Speaker Series #13 – Building Effective Food Systems for Cities

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Cities on the Frontline Speaker Series

#13 –  Building Effective Food Systems for Cities

The thirteenth edition of the Cities on the Frontline Series explored the challenges and opportunities towards developing resilient and equitable urban food systems. In the face of rapid urbanization and climate change, urban policymakers must urgently pursue food policies and investments that ensure steady and sustainable supplies of food products for urban residents, while preparing for challenges presented by disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Gayatri Acharya, Lead Economist with the Agriculture and Food Global Practice of the World Bank, began by describing the current state of urban food systems, describing pressing urban food policy challenges, and highlighting opportunities for improvement in the Asian context and beyond. Dr Acharya explains that while urban food systems are fundamental for the realization of city-specific priorities and national food policy objectives, they are often ignored in urban policy, with cities cast as passive end-recipients of food supply chains. She warns that if cities fail to prioritize urban food systems, their health and resilience will be threatened by environmental degradation, pollution and food insecurity, while undermining food-based urban livelihoods.

In presenting the RICH – foster reliable, inclusive, competitive, and healthy – food systems framework, Dr. Acharya introduces a framework through which urban policymakers can devise food systems that foster thriving cities and empower urban residents while safeguarding the natural environment.

Picking up where Dr. Acharya left off, Dr. Steven Jaffee, Lecturer at the University of Maryland, details the research and findings that led to the development of the RICH urban food systems framework.

A crucial element of their analysis was taking stock of food-smart urban policies, identifying cities where actions are already being undertaken, as well as cities that require urgent intervention. He delineates urban food policy patterns in the Asia region, demonstrating that while there is significant contrast across city sizes, income levels, and countries, there is space for improvement across the board.

Dr. Jaffee then describes the conceptual underpinnings of the RICH food smart approach. Using three dimensions – proactive, integrative and inclusive – they categorize cities according to “food-smartness”, and provide recommendations for improvement. Dr. Jaffee provides a systemic approach to identify entry points for food-smart urban action based on four categories: agriculture, consumers, food marketing and governance, concluding with a call to action for cities to experiment, adapt, collaborate and innovate in food policy.

The session continues with Dr. Tammara Soma, Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University, who presents a fourfold strategy for planning resilient urban food systems. Her analysis is centered on the concept of distancing, which includes both a spatial dimension, which refers to geographic separation in the food value chain, and a mental dimension, which refers to reduced interpersonal connectivity and diminished accountability. Exacerbated by rapid urbanization, both have a detrimental effect on the resilience of food systems through resource overuse.

Dr. Soma presents a strategy with four components:

  1. Justice – promoting equity;
  2. Systems approach – breaking institutional silos;
  3. Circularity – fostering a circular food economy and;
  4. Planning – promoting a sustainable integrated approach.

For each, she provides best practices, barriers and opportunities towards improving the resilience of food systems in urban settings.


Dr. Gayatri Acharya
Sector Lead for Sustainable Development, South Asia and Lead Economist,
Agriculture and Food Global Practice, World Bank

These are national issues, but they are gaining prominence in and around cities, and cities are starting to realize they need to take action, they need to start putting in programs and do some forward thinking in food systems.


Dr. Steven Jaffee
Lecturer, Agricultural and Resource, Economics Department,
University of Maryland

There is no single blueprint or recipe for cities to follow, how it can be tackled, how it can be done is going to vary by context, capabilities and the mandates that cities have

This is a field with a starting line, multiple stages, but with no finish line; even cities with a food-smart approach have work to do.”

Dr. Steven Jaffee & Dr. Gayatri Acharyas presentation


Dr. Tammara Soma
Assistant Professor, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University
and Research Director, Food Systems Lab

When we think of preventing or reducing food loss and waste, we are actually thinking of a transformation in values.

I look forward to seeing more planners and city builders in urban Asia who are deeply engaged in developing a more sustainable and just food system for all.

Dr. Tammara Somas presentation


Watch full session here:

Black climate change thematic icon with blue circular background. Black built environment thematic icon with blue circular background. Black economy and finance thematic icon with blue circular background. Black equity thematic icon with blue circular background.

Speaker Series #13 – Building Effective Food Systems for Cities