The current COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Local governments across the globe are working with agrifood business groups, farmer organizations, civil society networks and communities to make sure food systems function effectively.
The nature of the pandemic is giving rise to new challenges to food system actors at every level – disruptions to food supply chains and logistics, rapid changes in consumer food behavior, more worker safety measures. The situation calls for stronger public, private and community safety nets to feed the increasing number of people who have lost jobs or income. Local governments, in direct contact with communities, also have a critical role to play in adapting and supporting food systems to conform to COVID-19 health directives while ensuring the local population’s food security.
Local responses throughout the world point to the increasingly important role of local government in food system performance. Experiences in several countries show how leadership and functional relationships with local actors contribute to proactive and agile responses by local government and promote innovative action tailored to local contexts. Action taken at provincial, district/county and municipal levels can help strengthen the governance and continuity of food systems.
Governors, mayors and local authorities are close to the populations they serve. They understand their needs. Following school closures in the Republic of Korea and the country’s innovative Eco-Friendly Free School Meal Program, numerous governors and mayors took to social media. They worked with agrifood promotion agencies and collaborated with producer and food company associations to adapt marketing plans or facilitate the direct sale of surplus supplies of potatoes, fresh fruit, vegetables and fish. In Italy, local government worked with farmers and food businesses to address housing and health issues of the migrant workers needed to harvest fruit and vegetables. In North America and Europe, local government officials have helped food banks, community kitchens and community-supported agriculture to respond to the huge demand for their food.
Local private sector food industry groups, producer and informal food sector associations, civil society organizations and citizen groups are playing equally prominent roles to ensure supply chains function, workers are protected and vulnerable populations reached. Residents in apartment blocks in China and Italy use group chat apps for joint food purchases and spaced delivery to household doorsteps. China’s “love cabbage” campaign – in which Chinese “netizens” sent cabbages to Wuhan – used such a system.
Functioning food markets
Local governments are providing leadership to local actors to address food system bottlenecks caused by the health crisis. Functioning food markets are essential to meet the food needs of local populations, providing jobs and fiscal revenues. Local governments in China’s Hubei Province worked with wholesale food market officials on measures to ensure the safety of workers, transporters, market operations and local food supplies.
In India, traditional local government assemblies and food market and health officials worked with state agriculture officials to develop containment compliant measures to keep agriculture and food markets working. They marked trading floors to maintain spacing, set trading times, issued e-passes to market traders, workers and transporters, controlled truck deliveries and vehicle traffic, set up farmer-to-consumer stalls across cities, allowed farmer-to-trader sales outside markets to avoid congestion and mandated compulsory masks, hand sanitization and regular market disinfectant sprays.
Five key actions
The actions taken at local level complement the overall food system leadership provided by national governments and global leaders. Diverse measures contribute to ensuring that global and intra-regional trade in food and agricultural inputs is not disrupted, food supplies are adequate, prices are stable, major bottlenecks are quickly addressed and everyone remains confident in the food system.
Five key actions can help local governments address food system issues in this COVID-19 era. The context will differ between countries and localities; government actions in a rural area or low-income suburban community will differ from those in a capital city or fast-growing secondary city in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Leadership is the common thread that links local government action – from prioritizing, planning and overseeing actions to address food system problems, to liaising with private sector and civil society networks, to communicating with the public.
One, prioritize food system functions as an essential service that will continue to operate during periods of lockdown, emergency or other health containment measures. Recognize that all food system channels – modern, traditional (open markets, small stores) and informal (street vendors) – serve different market segments and are crucial for a resilient food system. Regular, consistent and concise communication with clear messages on the food situation is critical to reduce panic, maintain confidence in the agriculture and food sector and also on food availability and access.
Two, establish a local government food system coordination committee and functional governance mechanism to prioritize, plan and oversee operations. Representatives of key private sector and civil society food sector associations, as well as sectors providing critical inputs to food supply and food security (e.g. health, transport, energy, education, social affairs), should be committee members. Close collaboration with health sector officials ensures that interventions comply with health directives. Preparedness permits local governments to be proactive instead of reactive, quickly implementing customized methods and strategies.
Three, provide leadership to rapidly activate or develop a COVID-19 food system response plan. Local government could adapt existing resilience, disaster or emergency contingency plans at provincial or municipal levels to prioritize and coordinate their work. Some cities could modify plans that address vulnerabilities to flooding, storm surges and other climate shocks. Daegu in the Republic of Korea (the country’s epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak) rapidly prepared a food support plan for their city. The Freetown City Council (Sierra Leone) integrated food marketing issues into their COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan. The Western Cape Food Governance Community of Practice (a civil society network) assisted the Provincial Government of Western Cape in South Africa in developing their response strategies.
Four, generate rapid diagnostic data and information to inform decision-making, using interviews with food system actors, apps, social media and big data and through partnerships with academic, private sector and civil society networks. Local governments are using digital platforms and apps to effectively communicate information on COVID-19 measures to citizens and agrifood system actors. Similarly, small- and medium-size food businesses are using apps to connect to producers who have food supplies to sell.
Five, find innovative ways for all essential food system channels to comply with virus containment measures and continue to serve their diverse clients. In many low-income countries, poor households spend up to 70 percent of their income on food. They rely on informal sector jobs and livelihoods to earn money to buy food daily. Experiences in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis provide insights on how the informal food sector can continue to operate in compliance with health directives. Local government must tap into private sector and civil society to use social innovations and technology to resolve emerging problems.
Public finances in local government are often weak. COVID-19 and slow economic activity will weaken them further. Local government and their private sector and civil society food system counterparts need financial and technical support to carry out these roles.
As COVID-19 leaves an imprint on how we think about food, local government capacities and actions become increasingly important. Much of what we do in the future will be based on lessons learned from COVID-19 responses at all levels. They can help orient future discussions at the UN Food Systems Summit. We can help build the capacity of key local actors. We can also prioritize investments now to strengthen food system resilience in a post-COVID-19 world. And we must ensure local actors benefit from the experiences, capacities and expertise of various coalitions of local food sector actors, global food city networks (e.g. Milan Urban Food Policy Pact) and development and financial partners (e.g. FAO, UN-Habitat, the World Bank, World Food Programme).