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Three Reasons Cities Will Lead Us to a More Nourishing and Sustainable Food System

On February 12-13, The Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), hosted the inaugural Food Matters Cities Summit. The event convened a diverse set of subject matter experts and staff from 26 cities – including Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh – to share and learn about viable, impactful strategies for local government-led action on the issue of food waste.

I was honored to discuss our work to advance a more nourishing and sustainable food system during a panel discussion with Garrett Fitzgerald of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and Michael Berkowitz of 100 Resilient Cities. These efforts have included our partnership with NRDC to help cities understand how, where, and why food is wasted in their communities, identify ways to tackle this challenge, and most recently, to implement prevention-focused pilots in Denver and Baltimore.

Food waste presents a remarkable set of challenges – it squanders natural resources, like fresh water and farm land, costs the world billions, contributes to environmental degradation, and represents a missed opportunity to nourish people – but from the discussions I heard during the Cities Summit, we have great reason for optimism. Here are three reasons I believe cities are well-positioned to help us achieve our goal of halving food loss and waste, and more broadly, bolster our global food system.

Cities know that the time is now

There has never been more momentum around the issue of food waste. From organics management programs in New York City to chef-driven awareness campaigns in Nashville, cities are initiating a host of programs that capitalize on citizens’ heightened interest in the food on their plate. At the same time, local leaders are not waiting around to find the perfect solution; instead, they’re setting goals, activating quickly, testing and learning, and honing their initiatives. Cities are acting now, empowered by their residents.

There has never been greater recognition of the link between food waste and hunger

Key to the local groundswells around waste has been building the connective tissue between uneaten food and its impact on nutrition. A critical part of our work with the NRDC to quantify food waste in Nashville, New York City and Denver was an estimation of how prevention and rescue strategies would impact each city’s meal gap, and sure enough, we found that tens of millions of meals could have been donated annually. Citizens are starting to recognize this intrinsic link, and, driven by a desire to fight hunger, have begun to adopt a food waste-forward mindset.

Local leaders recognize – and are leveraging – the power of their networks

On the ground, cities have the best capacity to implement locally relevant solutions that address their citizens’ needs, but they need not develop these strategies in a vacuum. And the good news is, they’re not. Networks like the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, 100 Resilient Cities are enabling cities to share learnings, borrow from each other, and scale programs proven to be effective. Further, the NRDC continues to develop resources based on research and pilots upon which all cities can draw – regardless of their membership in networks or stage in addressing food waste. Leaders now have a suite of tools to tap into when shaping their local approach to developing a more sustainable food system.

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