Research shows that due to the corona measures, the Dutch unhealthy have come to live. After a significant dip, global greenhouse gas emissions have now returned to pre-pandemic levels. Fortunately, the new cabinet seems to be finally focusing on healthy and sustainable food. The coalition agreement contains promising plans, such as the introduction of the sugar tax, curtailing children’s marketing and lowering the tax on fruit and vegetables to 0%.
Municipal elections great opportunity
But the transition to a healthy and sustainable food system will not succeed with policy from The Hague alone. Food policy is also needed at the local level. Municipalities are closest to their residents and can tailor policies to the local context. They therefore have an important role. Fortunately, 2022 offers a great opportunity: the municipal elections.
Those elections could well be the moment to get local food policy in the Netherlands off the ground. To this end, municipalities must do two things: put healthy and sustainable food on the agenda as a municipal policy task and make policy that is actually effective, with concrete goals. Because the Netherlands has the so-called open household principle, a municipality is free to commit itself to goals that it considers important. Food is such a goal and a municipality can put this on the agenda. For example, a municipality can start with a food agenda with which it focuses on improving the entire food system – from farm to fork.
Such diaries can now be found online, such as those of Amsterdam, Wageningen or Groningen. But implementing such an agenda and making an entire food system healthy and sustainable can seem like a frightening task. Because: where to start? The answer is: start small. A system approach is not the same as doing everything and doing everything at the same time. It may be more successful to start with some element of this, such as providing children with food education, reducing food waste, or making the food environment healthier with fewer providers of unhealthy food.
A systems approach is not the same as doing everything and doing everything at the same time. It may be more successful to start with a part of this
In practice, municipalities can do a lot for a healthier and more sustainable food system and many activities are already carried out by a small group of frontrunners. For example, it is possible to adjust the location policy so that snack bars can be banned from schools. Or adjust the range in the municipal company restaurant and change the standard option for meals to vegetarian. Or to adjust the youth sports subsidy scheme so that it also stimulates a healthy eating environment at the sports club. Facilitating municipal compost facilities for residents is also an option, as is offering a masterclass on sustainable soil management for farmers. The municipality can also include sustainability and health criteria for food in tender or event policy and, for example, limit advertising for unhealthy food aimed at children in public transport.
Systems thinking not very concrete
As soon as food is on the agenda, policy with concrete objectives is needed. The municipal food policy that is in place is still too often stuck in abstract terms and big ambitions, so that in practice it causes little change. One of the reasons for this is the popular food system approach. That is a very nice concept, because it lists all the elements for a sustainable food policy. However, the danger of this systems thinking is that municipalities place too much emphasis on the approach and too little on the content. They name a whole list of abstract goals that indeed cover the entire food system, but they do not make those goals concrete and do not name concrete problems or solutions.
For example, food policy becomes apolitical and difficult policy choices are not made. Municipalities, for example, focus on ‘combating food waste’ or on ‘reducing the use of pesticides’, thereby making connections between issues such as food waste, animal welfare and the environment. But what food waste do they prevent? That of consumers? The catering industry? The businesslife? And how do they prevent waste? Through communication campaigns? New legislation? Fines? And when are they satisfied? What if food waste stops increasing? Or decreases? With half? Or just a little? And when exactly?
Mixing policy instruments
To be effective, food policy needs to be a lot more concrete. In addition to major ambitions, municipalities must include concrete goals and identify the policy instruments to achieve these goals, such as communication campaigns, subsidies or new legislation. While separate policy instruments are a good start for policy implementation, it is probably more effective to use different instruments together. Currently, many municipalities seem to prefer soft, non-legally binding instruments, such as communication campaigns. Hard, legally binding, such as fines, are less popular. Municipalities must think carefully about the best mix of instruments to achieve their goals and not automatically resort to soft instruments. A combination of both soft and hard instruments is thought to be more effective.
Several municipalities in the Netherlands are now putting food policy into practice and show that the municipality is an important player in the food transition. For example, Ede was the first municipality in the Netherlands to appoint a food alderman, Amsterdam made vegetarian the standard option for its company meals and the cities of the City Deal set up a Healthy and sustainable food environment (Almere, Amsterdam, Ede, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, Wageningen). ) is committed to a food environment where healthy and sustainable food is the easy choice.
The transition to a healthy and sustainable food system requires guts, municipalities that take responsibility by putting food on the agenda and implementing robust policies. The municipal elections in 2022 are the perfect time for this. Councilors, aldermen and mayors: seize this opportunity.
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Municipal elections are a healthy opportunity – Will 2022 bring the breakthrough of local food policy? – Food log