Food Justice: Cities are Leading the Way
Stuart Gillespie 25 March 2024
Call for a blogs food justice: cities are leading the way

Written by Stuart Gillespie and Leticija Petrovich

Introduction: The divide in the Global Food System

We’re living in a divided world in which extreme wealth and extreme poverty are increasing at the same time. The wealthiest one percent of the world’s population have grabbed two-thirds of all new wealth created since 2020 – twice as much as the bottom 99 percent.

This widening gulf is nowhere more evident than in our global food system. Never before have we seen such a hyper-concentration of power – at all points from farm to fork. Upstream, just four companies control 90% of the global grain trade, while at the retail end, the top ten food companies collectively account for a US$445 billion global market share. The system is tilting at a crazy angle as large transnationals seek out new markets for their ever-expanding portfolio of products, most of which are damaging the health of people and the planet.

Many citizens in many countries have limited physical and economic access to healthy food. Surrounded by toxic food environments, flooded by adverts for ultra-processed foods, they have little real agency.

This is the essence of food injustice – it’s not just the limited access, it’s the inability to do much about it. Most marginalised families and communities are not being ‘left behind’ as if they’re lost property or they’re dragging their feet on the road to prosperity. They are being actively held back – shackled by multiple forms of interlocking inequity.


Systemic Roots of Inequity

The global food system not only encompasses inequities, it generates them. We need to remember that inequality and inequity are linked, but different concepts. Inequities are the upstream structural drivers of inequalities in outcomes. If we want to tackle inequalities (in food security, nutritional or health outcomes), we have to get to the systemic roots of inequity – social injustice, distributional unfairness and social and political exclusion.

To turn this into the positive, we need to pursue ‘fair shares’ (equality of outcome), ‘fair play’ (equality of opportunity), and ‘fair say’ (autonomy and voice).  

Food justice for all cannot be achieved within our prevailing food system. It’s a food system designed in the last century for a different purpose – to mass-produce cheap calories. It needs a fundamental transformation. Not more incremental tweaks, but a radical shift towards a food system in which power is better balanced – in which human and planetary health, not  short-term profit, is prioritised.


City-led initiatives: A beacon of hope

While national governments are often beset by policy inertia, many cities have seized the initiative to show what can be done.


In 2021, Birmingham City Council in the United Kingdom (UK), launched the Global Food Justice Pledge (GFJP) at the 7th Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) Global Forum. The aim was to encourage collaboration and collective working, empowering the voices of cities nationally and internationally. The Pledge emphasises the need for cross-cutting policies to create and support an affordable, nutritious and sustainable food system for all citizens, whoever they are, wherever they are.

To support the Pledge, in 2023, a database of strategies, policies, and interventions tackling food injustice was developed, along with a toolkit. The toolkit provides an overview of evidence-based approaches to address food injustice that can be adapted and implemented at a local level. Insights, evidence and experience captured within the database – along with a self-assessment tool – can support cities in transforming their food systems to ensure food justice.


Insights from regional actions against food injustice

In 2023-2024, as part of the MUFPP Fellowship Programme run by Food Foundation, a series of webinars was run focused on different regions – sub-Saharan Africa (17 December 2023), the Americas (14 February 2024) and Asia and Pacific (13 March 2024). In each event, MUFPP partner cities shared their experiences in combating urban food injustice alongside regional experts. While each webinar highlighted unique initiatives and insights, the following common themes emerged, emphasizing the global nature of food justice challenges and solutions.


Community-Led Initiatives: A common theme across all regions was the emphasis on community-led and grassroots efforts. Whether through urban agriculture projects, community grocers, or land-based initiatives led by refugees and migrants, the power of community action in shaping food systems was universally recognised. Knowledge, capacity-strengthening and tools to grow food, understand the local food system, and advocate for rights were crucial for advancing food justice. Karen Washington, activist and educator from New York City, underscored the importance of continuing calls for a shift in power back to communities. Drawing from the historical context of food production and indigenous principles of food sovereignty, she highlighted the pivotal role of collective action in transforming food systems.

Government and Policy Integration: Government action is key for food justice. Many examples were cited across regions, including Baltimore’s food policy and planning integration and Kenya’s right to food commitment becoming enshrined in its constitution. Food justice is increasingly being embedded in policy – as a goal in itself as well as a lever for mobilising systemic action. The challenge however remains as to how to turn words and commitments into legally-enforceable action on the right to food. Busiso Moyo, Public Health Regional Policy and Research Specialist at the University of West Cape spoke about the need for stronger advocacy to protect and fulfil citizens’ right to food.

Access to Healthy Food: Another universal concern was the limited physical and economic access to healthy food for marginalized and low-income communities. Elizabeth Kimani-Murage, head of the Nutrition and Food Systems Unit at the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) spoke about the power of lived experience and participatory democracy in elevating the voices of citizens struggling for food justice in Nairobi. Food is available in the market but unaffordable for many.

Sustainability and Resilience: The need to transform food systems to prioritise sustainability, resilience, and the health of both people and the planet was another recurring theme. Shweta Khandelwal, Senior Advisor in Nutrition at Jhipego in New Delhi, , shed light on the ways in which environmental degradation, exacerbated by climate change, was impacting the nutritional value of crops, further perpetuating inequalities amongst marginalised urban communities.   



All speakers underscored the importance of addressing social injustice, distributional unfairness, and political exclusion. These similarities in both challenges and solutions underscore the need for a collective, multisectoral approach, encompassing community action and policy reform to create healthier, more equitable and resilient food systems.

Call for a blogs food justice: cities are leading the way
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