Equity served: How local governments can ensure a just transition for sustainable food systems

Access, participation, and opportunity are three key ingredients local governments should consider when promoting local agriculture, reducing food miles, or supporting community markets. Explore how to implement them and real city examples to follow suit. 


*By María Alonso Martínez and ICLEI’s CityFood Team

In recent years, the conversation around sustainable food systems has focused more on resilience, justice, and the well-being of communities.

The good news: Throughout the whole value chain, there are many promising actions of circular and resilient food systems. The caveat: It’s essential to achieve true systemic change that balances environmental stewardship with social equity and economic viability, leaving no one behind. 

The concept of a ’just transition’ originated within the trade union movement, particularly in response to miners losing their jobs as coal activities declined. It has since been broadly applied, especially within the context of the energy transition, to address the financial impacts on low-income households. This concept is now gaining traction in discussions surrounding food sustainability encompassing the shift towards alternative protein sources, the formalization of food workers, and the promotion of agricultural practices that prioritize ecosystem health and social well-being, such as agroecological farming. Through the Urban Transitions Alliance equity framework, social justice and inclusivity in sustainability projects can be accelerated through three dimensions: access, participation, and opportunity.

1-. Access: Ensuring equity beyond affordability

One of the primary considerations for a just food systems transition is ensuring equitable access to healthy and sustainable food options. Although the right to food is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, more than 3.1 billion people were not able to afford a healthy diet in 2021. While economic affordability is crucial, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. As we advocate for regionally produced and sustainable food options, we must guard against exacerbating accessibility challenges related to geography and demographics, especially for low-income households. Implementing strategies such as subsidies and incentives for sustainable farming practices can help strike a balance between holistic affordability and sustainable food production:

  • Providing vouchers for low-income residents to access fresh and locally produced food at farmers’ markets, ensuring affordability and supporting local agriculture. For instance, as part of the U.S. Federal Government sponsored Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP), Baltimore residents over 60 are eligible to receive $50 worth of checks for fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and honey
  • Offering subsidies and land for community members to participate in community-supported agriculture programs, making sustainable and locally-sourced food options more accessible. Among various other initiatives, Portuguese municipal agency Cascais Ambiente allocates vegetable gardens on municipal land to citizens free of charge through its sustainable food strategy ‘Terras de Cascais’. 
  • Promoting (mobile) food markets in underserved neighborhoods to enhance access to fresh and affordable produce, address food deserts, and connect producers and consumers. The Badaro Urban Farmers in Beirut, Lebanon, offer producers low-cost options to sell directly to consumers, who benefit from affordable quality produce, community-building activities, and awareness campaigns at their weekly visit to the market
  • Identifying food environments, such as schools, that can act as catalysts for systemic and multi-actor change. The SchoolFood4Change project promotes a holistic approach to school meals in Europe, combining food education through the Whole School Food Approach, sustainable food procurement, and dedicated training for school cooks, to provide healthy and sustainable food to all children.

2-. Participation: Fostering inclusive food systems governance

Early and diverse stakeholder engagement is essential for building trust and ensuring that interventions are responsive to local needs. Fostering participation and co-creation in planning processes, through activities such as those described below, can ensure that diverse perspectives are considered:

  • Establishing local food policy networks to ensure inclusive decision-making and representation in shaping sustainable food initiatives. Such food policy networks are at the heart of the FoodCLIC project, which connects political actors, public authorities, civil society, academia, and the private sector to engage in learning journeys and real-life interventions in eight city-regions across Europe. 
  • Co-designing solutions with all food system actors, including vulnerable groups, to empower them in the transition to healthier and more sustainable dietary behaviors. This is what the FEAST project is striving to do by stimulating the co-creation of novel, practical, and scalable solutions that draw from communities, technologies, and policies.

3-. Opportunity: Bridging the skills gap for sustainable food system practices

As we transition towards more sustainable food systems, adopting sustainable farming practices and innovative business models can positively impact employment opportunities and livelihoods – as long as we bridge the inherent skills gap. To ensure a just transition, individuals must be empowered to find their livelihoods in the evolving landscape of sustainable food production, distribution, and consumption by investing in reskilling and upskilling programs: 

  • Launching training programs focused on agroecology and sustainable farming practices to equip individuals with the skills needed for evolving sustainable food production. In Seoul, Republic of Korea, the city-affiliated Seoul Agricultural Technology Center provides training and technical support on sustainable urban farming development to citizens who are interested in urban and peri-urban agriculture. 
  • Establishing incubators to support sustainable food entrepreneurs by providing resources and guidance to develop innovative and sustainable business models. As part of the AfriFOODlinks project, ICLEI is assisting women, youth entrepreneurs, and local businesses in Cape Town, Ouagadougou, Kisumu, Mbale, and Tunis in incorporating inclusive circularity principles into their business operations. Initiatives focused on training in regenerative agriculture and circular distribution models can create job opportunities and contribute to community resilience.
  • Developing job training initiatives focused on the evolving landscape of sustainable food production, distribution, and consumption for the local workforce to gain the necessary skills for new opportunities. In Copenhagen, Denmark, the city has facilitated and funded training and counseling on seasonal home cooking in 900 public kitchens

Feeling inspired to work further on just food systems transitions or to share your own best practices? ICLEI Circulars and ICLEI CityFood are always looking for local governments and partners to join the cause. Contact us at circular.development@iclei.org and cityfood@iclei.org for more information.