The road to COP26 starts in urban biocanteens

Small towns, mega-cities, districts, regions, federal states, all sort of subnational territorities have at least two things in common: their inhabitants need to eat and, at the same time, they find themselves on a planet where that same need is put at risk by climate change.

Some of them realised that food deserved a place of honour in a global revolution. Tackling the climate emergency through food policies, while calling on national governments to act, seemed appropriate to the local leaders who decided to speak with a unified voice and developed the Glasgow declaration on food and climate. Launched in December 2020 one year before the next UN climate conference (COP26, in Glasgow), the declaration is more than a commitment: it is already giving its fruits.

On March 23, the event ‘COP26 is already happening!’, supported by the EU regional development fund, URBACT and BioCanteens, presented the example of schools feeding children with organic and locally produced meals as a powerful way to value the environment. The online conference was moderated by Catherine André, journalist and cofounder of Voxeurop.

“Europe made some progress, but the Member states are raising obstacles,” said Marc Tarabella, Belgian mep member of the S&D group and the mayor of his native village, Anthisnes. “We see that it’s very difficult to change the mindset and we see a lot of resistance at a local level, people are looking for the lowest price at the expense of quality. Instead I think that we should enable people to have a choice down to the lowest level.”

Born with that goal, the URBACT programme helps cities find sustainable solutions and make a positive impact through networking and knowledge sharing. It also endorses the Glasgow declaration.

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Among the networks funded by URBACT, BioCanteens’ partners come from all corners of Europe: Mouans-Sartoux (France), GAL Pays de Condruses (Belgium), Rosignano-Marittimo (Italy), Torres Vedras (Portugal), Trikala (Greece), Troyan (Bulgaria) and Vaslui (Romania).

At a biocanteen, food becomes rich in meanings. “Where do you learn food education if not within the family?” asked François Jégou, lead expert of BioCanteens Transfer Network. The school has to take that role and teach the subject at lunch time. After all, today’s children will be future creators, reaserchers, voters, consumers, and leaders. It makes sense to start giving them the best we have to offer and the kind of food we will eat in 2045 and further.

Since translating food democracy into practice requires non comformist beliefs, however, biocanteens remain an exception. “When I look around in the world, I don’t have the impression that what we will discuss at COP is already happening: it’s rather the opposite,” said Jégou. “But, if I look more carefully, there are places were transition started long ago and were I can already see at least in part what a more sustainable city could look like.”

What is the secret of these places? According to Jégou, there are five: an ongoing fight against food waste, job creation along the municipal food chain, sustainable land use planning, a discussion around healthy food, and integrate governance.

Yet, “good practice is dangerous word” as it implies a copy-paste approach. The “proud of it” approach, instead, suggests a reinterpretation whenever a functioning system is transferred somewhere else.

To ensure a fairer access to quality food for all, making the case for positive solutions to local challenges is key. In particular, three issues were highlighted during the event: the public procurement constraint for food supply, the construction of participatory food governance and the relocalisation of agriculture.

Located in the real estate and tourism paradise of French Riviera, Mouans-Sartoux manage to become an anticonformism’s champion. Although public procurement contracts are usually unconvenient for small local producers, the city established a special agreement and is today calling on the EU Parliament to fight for food exception in public procurement.

It is “neither protectionism nor an economic revolution, it is just some collective intelligence and common sense,” according to Gilles Pérole, deputy-mayor for childhood, education and food at Mouans-Sartoux. “Buying turnip or a pen is not the same thing. Food is an essential good to life and therefore it must be protected with public procurement.”

Nowadays, European cities are really at the forefront of the ecological transition. With a growing population and a growing vulnerability due to climate change, all types of communities and subnational governments can’t afford the privilege to wait and see what happens of them.

In Spain, Mollet del Vallès became one of the first cities to pass a local food policy back in 2015. “Children had the possibility to collaborate” and “learned how to make healthier dietary choices at individual level but through active democratic participation, they also developped a sense of corresponsibility in the city wellbeing and made proposals that were then integrated in the city food strategy,” explained Albert Garcia Macian, head of the EU project and international relations office at Mollet del Vallès.

Similarly, the Swedish city of Södertälje has worked with a number of different development projects and activities to increase sustainability since the beginning of the 2000s. “We have been supporting our small scale local vegetables production both in the countryside and in the city, combining activities to support unemployed people, running a project called ‘Matlust’ (food for joy) for small and medium enterprises to help them become more sustainable, successful and employ more people,” said Sara Jervfors, head of diet unit at Södertälje (Sweden).

Even if the biocanteens are still rare, their experience will be inspiring others to follow. For this, Europe is a great catalyst thanks to all the networks already existing.

For instance, Un Plus Bio is a French organisation accompanying cities towards positive change in the food system and part of it is the so-called Club of Territories. The coordinator Amandine Pieux said “it became the space where local authorities share their practices using public catering as a tool for ambitious food policies.”

“The speed of the ongoing discussions in Europe is very different and the food debate has not been a priority in some countries,” said Cecilia Delgado, researcher and director of the portugues platform Alimentar Cidades Sustentaveis. “So there is a need to fuel in the local debate in local languages before joining the European debate and there is a need for peer to peer learning.”

Nowadays, European cities are really at the forefront of the ecological transition. With a growing population and a growing vulnerability due to climate change, all types of communities and subnational governments can’t afford the privilege to wait and see what happens of them.

Scotland is showing the way with projects like Nourish Scotland, which promotes the human right to food by integrating, localising and democratising it. Nourish Scotland is campaigning for “a good food nation”, said the food policy project officer, Sofie Quist. “In the context of climate change, we are working especially with policy makers, farmers, scientists and communities to understand how everyone can be part of the solution to climate change, in particular food producers.” And that’s a good part of the Glasgow declaration.

Next November, Glasgow will be the place to bring all these messages. At COP26, Member states will then be asked to to take up the many positive local examples and actively support the development of progressive and integrated food policies at all levels.


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