15 December 2023

Ghent changes the local narrative around food accessibility

ICLEI Member Ghent (Belgium) recently presented their plan to improve food supply options in low-income neighbourhoods at “Kantine Zukunft Talk” (Cafeterias of the Future Chat). The event explored food environments – the spaces where we interact and make decisions on the food we eat.

The conversation boiled down to one deceptively simple question: How far do you have to travel to buy fresh and healthy food supplies? In some neighbourhoods you find the next farmers market around the corner – others offer only convenience stores and fast food. We see this in Ghent, where some neighbourhoods struggle with fresh food supply. The result is communities where an unhealthy diet is the norm, often those also experiencing challenges such as poverty.

A “food desert” or “food apartheid” is used to describe such areas that do not provide healthy and affordable food options within a travelable distance. The Ghent Living Lab in FEAST is trying to address this inequity by bringing more healthy food choices to just such a neighbourhood. The goal is to improve the accessibility of healthy and sustainable food items. The work of shifting the food landscape will be done in cooperation with the neighbourhood residents dependent upon local food procurement options.

Ghent doesn’t plan to stop at increasing food access, it also wants to change the local narrative around food, especially in low-income communities. Rather than telling the story that any kind of food, regardless of the nutritional value or sugar intake, is a valuable donation for those in poverty, access and the choice to consume healthy and affordable food will be framed as a basic human right. Shifting the narrative will involve more than words - Ghent is taking action. Through double-payment systems (such as solidarity pricing in restaurants and access to concepts such as community supported agriculture), urban gardening and community harvesting, social canteens and solidarity systems, Ghent will enable citizens to choose the food they eat, rather than simply accepting what has been donated. This is important, because food security is not limited to access to safe and healthy food, but also food that is culturally relevant. Ghent acknowledges that food is personal and wants to build holistic and just food supply systems for all neighbourhoods and residents. ICLEI strongly supports Ghent’s approach of stepping away from the charity model, which is stigmatised and can damage people’s sense of dignity, and instead enable free choice for all, so that we can enjoy the pleasures of eating and growing food together.

Over the coming years ICLEI and Ghent will collaborate closely on how to make healthier and more sustainable diets an option for all citizens. The experts present at the “Kantine Zukunft” Event gave valuable inputs and inspirations for next steps in Ghent with the main takeaway: We don´t stand alone in de-stigmatising food donation and enabling healthy and sustainable diets through food environments.