March 23, 2016 | By

Growing Food for Growing Cities: Delivering Good Nutrition

On March 2, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a new campaign, “Growing Food for Growing Cities,” to explore the challenges posed to global food security by urbanization and the opportunities it creates for small-scale farmers to connect with burgeoning urban markets. We will publish one blog post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2016. Look for a new post each Wednesday, join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the Symposium live stream on April 26.
Diets Are Changing in Developing Countries
Low- and middle-income countries are currently undergoing a dietary transition—a shift from traditional diets of staple grains to ones that are more diverse. This transition has been prompted by a number of factors: rising urban incomes, which allow urban consumers to eat a greater variety of foods like meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables; the rapid pace of urban lifestyles, which prompts consumers to eat more processed foods in order to save time; and the expansion of retail food corporations into new markets, which increases the fast food and supermarket options available in developing cities.

This shift is, in some ways, beneficial. Urban residents who are able to access greater amounts of meat, dairy, fruits, and vegetables can consume more nutritious diets. And, the increased use of ready-to-eat foods allows women to spend less time on food preparation, so they can devote more of their time to the labor force or other activities. However, the nutritional benefit of this dietary transition often does not extend to the marginalized members of urban communities. As cheap, processed, fast foods become more readily available in cities, poor urban dwellers may increasingly rely on these unhealthy options for subsistence. As such, these populations are increasingly subjected to the double burden of malnutrition: a high prevalence of stunting and undernourishment alongside obesity, Type II diabetes, and other diet-related non-communicable diseases in the same population.  

View full-size infographic

Worldwide, about 1.5 billion people are overweight or obese, while nearly 800 million are chronically undernourished. The double burden is particularly prevalent in low- and middle-income countries. In India,  two billion slum dwellers are expected to populate urban areas by 2030: one in two impoverished urban children in India are underweight, and yet at the same time up to 70 percent of the inhabitants of Indian mega-cities are overweight or obese. Sedentary lifestyles, poor health education, and the availability of fast foods in growing cities certainly contribute to this phenomenon, as do the linkages between undernutrition and obesity; childhood undernutrition and stunting are increasingly associated with obesity or overweightness later in life.
However, poor nutrition profiles also result from the fact that impoverished urban residents lack access to a consistent supply of healthy and fresh foods. It is often the case that the most nutritious foods—meat, dairy, and horticultural products—are also the most perishable, and thus the most difficult and costly to supply. As such, supply chains must evolve to better provide these goods to burgeoning urban markets—at affordable prices and in greater quantities.
The Perils of Perishables
To deliver perishable goods from rural to urban areas requires a number of extra inputs than does the transport of, say, staple grains. Effective storage, refrigeration, and transport logistics are necessary to supply goods like meat, dairy, and fruits, but in many developing countries, there is little to no infrastructure to facilitate these processes. Some farmers and traders rely on public transport to access urban markets, but where public transport is unreliable, delayed transit times can jeopardize perishables. Similarly, a long trip over a poor road can damage delicate fruits and vegetables
The most significant barrier to the effective transport of perishables in developing countries, however, is lack of access to cold chain, or refrigeration, technology and reliable energy sources. India, for example, loses 4.4 billion pounds in fruits and vegetables to spoilage due to a lack of refrigeration technology; India is the world’s largest producer of bananas, but it captures less than 1 percent of the global banana market because less than 4 percent of its produce is transported by cold chain.
Processing—that is to say light processing, such as the pasteurization of milk or the milling of flour—can help to reduce spoilage in transit, but this too requires large investment and a steady supply of inputs. Without the necessary investment, processed foods may become scarce or too expensive for consumers to buy. In the early 2000s, Uganda, for instance, had a number of milk processing plants that were operating below capacity due to poor raw milk quality and a lack of cold storage facilities. Here, input scarcity drove up the price of the safe, pasteurized milk offered by the plants, and urban consumers instead bought cheaper, raw milk through the informal sector—risking illness due to spoilage.
Cold Chains for Food Security   
Despite the limitations of energy provision in low- and middle-income countries, clean technology—powered by renewable energy, rather than fossil fuels—may provide a solution to integrate cold storage into developing supply chains. A number of pilot programs have demonstrated the effectiveness of such technologies: a cooling system powered by biogas extracted from cow manure; cryogenic energy storage using low temperature liquids to cool food at scale; and modified home air conditioners that create low cost cool rooms.
UNICEF is scaling-up access to cold chain technologies in developing countries through the use of Solar Direct Drive refrigerators. These solar-powered models are cost-effective, easy to install, require little maintenance, and allow for cold chain optimization in regions with little or unreliable power supply. Such technologies are helping emergent supply chains to consistently deliver perishables that comply with international safety standards. On another note, the proliferation of cold chain technologies is also critical to addressing key global health challenges—these same innovations are used to support the dissemination of vaccines and life-saving medications.
Cold chain technologies are a critical component of a functional food system. They allow urban and rural consumers access not only to fresh produce, but also to lightly processed foods like meat and dairy that are essential to a nutritious diet. With the help of targeted investments, rural farmers and entrepreneurs can better access and employ these technologies. They can apply them to store perishables for their own families, rather than selling them before they spoil, and to support the nutrition and health of those in urban centers. Cold chain innovations represent a significant step in improving the affordability and accessibility of perishable goods throughout the food system—one step further towards effective supply chain operation and improved food security.
Read previous posts in the “Growing Food for Growing Cities” blog series: 

Food System Development to Improve Food Security

Urbanization Is an Opportunity for Many Small-Scale Farmers

Food Security in an Urbanizing World


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.