Making it concrete and making it stick: two steps for local governments to make food policy work

1 June 2021

While eyes have long been on national governments when it comes to sustainable food security, the time has come to shift our gaze to local governments. Lara Sibbing draws on her experience of studying and developing food policy in the Netherlands to propose two steps that local governments can take to develop and implement effective food policies.  

Local governments benefit from the knowledge of their place, and proximity to their community meaning that they can more easily engage citizens and develop tailored solutions. However this might raise high expectations on local governments to ‘fix’ food systems. Therefore it is important to acknowledge that there are also challenges, for example: how to design solutions that can contribute to healthier and more sustainable food systems? 

Two possible answers are: i) by making food policies more concrete; and ii) by ensuring institutionalization into local government structures and processes.  

Developing holistic, concrete food policies

Addressing food system challenges through holistic food policies – considering all activities and outcomes of the entire food system from farm to fork— is not a new idea. Several cities around the world, such as Toronto, Belo Horizonte, Milan, and Quito, have already developed such policies. A weakness of many local food policies, though, is that they remain rather abstract. They contain statements of good intention but without clear, practical action plans for implementation. This makes it hard to implement them and to eventually realize change on the ground.  


Local governments can make their food policies more concrete in two ways.  
The first way is to develop more tangible policy goals, by turning or translating broad and generic goals into more Specific, Measurable, Achievable and Realistic Time-bound (SMART) goals. For example, a goal of a ‘healthy food environment’ does not specify what a healthy food environment is, what is the target group, where it should be focussed and when it will be realized. Instead, a specific policy target could be: ‘In 2030, all children aged 0–12 will have breakfast and a healthy 10 o’clock snack (fruit and water) at school’.  

The second way to make a food policy more concrete is through using instruments, or tools, to achieve that policy. Currently, many food policies do not include or specify instruments – that is, the precise policy power or mechanism to be deployed in implementation-, such as information campaigns, subsidies, or new legislation. To reduce food waste, for example, a government could use the policy instrument of an information campaign on cooking with leftovers, or a pilot of an increase in household waste taxes.  

While individual policy instruments are a good start for implementing policies, using a variety together is likely to be even more effective. Currently, many local governments appear to prefer soft, non-legally binding instruments, such as communication campaigns. Hard, legally binding ones, such as penalties, are less popular, although exceptions exist. In the Netherlands, for example, a group of local governments intends to use legislative tools to stimulate healthy food environments, particularly close to schools. In general, it can be most effective to use a balanced mix of both soft and hard policy instruments. 

Making food policies part of government structures and processes  

Holistic, concrete food policies are a good start, but without ongoing commitment (capacity and resourcing) for implementation, a food policy is just a piece of paper. For example, what if there is an excellent food policy but the responsible civil servants don’t have the right knowledge to implement it? Or if no-one takes responsibility for implementing the policy and for monitoring its progress? If after elections, a newly elected official does not see the importance of improving food systems and decides to cancel the implementation of the food policy? Ultimately such a food policy will fail.  

Effective implementation, therefore, is key. In addition, a food policy can’t be implemented for a couple of years only. Improving food systems takes time and a long-term strategy. Food policies therefore, need to be sustainably resourced and implemented over a long period of time.  

An often overlooked, but crucial, prerequisite to realize this is embedding food policies into local government, into its legislation and practice. In other words, making sure food security becomes part of existing structures, policies, and systems, and has the support of civil servants and the political will of government.  

This can be a daunting task, but there are several ways to do it. Firstly, a local government can keep food policy issues on the agenda by formalizing the status of food as a crosscutting policy issue and guaranteeing it an organizational ‘home’. For instance, the municipality of Ede in the Netherlands created the position of Food Alderman, founded a specific food team and created a dashboard to monitor implementation of its food policy.  

At the same time, local governments should be careful not to isolate food policy and treat it as a single issue. In this situation there is a risk that civil servants could come to see food policy efforts as ‘already being taken care of’, or ‘not my responsibility’, which could inhibit policies being implemented holistically.  

Secondly, it helps to have a few dedicated leaders within the local government who will advocate for better food systems and help to further integrate a food policy into the organization. These leaders, or champions, can advocate for food policy issues on a diversity of government agendas (e.g. city marketing or children’s health), and use these as steps towards developing a genuinely holistic food policy approach. For example,  a city might start out establishing school gardens or promoting healthy school meals and then expand its programmes to gradually include other aspects of the urban food system. 

Local governments can contribute to healthier and more sustainable food systems by developing holistic and concrete food policies, and by embedding these into their organizations. It is especially key that such policies are both sufficiently broad, addressing the food system comprehensively, and also detailed enough to be actionable. A too strong focus on the broadness of a policy creates the risk that it remains too abstract and becomes hard to implement, while a too strong focus on separate issues creates the risk of siloed efforts that contradict each other. Governments therefore need to particularly pay attention to incorporate political decisions on specific actions, use of resources and timing in their policies as this helps to make a policy practical and realistic. By striking the right balance between holistic and concrete, local governments’ food policies can truly become more effective. 

About the author

Lara Sibbing is an independent consultant, researcher and storyteller, specialized in food policy. She has developed food policies for several municipalities in the Netherlands and was one of the authors of the City Deal Food on the Urban Agenda. She also is a PhD researcher at the Public Administration and Policy group of Wageningen University and will defend her dissertation on the emergence of local food policy in The Netherlands on November 5, 2021.