Urban Hunger

Editor’s Note:  This post first appeared on the Chicago Council’s Food For Thought blog.  

Today more people worldwide live in urban areas than in rural ones – an increasing trend which has a significant impact on how people eat and on the food system as a whole. To meet the demand that accompanies this rural-to-urban transition, how can the food system adjust the ways that food is produced, transported, and distributed to ensure that people in both urban and rural areas have access to affordable, nutritious foods?


Cities are on the rise: The current trends in urban population growth will only continue. By 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population, or 6.3 billion people, will inhabit urban areas. The most rapid urbanization is taking place in low- and middle-income countries: Africa is projected to grow from 40 to 56 percent urban, and Asia from 48 to 64 percent urban by 2050. India, China, and Nigeria together will account for more than a third of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between now and 2050.

Cities affect how and what we eat. As cities grow, especially in developing countries, food insecurity among the urban poor is an increasingly pressing issue. Urban dwellers must typically purchase all of their food, which can make up as much as 80 percent of the total income of low-income urban households. Accordingly, incidence of food security in urban areas in developing countries is often the same or higher than in rural areas, even though average incomes are higher in cities.

Additionally, people in urban areas eat differently than those living in rural areas. People living in cities have greater access to processed foods, which can be high in salt, sugars, and fats. Because food and agriculture value chains are still in transition in many of these countries, it is more difficult for urban dwellers to procure fresh fruits and vegetables. Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of diet-related chronic diseases is growing fastest in urban areas, especially in low- and middle-income countries. In China, for example, the average urban resident gets nearly a third of their calories from fat, compared with an average 25 percent calories from fat consumed by rural residents, and rates of hypertension are increasing. In India, where urban residents are consuming greater amounts of sugar, type 2 diabetes is a major public health concern – a third of urban South Asians show evidence of metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes.

Cities depend on natural resources, and an urbanizing world poses unique challenges to those working in agriculture and food. As cities expand, they take fertile lands out of commission and withdraw more water, which places pressure on the agriculture system to be more efficient in its use of natural resources. In addition, many low- and middle-income countries lack infrastructure for transporting foods, especially nutritious foods. Roads, refrigeration, primary processing, and other key components of cold chains are often absent, meaning that it is more difficult to get perishable foods such as produce, fish, and dairy products into markets and stores.

But solutions and innovations are already underway. Nourishing the world’s cities will depend on ensuring the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods, and innovations are being developed around the world to cultivate fruits and vegetables within urban areas. In Singapore, vertical farming takes place at Sky Green Farms, where vegetables are grown year-round inside a skyscraper. In Japan, a former SONY factory is now home to the world’s largest indoor farm, producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day.

But while urban agriculture is valuable, these kinds of efforts alone will not be sufficient to ensure that billons of urban dwellers can access nutritious foods. Investments in infrastructure that allow food to move efficiently and safely from farms and into cities, and retail options that make these foods available and affordable, especially for people living in poverty in cities, will be essential.

Stakeholders are actively tackling these issues. In 2013, at a meeting convened by the African Union Commission and Kofi Annan Foundation, a group of senior African leaders concluded that rural-to-urban food supply chains in Africa are already developing rapidly to meet the growing urban demand for food, while entrepreneurs are making investments throughout the supply chains. These kinds of investments and innovations to increase access to and affordability of healthy foods for people living in urban areas is crucial to alleviating malnutrition and the diet-related disease burden in the world’s burgeoning urban population.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Marc.


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