Improving health, environmental sustainability and equity at the local level through a focus on food systems

INHERIT is a research initiative coordinated by EuroHealthNet that aims to identify policies and practices that simultaneously improve health, reduce inequalities and contribute to environmental sustainability – and which are currently being implemented in Europe. The research places an emphasis on how to reach those in lower socio-economic groups, who are often impacted most by societal trends that lead to bad health, but benefit least from measures being taken to address these. INHERIT is therefore investigating what kinds of measures benefit, in particular, these groups.

One of the 15 initiatives in INHERIT that have been identified for more in-depth study is Ghent en Garde, a food policy initiated in 2013 that is being implemented in the Belgian city of Ghent (261,053 inhabitants). The policy aims to transform the local food system and to ensure that everyone has access to sustainably produced, healthy, and affordable food. It has five strategic aims: a shorter, more visible food chain; more sustainable food production and consumption; ensuring food initiatives have ‘social added value’; and the reduction of food waste.

The initiative is led by the city administration and a Food Council, made up of people representing different actors in the local food system, such as large scale farmers, new urban farmers, local businesses, local volunteer initiatives, civil society, and knowledge centers.

A specific initiative within the policy is called ‘STOEMP’ (a simple, traditional potato-based dish in Belgium) is exploring what is meant by and what can be done to achieve the food policy’s objective of ensuring the ‘social added value’ of food initiatives. It brings together stakeholders from different disciplines such as education, civil society, research, and social welfare in a working group.

These stakeholders run local foodbanks, community garden initiatives, initiatives that aim to encourage local catering, and retailers to apply short supply chains. The focus is on what can be done to make sure everyone, particularly those in more socially deprived neighborhoods and those who are less affluent, have access to sufficient and ‘good’ food (healthy and produced with respect for the environment.) Those involved are collectively identifying the key challenges and the best courses of action that the local community can take to achieve this.

The STOEMP network initiatives included a food bank and a pilot community health centre that has built on an initiative to encourage children to eat a varied diet, by introducing them to the concept of ‘good’ food. It encourages children to think about how they are being tempted to eat unhealthy food, as well as what can be done about this. ‘Foodsavers Gent’, a social enterprise that was started in 2017, is also a part of the STOEMP network. It collects donations of fresh surplus foods (no later than four days from its sell-by date) from large retailers. It then distributes this to a wide range of organisations assisting people in need, tailoring the food provided to the specific needs and wishes of the different organisations.

Food Savers is, above all, a complex logistical undertaking. A year into its inception, the supply of food being donated by leading supermarket chains, as well as the demand for this food, is growing. Working conditions for the previously long-term unemployed that are engaged in the enterprise are difficult, since the tasks involve sorting out food in refrigerator-like conditions. The work also involves ensuring that operations meet the wide range of regulatory standards imposed by different levels of government.

It was heartening to meet the dedicated people leading these much needed initiatives. The discussions with these people also reflected however the grave inefficiencies in our broader food and other systems. It highlighted why health professionals must work together with a wide range of other actors to address not just the symptoms of the inefficiencies in the systems that can determine our lives and lifestyles, but also the root causes of the health problems and the health inequities that our societies face.

 

Ingrid Stegeman
Program Manager at EuroHealthNet | + posts

Ingrid is closely involved in INHERIT. She has worked on Health Inequalities, Health in all Policies, Social Inclusion and Health, and Early Child Development and has helped to develop and coordinate many EuroHealthNet initiatives in these areas.

Marjolijn Vos
Staff care provider at Flanders Institute for Healthy Living

Marjolijn works at the Flanders Institute for Healthy Living, and is the INHERIT study lead for Ghent en Garde.

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