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Cities & Health
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcah20
COVID-19 highlights the need to plan for healthy,
equitable and resilient food systems
Rachel Carey , Maureen Murphy & Leila Alexandra
To cite this article: Rachel Carey , Maureen Murphy & Leila Alexandra (2020): COVID-19
highlights the need to plan for healthy, equitable and resilient food systems, Cities & Health, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/23748834.2020.1791442
Published online: 27 Jul 2020.
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COMMENTARY AND DEBATE
COVID-19 highlights the need to plan for healthy, equitable and resilient food
Rachel Carey , Maureen Murphy and Leila Alexandra
School of Agriculture and Food, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
Rising food insecurity during COVID-19 has revealed deep inequities in food systems. The
pandemic has also highlighted the vulnerabilities of global food supply chains and the need for
cities to increase the resilience of their food systems. The challenge is to harness the lessons of
COVID-19 to promote more resilient urban food systems that are also healthy, equitable and
sustainable. Policy solutions should focus on robust social protection mechanisms, strong
networks of food system actors that can respond rapidly to shocks, and diverse food supply
chains that draw on local as well as global sources of food.
Received 6 May 2020
Accepted 26 June 2020
Food systems; resilience;
pandemic; food security;
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested global food sys-
tems and, at one level, they have withstood the test.
After an initial lag in responding to increased consu-
mer demand, supermarket supplies in many regions of
the world stabilised. However, a growing economic
crisis is leading to rising food insecurity. The impacts
will be felt most by those already facing food insecurity
in the low income nations of the Global South (Food
Security Information Network 2020). Yet even in the
rich nations of the Global North, which are our main
focus here, food insecurity is rising rapidly among
vulnerable population groups.
Disruption to global transportation and trade dur-
ing COVID-19 highlights the vulnerabilities of the
complex food supply chains that feed cities and the
importance of short food supply chains that connect
consumers directly to local farmers, as part of a diverse
and resilient urban food system. The disruption
accompanying the COVID-19 crisis is a moment of
opportunity to transform food systems, and city
authorities and municipal governments should play
a key role in this transformation.
COVID-19 highlights the important role of
cities in addressing rising food insecurity
The economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19
pandemic is leading to rising food insecurity, with
the World Food Programme (2020) warning that
COVID-19 could double the number of people facing
acute food insecurity globally by the end of 2020. Most
at risk are those who are already food insecure in the
Global South, including smallholder producers (Food
Security Information Network 2020). However, food
insecurity is rising rapidly even in rich nations of the
Global North, such as the United States, with vulner-
able and low income population groups worst aﬀected
(Fitzpatrick et al. 2020).
COVID-19 has revealed the fragility of food insecur-
ity responses that rely on the charitable sector. Soaring
demand for emergency food relief has coincided with
a decrease in the capacity of food banks to respond, due
to a sharp decline in volunteer numbers and in dona-
tions from the food retail sector (IPES-Food 2020).
There is a need for governments at all levels to
strengthen their response to the COVID-19 food secur-
ity crisis (IPES-Food 2020). With the majority of people
now living in urban centres (DESA 2018), cities are
centre stage. Municipal governments and city authori-
ties have an important role to play in promoting equi-
table access to healthy food (FAO 2020).
COVID-19 reveals the vulnerability of cities’
dependence on global food supply chains
Feeding cities is a complex logistical challenge, and
rapidly growing urban populations are fed through
sophisticated global supply chains. Yet until the intro-
duction of refrigerated transportation after World
War II, fresh food supplies for many cities were
grown locally in peri-urban areas, particularly
perishable products such as fruit and vegetables.
Some cities still have highly productive hinterlands.
However, rapid urban expansion has reduced the
capacity of cities to produce the fresh fruit and vege-
tables that are important to healthy diets. Cities have
become more dependent on distant sources of food.
CONTACT Rachel Carey email@example.com School of Agriculture and Food, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University
of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
CITIES & HEALTH
© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
Ninety percent of the food to feed New York’s popula-
tion of around 8 million is trucked into the city
each year (New York City 2020).
COVID-19 is disrupting global food supply chains
and highlighting the vulnerability of cities’ reliance on
complex ‘just in time’ supply chains. Supplies of
imported foods and ingredients have been impacted
by additional border controls, port closures and the
grounding of air passenger transport, a key element in
the freight of perishable foods. Restrictions on move-
ment within countries have also aﬀected road freight,
leading to delays in food deliveries (OECD 2020).
While global and regional food sources are impor-
tant to the food supplies of most cities, there is increas-
ing recognition of the need for some degree of food
system relocalisation to strengthen local food systems
and reduce dependence on distant sources of food.
Research points to multiple beneﬁts for short food
supply chains that connect consumers in urban areas
directly with producers in rural areas, including
strengthening local economies and social connectivity.
In particular, studies emphasise the importance of
diversity for building the resilience of food systems –
diversity in sources of food (local and regional as well
as global), diversity in the scale at which food is pro-
duced and distributed, and in the types of production
systems and food enterprises involved (Canal Vieira
et al. 2018).
Building the resilience of city food systems to
City food systems will likely face more frequent shocks
due to climate change, and there is a need to increase
their resilience so that they can withstand and bounce
back from disruption while maintaining food security
for all (Carey and James 2018). The COVID-19 pan-
demic oﬀers valuable lessons in increasing the resili-
ence of food systems. But more than that, it represents
a unique opportunity for food system transformation.
The food system disruption accompanying
COVID-19 is leading to rapid change in the conﬁg-
uration of short food supply chains. Producers have
responded to social distancing restrictions and the
closure of some municipal and farmers markets by
moving sales online (IPES-Food 2020, FAO 2020).
Civil society organisations have mobilised to deliver
healthy local food to vulnerable population groups,
and are co-ordinating their eﬀorts by forming new
collaborative enterprises (e.g. the London Food
Alliance). Some are connecting these food relief
eﬀorts to short food supply chains by sourcing
food at fair prices from local farmers, combining
a focus on addressing inequities in the food system
with strengthening food system resilience (e.g.
Moving Feast in Melbourne, Australia).
COVID-19 also creates potential for consumer
behaviour change as people self-isolate, with more
cooking and growing food at home. Many countries
have seen a rise in demand for locally produced food
sourced via short food supply chains (IPES-Food
2020). These changes provide the conditions to trans-
form city food systems so that they bounce forward
healthier, more sustainable, equitable and resilient.
What are the lessons of COVID-19 for policy
and how should cities respond?
There is an opportunity to harness the lessons of
COVID-19 to increase the long term resilience of
city food systems, at the same time as delivering ben-
eﬁts for social equity, health and the environment.
City authorities and municipal governments have an
important role to play in policy responses.
Some city authorities (e.g. Wuhan, New York,
Milan, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg) are leading initiatives
to tackle rising food insecurity during COVID-19 (see
Table 1) by establishing systems to identify vulnerable
citizens and deliver food to them. Some are also col-
laborating with civil society organisations to do this
(e.g. Toronto). Some city authorities are providing
food vouchers to enable vulnerable citizens to access
a healthy diet (e.g. Seattle). Cities are also creating
online maps to help citizens ﬁnd available food ser-
vices and food relief (e.g. Milan and Washington DC)
(C40 Cities 2020).
COVID-19 oﬀers cities the opportunity to review
their ‘current resilient toolkit’ for food systems
(OECD 2020) and to develop new policy tools. Table
1 proposes some policy tools that cities might want to
consider as part of a future food system resilience
toolkit, based on the lessons of COVID-19.
First and foremost, COVID-19 tells us that all cities
should have plans in place to respond to the immedi-
ate needs of citizens in the event of sudden shocks,
particularly the needs of vulnerable citizens who are
already facing (or on the brink of) food insecurity.
COVID-19 has exposed the inequities in food access
in urban food systems and the fragility of existing
systems of charitable food relief. With the potential
for rising food insecurity due to climate shocks, it is
important that cities and local governments have poli-
cies based on the right to adequate food as a human
right, and recognise their responsibility to help citi-
zens to realise this right.
One of the most important lessons of COVID-19 is
that cities beneﬁt from having well established networks
of actors from across the food system to facilitate rapid
responses to the impacts of food system shocks. City
food policy councils and alliances have been active
during COVID-19 in co-ordinating responses and
advocating for the needs of vulnerable population
groups and for city markets and community gardens
2R. CAREY ET AL.
to remain open as ‘essential services’ under social dis-
tancing restrictions (FAO 2020).
Secondly, cities need to ensure the long term resi-
lience of their food systems. COVID-19 suggests that
cities have an important role to play in leading
responses to rising food insecurity in the face of food
system shocks. New York has developed a whole of
government plan combining immediate food relief
with actions to harness the potential for longer term
transformation of its food system (New York City
New York’s system of immediate food relief makes
creative use of existing infrastructure, such as schools
as pick up points for ‘grab and go’ meals and taxis to
deliver food to residents (C40 Cities 2020). To
strengthen long term resilience to shocks and stresses,
the city will increase its emergency warehouse stores of
‘ready to eat’ meals and will advocate for equitable
treatment of all participants in the food supply chain,
including farmers and food industry workers, as well
as consumers (New York City 2020).
To fully realise the lessons of COVID-19 in driving
a transformation to healthy and resilient city food
systems, further research is needed to understand the
signiﬁcant food system changes currently underway.
There is an immediate need for rapid collection of data
on rising food insecurity in cities to understand which
population groups are most aﬀected in order to facil-
itate the co-creation of eﬀective responses with these
Table 1. Potential policy tools for cities and local governments to strengthen the resilience of city food systems.
Lesson from COVID-19 Policy responses to increase food system resilience Examples
Cities need plans to respond to food
system shocks and strengthen
●Establish real-time data collection to assess the
impact of the shock on food security and identify
●Develop plans to address ongoing food insecurity
after the initial shock subsides
Medium- to long-term
●Develop a city food resilience policy that aims to
strengthen food system resilience
●Ensure ongoing population surveys to understand
the distribution of food insecurity
●Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (Australia)
●Feeding New York – NYC’s policy for responding to
●Christchurch City Council food resilience policy
●Baltimore City food resilience strategy (US)
●Household Food Security Survey (international)
Cities need good social protection
mechanisms to respond to rapid
rises in food insecurity due to
●Ensure emergency relief can respond rapidly to
demand surges and meet the food needs of the
Medium- to long-term
●Advocate for social welfare and economic support
indexed to the cost of a healthy food basket
●Recognise the human right to food in city food
policies and assist citizens to realise that right
●Milan’s Food Aid System in response to COVID-19
●NYC’s Food Delivery Assistance Program (US)
●Fresh Bucks Seattle (US)
●Belo Horizonte’s recognition of the right to food
Local food production and short food
supply chains strengthen the
resilience of city food systems
●Support city and local markets to stay open during
shocks like COVID-19
●Promote online platforms that directly connect
farmers and consumers to increase access to
healthy food and support farmer livelihoods
Medium- to long-term
●Protect peri-urban farmland through land use
●Advocate for and promote the viability of peri-
●Support community gardens
●Barcelona’s municipal food markets remained open
during COVID-19 (Spain)
●Open Food Network (international)
●Vancouver’s Agricultural Land Reserve (Canada)
●Toronto’s Golden Horseshoe (Canada)
A strong network of food system
actors can facilitate co-ordination
and rapid response in the event of
a food system shock
●Support civil society organisations to co-ordinate
their eﬀorts in providing immediate food relief for
Medium- to long-term
●Establish a city food policy council or food alliance
with a strong focus on resilience
●Connect food system, industry, civil society, and
municipal government actors in local areas
●Chicago Food Policy Council COVID-19 rapid
●Christchurch Food Resilience Network
●Good Food in Greenwich (UK)
Neighbourhood networks can
increase local food security and
●Provide support to mutual aid and community
action groups that support neighbourhood food
provisioning and relief
●Cape Town Together Community Action Network
●London’s Mutual Aid Network (UK)
Procuring food from local producers
can support economic recovery
●Purchase food from local farmers for food relief
Medium- to long-term
●Use ongoing food procurement initiatives for city
services to support local farmers and stimulate the
●‘Vegetable basket’ policy (China)
●Farm to school initiatives in New York and
CITIES & HEALTH 3
groups. There is also an immediate need to under-
stand the impacts of current food system disruption
on the livelihoods of local producers, who make
a valuable contribution to supplies of healthy food,
such as fruit and vegetables, for city populations.
The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting food sys-
tems on an unprecedented scale. Evaluation of the
innovative responses to this disruption from munici-
pal governments, civil society groups and producers
around the world will generate an understanding of
best practice in governance responses to strengthen
the resilience of city food systems to future shocks and
stresses. It may also reveal pathways towards more
signiﬁcant transformation to healthy, sustainable,
equitable and resilient city food systems.
No potential conﬂicts of interest were reported by the
This work was supported by an initiative grant from the
Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.
Notes on contributors
Rachel Carey is a Lecturer in Food Systems at the University
of Melbourne, where her teaching and research focuses on
food policy and the governance of sustainable and resilient
food systems. Rachel has a particular interest in the resili-
ence and sustainability of city food systems and she leads the
Foodprint Melbourne project, which is assessing the resili-
ence of Melbourne’s food system to shocks and stresses.
Rachel has worked on the development of food policies for
the City of Melbourne and the City of Greater Geelong. She
is a member of the Editorial Board of the journal Agriculture
and Human Values.
Maureen Murphy is a Research Fellow at the University of
Melbourne investigating the resilience of the food system to
shocks and stresses such as ﬁre, ﬂood, drought and pan-
demic, as part of the Foodprint Melbourne project. In 2018,
Maureen completed her PhD on 'Local food environments
for a healthy equitable city: evidence to inform urban plan-
ning policy and governance in Melbourne, Australia'.
Maureen is interested in the application of research in policy
settings and has worked for close to twenty years in local
and state government.
Leila Alexandra is a Research Assistant on the Foodprint
Melbourne project, at the University of Melbourne, which
investigates the resilience of Melbourne’s food system to
shocks and stresses. Leila’s Honours in Environmental
Science from the ANU identiﬁed leverage in social-ecologi-
cal poverty traps, applying system dynamics modelling to an
Ethiopian case study. Leila is interested in systems perspec-
tives on food and agricultural systems, and has worked in
sustainability education, community food enterprises and
Rachel Carey http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2104-6510
C40 Cities, 2020. COVID-19 and food: FAQs. Updated 14
May. C40 Cities.
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4R. CAREY ET AL.