How local governments can put food on the table: An interview with ICLEI Global Food Program Coordinator Peter Defranceschi

2021 is the year of food. After the pandemic exposed how vulnerable food systems are, two global summits are placing food front and center: the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September in New York, USA (with the Pre-Summit gathering key actors from July 26-28 in Rome, Italy), and the Nutrition for Growth Summit this December in Tokyo, Japan. Finally, the issue of food is on the table, but local governments are still finding their seat. 

It has been nearly one year since Peter Defranceschi, Head of Brussels Office, assumed leadership of the ICLEI Global Food Program. Peter is an urban sustainability expert with over 15 years of experience with ICLEI, specializing in sustainable food consumption and production, with a particular focus on food procurement. 

In this interview, Peter dives into what’s necessary for a city to kick-start the transition to urban food planning, and how the ICLEI network can support cities in this work. Here’s what he had to say: 

Why should cities care about their own urban food systems? 

Most of us live in cities and small towns where more than 70% of the world’s food is consumed – and a third of that food is wasted. If issues arise around food (especially during the global pandemic), citizens go to their mayors, not to their presidents. Therefore, it is important that the cities are well-prepared and equipped to respond to emergencies with strong baseline data and resources to create food environments that are healthy and resilient. 

However, during the pandemic, cities had to respond to food shortages and disrupted supply chains almost instantly. When schools closed, many school children lost the main nutritious meal of their day which they used to receive at school. This is just one example of how cities can shape the life of its citizens in many different ways.  From food procurement to reshaping local food infrastructure and supply chains and encouraging behavioral change, local governments have an important role to play in shaping sustainable food systems and habits in their jurisdictions. 

What progress have you seen in the year since you assumed leadership of the ICLEI Food Program? 

Because of rapid urbanization and growing food pressures experienced in cities, more attention is being paid at the global level to the role of local governments in food systems. With this backdrop, it’s been a very busy year for the ICLEI Food Program. We have mobilized cities to sign the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration, gearing up for the UNFCCC COP26.

Through our partnership with FAO, ICLEI actively contributed to making cities more visible in the UN Food System Summit process by organizing Food Dialogues in 26 cities around the globe. It was an eye-opening experience having various stakeholders involved, ranging from mayors to farmers, academia, and experts, shaping the ten-year vision of a city’s food systems. This process also enabled some of our city leaders to engage more directly in global processes. As an outcome of cities’ engagement, Mayor Manuel de Araújo (Quelimane, Mozambique), Mayor Mustafa Tunç Soyer (Izmir, Turkey), and Ms. Betina Bergmann Madsen (Chief Procurement Officer of Copenhagen, Denmark) have all become UNFSS Champions upon ICLEI’s nomination, representing the voices of the city at the global stage. 

What were the key learnings from these City Food Dialogues?

The 26 cities that hosted FAO-ICLEI dialogues leading up to the UNFSS

The common issue that arose throughout the dialogues was cities having to respond to the pandemic in real time to distribute healthy food. Collaborating with national governments has gone smoothly in some cities. Other cities had to operate alone to acquire resources, and not all had the trained staff nor the required expertise. This brings back the importance of multi-level governance for food systems. Formal and informal mechanisms of exchange with the national government to discuss the healthy food environment and food emergency planning is essential.  

Equity was key throughout the dialogues. It was the core topic of the North America Independent Summit Dialogue, hosted by the City of New Haven and ICLEI USA. The dialogue reminded us to talk directly about the intersection of race and equity to bridge narratives for empowerment, and highlighted stark inequities in food sovereignty. All dialogues reinforced the importance of community empowerment and entrusting local leaders. 

Another important point is that healthy and sustainable urban food systems require a systemic approach. Challenges cannot be resolved by only addressing one specific sector such as agriculture or logistics. Food is a cross-cutting theme and requires cross-cutting solutions. For this, inter-departmental collaboration within the local government is key. 

In short, it is all about vertical and horizontal integration. Vertical, because national and local governments need each other to ensure resilient and healthy food systems, and horizontal because food is cross-cutting and only an integrated, systemic approach will do the trick.

How can a city kick-start its transition towards a sustainable urban food system, and how can ICLEI help? 

First and foremost, a city needs to invite all stakeholders to the table. Many cities begin by interacting with actors along the food value chain that would progressively support improving local food systems. All good practice needs a multi-actor market engagement approach to be impactful and successful. For cities where Food Policy Councils exist, acknowledging them as an important body that provides crucial pathways for transitions in the food systems – versus a trophy – is key.  

Another important step is the assessment of the demand and the supply of food in your city. The City of Milan (Italy), a pioneer city in urban food systems and leader of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, is a great example of how a city can build up a resilient food system by assessing the consumption and production of food in and around the city (see image below). Another example is Izmir (Turkey), which is pursuing a guaranteed purchase scheme for its peri-urban farmers. A local government is able to set clear targets and policies if they are well informed about the city-region food market baseline. 

Analysis of consumption and production of different food products in Milan


Where do you see the strengths of ICLEI’s Global Food Program?

Firstly, ICLEI is the only city network that works on urban sustainability from a holistic lens and operates globally with its 24 regional, country, and project offices. Our regional offices know the cities and citizens in their region best and speak their language. Secondly, when driving change with its 2,500+ local and regional governments, ICLEI does not only work with mega cities but also with small and medium-sized towns. When looking at demographics, it is those cities who need the most support to reform their food systems and reduce food poverty. The 2013 launched ICLEI-RUAF CITYFOOD Network is made up of small, medium and large local governments that are committed to accelerating their actions on sustainable and resilient urban food systems. 

The European and World Secretariats of ICLEI proved to cook well together when it comes to managing the ICLEI Global Food Program. We are strongly backed by the implementation support from the regional offices that are leading the Program’s Regional Clusters. Together, we support cities in building sustainable food systems via five entry points: 1) food circularity; 2) sustainable food procurement; 3) climate-friendly food; 4) healthy food access, and 5) city-region food systems. We provide concrete sets of intervention guidelines, such as the City Practitioners Handbook: Circular Food Systems, for cities to achieve sustainability in their own food systems. 

ICLEI is well positioned to support sustainable and healthy food systems at city and regional levels. The European Commission funded project SchoolFood4Change that is led by ICLEI and that will start its implementation this autumn is a good example of how we engage cities through projects. SchoolFood4Change is an exciting project on applying sustainable and healthy food procurement principles in over 3,000 schools, impacting over 600,000 children and young people in 12 EU Member States. We see that more funders are eyeing city-level food systems as a path to addressing the global climate, biodiversity and food crises. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the road to sustainable and healthy food systems leads through the cities and towns of our planet. ICLEI’s Global Food program is ready for this exciting journey!