March 17, 2017

Guest Commentary – Integrating Urban Planners in the Fight against Malnutrition

By Sunniva Bloem, Urban Nutrition Associate, GAIN

The need for cross-sectoral partnerships to act on global food and nutrition security has never been more pertinent, and is particularly true of today’s urban malnutrition challenges. Historical analysis has shown that the agriculture and nutrition sector have not maintained common goals. Since the ICN2 this has improved but the rapidly urbanizing cities in Asia and Africa cannot afford to wait to incorporate urban planners in the fight against malnutrition.

By 2050, most of the world’s urban population will be living in Asia (52 percent) and Africa (21 percent). These regions are urbanizing much more rapidly than North America and Europe did when they had similar urbanization levels. It is therefore critical that we start planning burgeoning cities today in a nutrition sensitive manner. Initiatives such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and the EAT C40 Food System Network are promising starts to bring together urban, food, and nutrition actors. The Novartis Foundation also recently hosted a conference called Urban Health in Africa: Advancing Multi-Disciplinary Approaches in Cape Town, South Africa that also touched upon addressing underlying risk factors of chronic non-communicable diseases such as food systems and obesity in a multi-sector manner incorporating urban planners, health systems, and the private sector. 

However, we must continue to build momentum. We need nutrition and food security programming that tackles head on the underlying causes of urban consumer behaviors and dynamics driving food and nutrition security in cities.

Singapore shows the way. The island city nation of Singapore only 50 years ago was newly independent and home to high rates of poverty, malnutrition, and slum-like settlements. Despite being land scarce with minimal agricultural production capabilities, Singapore managed to become the third most food secure nation according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2016 Global Food Security Index. In the face of rapid urbanization it managed to dramatically reduce poverty, almost eliminate undernutrition, and rise to high income country status.

The key to Singapore’s success was a long term vision. It integrated master planning that was flexible enough to incorporate evolving needs through dynamic urban governance. Singapore invested in a wide range of activities from nutrition education in schools, to ensuring that trade facilitated the importation of a wide range of affordable food products, to working with urban planners and developers to upgrade hawker centers (street food) to make them safe but remain affordable.

In this highly modernized metropolis, street food has remained an integral part of the city. This was a conscious choice of the government that ensured that each neighborhood still contained a designated hawker center. This was done in a manner that allowed food prices to remain fairly even and affordable across the city despite differing locational real estate prices. Most stalls sell a full meal for about S$3-6 (quite affordable for Singapore standards). However, in many hawker centers, the NTUC Foodfare (a business established by the Labour Movement in 1995) also set up stalls that sell healthy meals (choice of 2 veg, meat, and rice) that are culturally accepted for only S$2.70. Buying a meal at this stall helps pay for the subsidized meals they sell to the needy and special groups for only S$1.50-2.00. This is a great feat for a city where cooking at home is expensive and other food retail options tend to escalate steeply in price. This type of innovative public-private partnership is exactly what cities need to improve their food systems.

Contrary to common belief, food insecurity has recently been found to be higher in urban areas than rural areas in Asia. Exchange of best practices for urban nutrition policy/initiatives and nutrition sensitive urban planning must become a priority for national and city governments. However, even when city governments are taking action on nutrition and food security, efforts are also required to coordinate initiatives and develop a more integrated framework for action. For example, sectors within municipal governments such as the health division, can be completely unaware of what other sectors may also be doing to address challenges of food and nutrition security such as the social protection, economic, planning, technology, and policy divisions.

In the Netherlands, 12 Municipal Counselors and Mayors, a Provincial Government, and three Ministries signed a City Deal ‘Food on the Urban Agenda’ in January 2017 in order to cooperate with each other and the private sector to develop a cohesive food strategy for the country.

To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and New Urban Agenda we need multi-sectoral solutions. With that in mind, we need to ensure all priorities are met so the urban poor aren’t left out. This will require adding urban planners to food and nutrition multi-stakeholder partnerships. City governments can be game changers in nutrition. Furthermore, we need integrated solutions that link together different departments in order to create the impact necessary for change.


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.


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