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.


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


Commentary - Food security beyond calories

In my role as Chairman of the world’s largest nutrition, health and wellness company, I know that changing the global food security agenda will take time, require a clear understanding of all the dimensions of the challenge – as well as the linkages between them. And it will also require an equally clear understanding of where targets may be conflicting.

Commentary - The Future of Food Aid

Earlier this week, I attended the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Agriculture and Food Security, and for the second year in a row heard from experts in the fight against hunger.

Commentary - From Dairy Farm to the Global Table

I was fortunate to be in attendance as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released their new report, “Advancing Global Food Security: The Power of Science, Trade, and Business” at the 2013 Global Food Security Symposium.

Live Blog - Chicago Council: Agriculture and Health Nexus Panel

“How many enemies can I make on this answer?” Dr. Shapiro boldly called for large agribusinesses like Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont to make all their information public and readily available. Dr. Shapiro criticized these companies for not being entirely honest about their goals and motivations.

Commentary - Addressing Food Security Beyond our Food Supply

I’ll soon be attending the Symposium on Agriculture and Food Security. It doesn’t happen often that world leaders, researchers and philanthropists have the chance to gather for two days to discuss the progress made in the past year – and the work that’s still ahead – in addressing food security challenges.

Commentary - Stretching the Food Aid Dollar by Building Strong Local Markets

Floods, typhoons and droughts. Market fluctuations and inflation. Unhealthy government transitions and local political flare-ups. Disease-ridden crops and tainted water sources. All of these shocks can devastate any country, but for nations combatting poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition, disasters often precipitate acute food security outbreaks that result in suffering and loss of life.