a bold, fair, sustainable and prosperous food system and economy, where food choices are nutritious, affordable and desirable so all citizens can achieve their potential for a happy, healthy life.” The development of the strategy and action plan contains three key principles
- Collaborate – Through strengthening partnerships and building on existing good practice
- Empower – Through removing barriers and facilitating solutions
- Equalise – Through focusing on actions where they are needed most to reduce inequalities
While the strategy is fairly new at this stage, it has made a strong start by incorporating voices and perspectives from all dimensions of Birmingham’s variety of food environments. It is a testament to the power of collectivity – with both citizens and decision-makers coming together to make plans for positive lasting changes which serve the people who live there.
These short examples go to highlight the impact of citizens, communities, and cities coming together to improve food systems, whether at a local, national, or international level. In coming together and collaborating, we benefit from a range of ideas and perspectives and can achieve more.
”Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller
We want to hear your ideas. What do you think: should we focus more on placing citizens and communities at the forefront of our food systems planning through citizen panels and ideation groups? Would businesses and large multinationals benefit from citizen insights and perspectives? Or should governments be doing more to launch legislation and policies to guide the rest of us? What do you think is the best way to collaborate and advance in changing our food systems for the better?
(This blog was compiled by Bella Boersma on behalf of Tasting the Future)