Toward a right-based approach in food assistance: the case of urban food policy

Roberto Sensi, Master Food Law Finance

Economic crises and austerity policies caused the increase of poverty in Italy. According to the estimation of the  Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), in 2015 the 7.6% (4.598.000) of the national population was under the absolute poverty line. Other 13.8% ( 8.307.000) of people were relative poor.  Many of these people faced problem in having a regular and adequate access to food.

As in many other European countries, in Italy there is no indicator for measuring food insecurity. Today the main cause of food insecurity is the lack income even if other social and cultural factor can contribute and a more accurate and shared definition would be needed in order to better understanding its “root causes”. For this reason there is a lack of accurate estimation. According to the Eurostat definition of food insecurity that happens when  a person is  unable to eat a meal with meat, chicken, fish (or vegetarian equivalent) every second day in Italy there are  around  5.5 million people are food insecure,. Children and youth are the main affected people.  Even if this estimation are not accurate, it is undeniable the increase of food insecurity in the country that can be observed by the increasing number of people who ask for  food at the Food Banks (the most important is Banco Alimentare) and other charitable institute. Historically, the people who used to get assistance to these private actor  were the  most marginal, while today we are witnessing the so called “social normalization” of the users). For example,  we assist to a gradual intensification of the poverty gradients and individuals are distributed among poor / temporarily poor / vulnerable /non poor but there is no longer such a clear division between the areas. Finally, according to other estimation, in 2014 were 3.978.925 the people who went to the   16.948 center of food distribution in the country.

Today, the Food Assistance Program are funded and implemented  by to main channel. The first, is the  Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) supports EU countries’ actions to provide material assistance, including food,  to the most deprived. FEAD replaced the Program for European Aid to the Most Deprived (PEAD) managed by the DG Agriculture which came to an end in 2013. In Italy FEAD distributes basic goods throughout a network of no-profit organization among other the Food Banks who also represent the second main channel of food distribution program. The Food Banks get food from a different sources: national food drive day (so called Colletta Alimentare), donations of food surpluses from catering services and supermarket. The redistribution of food surplus has been increasingly becoming an important source of food thanks to the support of national government who have been adopting new legislation that try to make easier the food donation to food charities (Gadda Law 2016).

While the European food aid is distributed through standardized procedure with formal agreement among parties and a transparent financial reporting, the other initiatives are usually based on bilateral relationship  with reciprocal trust among local actors and strong component of voluntary work. For this reason there are several model running at the same time which makes their performance evaluation more complicated.

In Italy food safety and food security are named using the same noun “sicurezza” and it creates some confusion. The industrialization of food sector has brought the food safety issue at the top of Italian food agenda. However, as we said above, food insecurity is getting more importance. The blossom of the territorial initiatives of food assistance have been happening without a clear national strategy on food security to tackle food poverty. Additionally, the responsive policy are implemented in lack of universally agreed definition of the problem. Indeed, these initiative rise the question about their capacity to be effective in promoting food security on medium and long term basis thus contributing to the fully realization of the right to food. More than using a human rights framework, many of these initiative, particularly the Food Bank as Banco Alimentare appear to characterized by a need-based approach more than a right-based one.

The intersection between private initiative and public sphere can be partly explain by the ineffectiveness of public policies to reach the most vulnerable. The private and social sector, indeed, has been most effective in reaching segment of people who for different reason are excluded by social protection schemes.

As we mentioned, one opportunity to improve the quantitative capacity of food assistance not burdening excessively  the budget  of local authorities is given by redistribution of surplus. Since 2000s, the Italian government has been supporting  this solution firstly with the Law 155/2003 (Legge del Buon Samaritano) and later with  a new and more promising measure of the Law 166/2016 (Legge Gadda) which provides tax incentive for the private sector who donate food surplus to third sector association. The idea of a win-win strategy among environmental goals (reduction of food waste) and food security improvement (through the redistribution of social purposes) has been mainstreaming into the public opinion (civil society, food banks, media, institutions) becoming a strong and non-contested idea. However, an increasing number of research have been challenging the win-win game narrative questioning the effectiveness in term of food security improvement and claiming the fact that in this way the state escape from its duties avoiding to tackle the root causes of food insecurity.

To fill the gap of a national food security strategy, in the last years we have been witnessing to the active engagement of local authorities on food policies, on the one hand supporting program and initiative aimed to improve the quality of food consumed in the city (urban garden, farmers market ecc.); on the other hand adopting multiyear food strategy and promoting the participation of the all local food actors in decision making process on food security.

The food policy are an interesting and multi-sectorial set of food and food-related policies to improve the sustainability of city-region food system in order to promote the access of citizens to a better quality of food with positive social, environmental and economic benefits for people. Important European cities (Gent, Lion, Bristol, among the others) have been adopting food chart, food strategy and food council. In Italy, thanks to the Expo Milano 2015, the have been an increasing attention paid by city to food security issue. In 2015, for example, the city of Milan has been adopting a five-years food strategy. Among the priority of the food strategy, there is the need to guarantee the access to adequate food to all people, including the most vulnerable. Among the action, the redistribution of food surplus is one, but not the unique, solution for tackling food poverty and promoting social inclusion, opening the way to a variety of solutions based on the richness and diversities of the local food systems and food actors.  For example, the Milan food strategy foreseen to develop tools for feed the vulnerable segment of local population through the valorization of sustainable local food production connecting the  different actors (community supported agriculture, food back, urban gardening association, other local charities ecc.) in a way to develop  inclusive community-based welfare practices.

The Food policies represent an unique opportunity for bringing  social innovation in many sector of public policies trying to identify efficient and effective welfare solution not escaping from the responsibility  of local authorities (through outsourcing)  but improving coordination, effective participation of the all actors, including the most vulnerable,  adopting a right-based approach in emergency and long-term development intervention.


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