How Can Cities Ensure Healthy and Sustainable Diets for Children?

Published February 11, 2018

World Urban Forum 2018, Kuala Lumpur: We are seeing growing attention on the importance of healthy and sustainable food systems, but the dietary needs of children have not been given sufficient attention in this discourse. There is a great opportunity to align the health, sustainability, and child diets agendas in the urban context.

By joining forces at the World Urban Forum, EAT, C40, UNICEF and partners seek to place child nutrition in both a health and sustainability context and elevate the topic on the urban agenda.

Time and place: 12 February, 16:00-17:00, The World Urban Forum, NextCity Stage, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The World Urban Forum is the first global convening platform on urban development since Habitat III. By mobilizing actors across a range of sectors, the World Urban Forum provides a unique opportunity to direct attention to the question of how cities can provide healthy and nutritious food to all children within planetary boundaries. Urbanization is a key entry point for the child nutrition agenda, considering the majority of the world’s children live in urban and peri–urban environments, including informal settlements. Many lower-middle income countries (LMICs) face multiple burdens of malnutrition – including undernutrition and overweight/obesity – and cities provide a unique environment to address these challenges.

There are many types of interventions that can help cities to deliver healthy and sustainable diets to children, such as land use that preserves agricultural areas to safeguard food and ecosystems, zoning regulations that ban fast food outlets from areas near schools, taxes on sugary beverages, ensuring school meals are healthy and sustainable, promoting community gardens and bringing affordable, nutritious foods to neighborhoods that would otherwise be “food deserts” or “food swamps.” Sharing these examples is one way to spark progress. There is also a chance to capitalize on synergies in existing initiatives, including the C40 Food Systems Network and its member cities, and Children Eating Well (CHEW), an emerging collaboration with EAT and UNICEF. By joining forces at the World Urban Forum, EAT, C40 and UNICEF seek to more strongly put this challenge on the global agenda, place child nutrition in both a health and sustainability context, and showcase existing successful city initiatives that facilitate the availability of healthy and sustainable food for children.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 provide a comprehensive development agenda that accounts for the complex nature of today’s challenges and the need for coordinated, multisectoral action. Coordinated action has the potential to address multiple SDGs simultaneously; for instance, focusing on child diets in the urban context helps work towards SDG2, which aims for zero hunger, food security, improved nutrition, and sustainable agriculture; SDG3, which seeks to ensure healthy lives and wellbeing; and SDG11, which calls for human settlements that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Cities are one of the key platforms to drive this agenda forward; the New Urban Agenda sets forth principles for the “planning, construction, development, management, and improvement of urban areas,” emphasizing the importance of engaging a spectrum of stakeholders including national government, local government, civil society, and the private sector in realizing these principles.

More specifically on the importance of food and children in the urban context, the New Urban Agenda specifies a vision of cities that provide “equal access for all public goods… in areas such as food security and nutrition” and that ensure these are “responsive to the rights and needs of women, children and youth…” It’s clear that the urban environment is increasingly tied to the wellbeing of children: The world’s population is projected to be 70% urban by 2050, and children born in cities will account for 60% of this urban growth. Of those living in urban areas, roughly 30% live in slums – and children are most severely impacted by the negative consequences.

How can we ensure that children living in urban areas are able to consume healthy and sustainable diets?

Child diets need special consideration because the dietary needs of young children are different than those of the general adult population, and the food system of today is failing to deliver. Nutritious diets fuel children’s growth, drive brain development, strengthen learning potential, enhance productivity in adulthood, and pave the way to more sustainable and prosperous societies – and nutrition early in life has a lasting impact throughout the rest of life, thereby a lasting impact on health and development. Currently, less than a third of children in low- and middle-income settings consume a diet that meets minimum dietary diversity criteria, and only 16% of children consume a diet that meets both the minimum dietary diversity and minimum meal frequency criteria. Chronic malnutrition (stunting) and acute malnutrition (wasting) affect millions of children, and  at the same time, a sharp rise in overweight and obesity presents an equally serious health problem not least because individuals who are obese in childhood are more likely to be obese later in life and have increased risk of NCDs in both the short and long term. “Hidden hunger” – deficiencies in vitamins and minerals – is another persistent challenge, linked to impaired immune and visual function, poor physical and cognitive development, and increased risk for mortality.

In addition to the health consequences of poor diets, the global food system accounts for approximately 25% of greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to biodiversity loss, soil erosion, local water depletion, and health effects from local air pollution, among other impacts. Although we already produce more than enough calories to feed the current population, nearly one-third of the food produced is either lost or wasted, and the remainder is unequally distributed and/or of insufficient quality.

Cities can do a great deal to address these challenges, promoting an urban food environment that is healthy for both people and planet. The Shanghai Consensus on Healthy Cities puts forth five actions cities can take, including 1) integrating health in all municipal policies; 2) addressing social, economic, and environmental determinants of health and promoting social inclusion and sustainable urban resource use; 3) promoting community engagement around health, including in schools; 4) reorienting health services towards equity; and 5) monitoring wellbeing, disease burden, and health determinants and using this information to inform policy. Though food choices for children and adolescents, especially in urban areas, are strongly influenced by industry marketing practices, there are ongoing efforts to make healthy and sustainable foods the default – such as by taxing or otherwise regulating sugary beverages and foods high salt and saturated fats, and banning fast food outlets near schools.

This session will explore the types of efforts that a variety of actors can take to promote healthy and sustainable diets for children in urban areas, including international organizations, national government, city networks, and those working at the local government level.