Bottom-up process to establish an integrated food policy ‑ Rome, Italy

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Short Summary

On 27 April 2021, the city of Rome’s municipal assembly unanimously approved a resolution committing it to establish a food policy for the Italian capital. Resolution 38, ‘Approval of actions and instruments for the implementation of a food policy for metropolitan Rome’, is a landmark achievement of a bottom-up process involving over 50 organisations, that sought to secure buy-in from policy makers to develop an integrated food policy that both addresses food-related challenges and leverages existing food system strengths to help tackle other urban challenges.

Context and objective

The municipal area of Rome includes both built-up, densely populated urban areas and peri-urban farmland. Around 45 per cent of the territory (58,000 hectares) is classified as agricultural land, much of which is devoted to arable farming, alongside olive groves and vineyards. This productive space is rare within the boundaries of a major European city – yet the land, and the livelihoods it sustains, face multiple threats.

Cognitive disconnect between consumers and their food sources, driven by globalisation of the food system, has led to changing purchasing and consumption patterns. As urban residents increasingly buy cheap, non-local produce in supermarkets, as well as more processed and packaged food products, the market for locally grown, healthy produce shrinks. Farm industrialisation and consolidation has reduced the number and overall space occupied by small scale producers; those that remain farm on fragmented parcels. Recent years have also seen rapid land use change within the municipality; 23.4% of the territory is now covered by impermeable artificial surfaces, with significant implications for ecosystem services.

Celebrating approval of the Food Policy

In this context, many food-related initiatives across the city have emerged since the 1990s that seek to re-engage citizens and reignite the debate on sustainable, healthy and local food. Such initiatives include multifunctional urban and peri-urban agriculture projects, solidarity buying groups, and farmers’ markets. These activities are highly fragmented, however, with little coordination between them.

The City of Rome signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) in 2016. While some siloed food-related policies and programmes have been introduced (including a sustainable food procurement policy for school meals), the city’s commitment under the MUFPP to develop an integrated food policy had not yet been realised.

The initial purpose of the bottom-up process was to bring more coordination and systemic thinking to governance of Rome’s food system by formulating a proposal for an integrated food policy. The proposal served several functions:

1) to demonstrate to policy makers the potential of the agri-food system to help address various challenges faced by the city;
2) to increase awareness and participation by civil society in food systems debates, and build trust and social capital between actors;
3) to suggest concrete tools, actions and measures for implementing a system-wide food strategy in Rome.

The approval of Resolution 38 on the establishment of an integrated food policy represents the acceptance of this proposal by policy makers.

Process and actors

Mapping and analysing Rome’s food system

The bottom-up process stemmed from a conversation in 2018 between a Professor from Roma Tre University and Terra, a local environmental NGO. Professor Davide Marino had been leading research on a variety of topics related to food, agriculture, and ecosystem services within the municipal area for many years. Terra, meanwhile, was involved in campaigning for farm workers’ rights. The initial discussion explored how to make the local administration aware that a food policy could address a many challenges related to food systems.

A handful of other researchers and organisations joined follow up conversations, during which participants agreed on the need to raise awareness of both challenges and critical issues within Rome’s food system. Attention also needed to be given to Rome’s food system’s existing strengths, including the many existing – but unconnected – food-related initiatives. This core group undertook a joint mapping and analysis of Rome’s food system, which involved interacting with a broader spectrum of food system stakeholders for mapping and analysis. Over the next year the group gradually expanded to include over 50 organisations and individuals, including academics, farming cooperatives, urban gardeners, agricultural and environmental associations, civil society, and sustainable development networks. The draft analysis of Rome’s food system was circulated among this group for comment, and several meetings were organised for discussions and in-person feedback. As well as contributing to the shared process, their involvement also helped actors to advance their own organisations’ objectives.

During the process, five thematic working groups emerged as participants opted to provide input in areas that matched their interest and expertise. These included: access to resources; collective/school catering and Green Public Procurement; agriculture and workers’ rights; distribution and consumption; and solidarity economy, food poverty, waste, and redistribution. A sixth, cross-sectional working group handled communications.

At the end of the mapping and analysis phase, a new round of meeting and email exchanges took place to draw up a list of priority action areas.

Proposal and priority areas

The final 38-page proposal for a Rome food policy included the food system mapping, analysis and ten priority areas for action:

1) Access to resources (land, water and agro-biodiversity);
2) Sustainable agriculture and biodiversity (support for organic farming and agro-ecology);
3) Short supply chains and local markets (including local markets);
4) Urban–rural relations (integration between supply chain phases; Green Public Procurement);
5) Food and territory (territorial labelling, traceability of the supply chain);
6) Waste and redistribution (support for recovery and redistribution of surpluses);
7) Promotion of multi-functionality;
8) Awareness of citizens (food and environmental education plan);
9) Landscape (curbing land consumption and other phenomena of land degradation);
10) Planning of resilience (green infrastructures and quantification of services provided by the agro-silvo-pastoral system to the community).

The proposal was presented to representatives of the trade and environment departments of the municipality at an event on the 16th of October 2019. Although these representatives had been aware of the process, the event marked the first formal involvement of the municipality and its first dialogue with the group.

Lobbying for a resolution

Following the event, the group – which continued to grow – began calling itself the ‘Food Council of Rome’ (although it was not a formal body). Its mission now was to lobby the municipality to prepare a resolution to formulate an integrated food policy.

Led by a steering committee, the group approached the administration using several instruments, via various entry points. They wrote formal letters to the administrative officers; they invited local politicians to meetings of the Food Policy Council to discuss the potential extent of the policy, barriers, and how best to seek cooperation between municipal departments; and they used communications and campaign tools to send formal and informal requests to the councillors.

Their efforts were well received, although the political process for agreeing the text of the resolution was lengthy and subject to delays due to drafts sitting unread on people’s desks. The group sent periodic reminders via email.

The two key commitments of the resolution are:

  • the establishment of a formal Food Policy Council that includes municipal representatives alongside members of the existing informal ‘Food Council of Rome,’ and other food systems stakeholders;
  • the adoption of a food plan in the forthcoming months.

While the resolution does not contain specific actions, it does establish the general architecture of the integrated food policy through the adoption of the ten principles contained in the proposal. Municipal actors added two additional priority areas for action to the 10 that were contained in the proposal, to which the informal ‘Food Council of Rome’ agreed:

1) consciousness of territorial and global food issues among children, young people, and families
2) enable the sale of food that is close to its use by date in dedicated spaces within neighbourhoods

Eventually, in April 2021, the resolution was adopted. As an administrative rather than political act, it will remain in place beyond the current electoral mandate, regardless of the political composition of the next municipal council.

Impacts and next steps

At the time of writing (summer 2021), the steering committee is determining the membership of the formal Food Policy Council and drafting terms of reference. This body, which is expected to be administrated from within the municipality, will then draft the full food plan via a participatory process. No resources have been assigned to this work yet, however. Since the non-governmental steering group members continue to contribute on a voluntary basis, the drafting process is expected to take some time.

Once completed, the new food plan will bring more detail to the framework set out in the resolution, including specific instruments to be deployed, indicators and – importantly – resources for implementation.

The plan will also feed into the Sustainable Urban Agenda of Metropolitan Rome (a territory involving 121 municipalities) which includes a project on planning and managing territorial food policies for more sustainable, equitable and resilient food systems. This project is coordinated by Professor Marino.

Within the Municipality of Rome itself, however, the steering committee and members of the (future) formal Food Policy Council need to be mindful of two other processes that are underway to develop food policies for Rome, each with the involvement of different actors from within the municipality. One is part of an EU Horizon 2020 project, FUSILLI, under which local actors participate in ‘Living Labs’ to discuss Rome’s food system and develop a food plan. The other is a sectoral programme called Agri Food, supported by the Chamber of Commerce and the municipal department of trade, which takes a sectorial approach and focuses on specific food chains.

Members of the steering committee are involved in both these process in some capacity – whether as promoters, observers, or providing input and information on request. During the drafting of the integrated food plan and its implementation, communication and alliances with between actors in all processes will be imperative, to ensure coherence between all their outcomes.

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