To end urban hunger, focus on low-income housing and settlements in cities

Millions of adults who live in low-income urban areas regularly fall short of the calorie requirement recommended for a healthy life. The relationship between low income housing and food security needs to be targeted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to achieve Goal 2: ‘to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture’. Dr Suzanne Speak (GURU, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape) contributes to the Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institute blog series by showing how the UN SDGs could end urban hunger.

Image 1 outdoor kitchen Nigeria

Food security for the urban poor 

In its 2013 report on the State of World Food Security, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that one in eight people in the world were suffering from chronic hunger and undernourishment in 2011-13. While the crises of acute famine or drought afflicting small farmers and rural dwellers are well reported to the international community, the ongoing, daily undernourishment of many low-income people in urban areas is less well understood or prioritised.

The focus on food security has, until recently, been overwhelmingly on rural problems and on issues of food availability at a global and national scale. The UN Sustainable Development Goals do little to address this rural focus. Despite SDG 2 aiming to ‘end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’, there remains no explicit reference to urban hunger. Yet many millions of urban adults regularly fall short of the 2,100 kilocalories recommended for a healthy, active life. Urban food insecurity has been significantly overlooked, especially by some of the professionals who could influence it most. Food security remains invisible to urban planners and managers in comparison to other problems such as unemployment, overcrowding and decaying infrastructure [1].

Urbanisation has brought with it the urbanisation of poverty and now, many low-income urban populations are equally at risk of poverty and food insecurity. Indeed, the UN itself acknowledges the food security and malnutrition issues associated with this urbanisation of poverty [2]. There are many reasons for this urban food stress.  While it is difficult for urban policymakers to intervene to address all of them, here are three points around housing and settlement policy which can help drive urban food strategies. 

  1. Increase secure livelihoods

Urban dwellers pay up to 30% more for their food than rural households [3]. However, livelihoods are unstable, being more dependent on waged income from precarious informal employment.  Much of the informal-sector activity takes place outdoors (construction, street vending, or rickshaw drawing), making the rainy season an especially difficult period. Seasonal variations need to be taken into consideration when designing urban interventions. Urban households may need to remit funds back to the rural family, putting further stress on income and budgets.

The UN SDGs can help to address the problem of urban food insecurity through focused work on urban poverty.  However, poverty is not the only issue affecting urban food security.  We need to recognise the synergy between food security and several of the goals, especially Goal 11 on cities and human settlements, and Goals 6 and 7 on water, sanitation and energy.

  1. Promote sustainable urban agriculture and improve access to land

As the homes of the poor are usually small they have less storage to set food aside for harder times. Urban agriculture could play a significant role in managing fluctuations in food availability and support women who are unable to work outside the home. Indeed target 5a urges ‘reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land ….’  Urban land is as vital for women’s livelihoods as is rural land.  However, authorities seldom recognise this.  Many urban migrants, men and women, tend to have good agricultural skills but there is less land available. However, encouraging urban agriculture for low income households would support SDG 12 to Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”.

City authorities can do much to support both food security and gender equality by enabling the urban poor to have access to land for livelihood and agricultural purposes, and reconsidering their attitudes towards urban agriculture. This cannot be achieved easily, given the spiralling cost of urban land in many cities of the south. Nevertheless, urban planning policy can, and in some countries does, manage to regulate in such a way that undeveloped urban land can be temporarily put to more productive use.  This requires municipal planning authorities to have strong vision and commitment to addressing urban hunger.  It also requires strong governance and improved capacity within municipalities to develop and enforce regulation, such as land banking, which pushes up the cost of land and removes it from productive use.

  1. Ensure easy access to food markets and adequate conditions for cooking

The absence of markets and the small size of low-income housing, which has limited kitchen facilities, means an over reliance on street vendors and processed ‘snack’ foods for daily calorie intake.  Street foods are often more expensive, and less nutritious, than home-prepared foods. Urban household budgets also compete with other resources such as water, devoting a significantly higher share of their limited household budget to drinking water than rural households.

SDG 6 aims to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. However, food safety can be more problematic in urban settlements, where inadequate space and services for food production and storage have implications for both individual and public health.  The lack of basic water, sanitation, drainage and solid-waste disposal services makes it impossible for the poor to prevent contamination of water and food.

Reliance on street foods further exposes urban residents to higher levels of food contamination and low nutritional intake. In this respect, two SDGs are particularly relevant — SDG 6 to ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ may be critical in improving food safety.  Targets 6.1 – 6.5 are especially relevant to enabling low-income urban people to avoid food borne disease and lead healthier lives in general.  In this respect they will be more productive for the city and better able to improve their own livelihoods.

Even if food can be purchased and stored effectively, much cooking is done on open fires or kerosene stoves, both of which produce toxic fumes in small, badly ventilated houses.  In this respect SDG 7 can help in its determination to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

SDG 11 recognises the importance of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. However, this cannot be achieved until the availability of, access to and use of food in low income settlements is recognised as a specific and urgent issue, and addressed by urban professionals not simply those engaged in agriculture.

Image 2 processed food in India

Summary of action points for reaching SDGs on hunger:

  • The UN SDGs can help address urban food insecurity by targeting urban poverty, but it is not the only issue affecting food security which includes human settlements, water, sanitation and energy.
  • Rather than be seen as inappropriate in urban planning by city managers, low-income households should be encouraged to take up urban agriculture to alleviate hunger in cities.
  • Create food markets, sharing networks and urban agriculture projects to decrease reliance on street food which is often more expensive, less nutritious and more likely to be contaminated than home-prepared meals.

These are only some examples of actions that could be taken to address food security for the urban poor. However, the importance of markets and income-earning opportunities cannot be over-emphasised as it is sustainable livelihoods that will enable people to ensure their food security for present and future generations. Urban planners and similar practitioners could play a key role in achieving food security, improving food nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture together by focusing on the plights of low-income urban areas.

[1] Maxwell, D. (1999). The political economy of urban food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.World Development, 27(11), 1939-1953.

[2] United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition August 2013 available at:

[3] World Food Programme. Annual Session. Rome 20-23 May 2002 Report on Agenda Item 5 Policy Issues (

Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes:

Sustainable Development Goal Indicators are technical, but also political

This is the first of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), exploring the targets and indicators of sustainable development that have been mapped out for the United Nations post-2015. The Theme Institutes are well placed to contribute to the SDGs, which aim to address the social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainable development. Dr Graham Long is Senior Lecturer in Politics, in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University, and he introduces the series, hosted by the Institute for Sustainability, with a political context for the SDGs, arguing that the goals in practice may differ from what has been set out on paper.

Earth sunrise North America with light clouds

SDG indicators: the technical track

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) currently under negotiation at the UN have reached the ‘science bit’. A dedicated technical track is in place to decide upon the indicators to accompany the goals and targets – that is, what will be (and indeed what can be) measured. This exercise will extend into March 2016.  The UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) and National Statistical Commissions are charged with arriving at an account of how progress towards the goals will be measured. Alongside a set of global indicators, particular national and even regional indicators might also emerge. When, say, David Hulme – a leading international expert on the Millennium Development Goals – calls for academic engagement, the coming months may be a decisive moment for just that.

This is all good, technical stuff on which academics have the knowledge and the mindset to engage – assessing weighty issues of methodology and measurability, science and statistics, proxies and paradigms, disaggregation and ‘data revolution’. Via the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Scientific and Technological UN Major Group, as well as other expert groups and networks, academics have already had input into this process. Indeed, the Scientific and Technological Major Group’s core role is to facilitate the participation of the scientific community on matters of sustainable development. The UNSC, SDSN and the Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on the Data Revolution, have all recently run open consultations on these kinds of technical questions. As new drafts of the indicators are prepared, we can expect opportunities for input to continue.

However, just because this is a ‘technical’ exercise, doesn’t mean that it’s not also political – that is, it is fundamentally about “who gets what, when and how”[1]. Indeed, the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) states that it expects “broad political guidance” from states on questions of indicators. States (and other actors) involved in negotiating the SDGs are acutely aware of how important the indicators are for the framework that results. Given very broad goal areas, and targets (currently) of varying quality and effectiveness, the indicators will bear a lot of the burden of the SDG framework. They can, in effect, ‘make or break’ the agreement that results. What we choose to measure will dictate where states’ activities are directed as states are keen on saying, ‘what gets measured gets done’.  The concrete indicators will be taken to indicate, amongst other things, what these broad and aspirational goals were really driving at in the first place.

Indicators and the review process

Accurate data – and the right data – will be important for the review and follow up framework for the goals. Data is indeed “the raw material of accountability”, as the IEAG proclaims. However, there is a lot more to accountability than just data – notably, the responsiveness of actors and the presence of standards and sanctions. The SDG agenda is not even really about accountability – even though it will be accompanied by a monitoring mechanism of some stripe. These are “aspirational” and “voluntary” goals, and their complexity tells against attempts to allocate responsibilities to particular actors.

Even if we are speaking of ‘monitoring’ or ‘follow up’ rather than accountability in a strict sense, indicators are but raw materials of a process. They have to be assessed in appropriate structures and forums. Whilst the indicators themselves are technical, the arenas in which they will be used are decidedly not. And without institutions that allow for scrutiny, all the scientifically valid indicators and successful measurement in the world will not give us effective review or monitoring, let alone accountability. This framework for monitoring and review is up for discussion at the next set of intergovernmental negotiations in May. Received wisdom indicates that state, regional and global institutions will have a role, with the recently-established “High Level Political Forum”. However, much of how this will operate is still to be decided.

Financial graph and red pen

Reflecting goals and targets

On the one hand, a broad and complex agenda to apply to every country suggests that comprehensive coverage would require a large number of indicators. On the other, there is a clear limit on the number that will be practicable. In the context of these conflicting imperatives, which indicators are finally chosen is a question with great political significance for the goals. It looks important to select indicators that at least reflect the spirit, intent or guiding idea of each goal area. Indicators must strive for technical rigour. But if they do not accurately capture the key aspirations for each goal, then the goal in practice – come March 2016 – will not reflect the goal on paper in September 2015. Again, this demonstrates how important the formulation and selection of indicators will be. States, through negotiation, will decide on the essence of the goals and exercise final control over how this judgement will be made, something that will surely prove to be difficult and controversial.

The limit to the scope for “technical” assessment is clearly indicated by the way that, even as the indicator process was confirmed as technical, many states vigorously rejected technical proofing of the targets, even though the targets are very mixed in quality and just as crucial. For some states, evidently, the targets are too political to be technical. Other states invoked technical inputs precisely to make the opposite political point. When the Scientific and Technological Major Group – offering “the science perspective” – reported that only 29% of the targets are “well-formulated and based on latest scientific evidence”[2], this finding was widely invoked in favour of proofing and pruning of targets.

No escape from politics

We should proceed with caution about any assumption that the indicator debate, by virtue of being “technical” or “scientific”, is not also political. For those stepping into such issues, ‘forewarned is forearmed’. But also, the SDGs offer a much broader agenda for study by almost every branch of the sciences and social sciences – from assessments of their ultimate ends and assumptions, or their place in a wider history of ‘development’ initiatives, down to the detailed content of every indicator. The SDGs need expert scrutiny in every root and branch. Not only where such academic input would be welcomed by states, but also precisely where it might not be.

[1] To adapt Harold Lasswell’s phrase from his book Politics: who gets what, when, how (New York: Whittlesey House. 1936).


These are the author’s personal views, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any larger organisation. (Contact to find out more)

Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes:

The Whole Grain Truth

Professor Chris Seal is a Professor of Food and Human Nutrition, and Kay Mann is a postgraduate student, within the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University. They are calling for the next government to introduce clear guidelines on the amount of whole grain we should be consuming.

Whole grain truth

The evidence: Whole grains are good for us

Current literature suggests that those eating three or more servings of whole grain, compared with those that eat none or only small amounts, have a 20-30% reduction in their risk of developing cardio-vascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Higher whole grain intake has also been linked to lower body weight, BMI and cholesterol levels. Other research suggests that eating whole grains can make you feel fuller for longer and that you do not need to eat as much of a wholegrain food compared with a refined version to feel full.

The problem: The picture in the UK

Our new research on over 3000 UK adults and children who took part in the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) between 2008 and 2012 shows that over 80% of us are not eating enough whole grains. Amazingly, almost one in five people don’t eat any whole grains at all!

One reason for this may be that in the UK there aren’t any specific recommendations on the amount of whole grain we should eat each day, other than the NHS Eatwell Plate advice to “choose wholegrain varieties whenever you can”. Countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and Denmark give much more specific daily recommendations. These range from a minimum of 3 servings (or 48g) per day in the US to between 60g and 90g per day for women and men in Denmark.

Three servings (around 48g) is equivalent to:

  • 3 slices of wholemeal bread
  • A bowl of porridge or wholegrain breakfast cereal and a slice of wholemeal toast
  • A portion of whole grain rice/pasta/quinoa or other whole grains

UK public advice about whole grains was first introduced back in 2007, when it was recommended to look out for ‘whole’ on food labels and to ‘choose brown varieties where possible’. We analysed whole grain intake from the NDNS back then and it seems little has changed in consumer habits since.

The amount of whole grain we eat in the UK is still very low – an average of around 20g a day for adults– compared with Denmark where the average daily intake is around 55g. In the UK, we tend to eat a lot of white bread, rice, pasta and cereals and lots of processed foods, all of which have no – or very little – whole grain in them and also tend to be higher in fat and sugar.

In Denmark, since the introduction of a whole grain campaign backed by the government and food producers, whole grain intake has risen by 72 per cent. We’d like to see a similar commitment here in the UK with a government-backed daily intake recommendation which can be used to develop successful public health campaigns.

So what are whole grains and what do they do?

Whole grains are defined as the ‘intact, ground, cracked or flaked kernel after the removal of the inedible parts such as the hull and husk’. This means that the three component parts of a grain – the outer bran, the germ and endosperm – remain in the final food product. Combined, these contain important nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals. When grains are refined to make white flour, many of these valuable nutrients are lost, and only a few are return with mandatory fortification.

Whole grains include; whole wheat (wholemeal), whole/rolled oats, brown rice, wholegrain rye, whole barley, whole corn/maize, whole millet and quinoa. The key is to look for the word ‘whole’ on an ingredients list and also for the ingredient to be high up on the list. These ingredients can be found in foods such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, porridge, wholegrain pasta and rice.

There are a small number of people that suffer from a gluten intolerance, which means that they have to avoid eating grains that contain high levels of gluten such as wheat, barley and rye. It is still possible for them to get their whole grains. Whole grain oats do not contain gluten but can sometimes be contaminated with wheat during harvesting and processing, others such as amaranth, buckwheat, brown rice and quinoa are also gluten free.

How whole grains have their effects is not clear. Certainly a key factor is better digestive health, but we also see lowered blood cholesterol, reduction in inflammation, lower body weight and lower weight gain in people who eat more whole grains.

The solution

We advocate:

  • the introduction of specific guidelines to promote whole grain intake in the UK
  • an emphasis on how easy it is to introduce more whole grains into diet – no major lifestyle change is needed
  • small tweaks to diet such as replacing white rice and pasta for brown, eating porridge or a wholegrain cereal for breakfast instead of a refined grain breakfast cereal, or swapping white bread for whole meal bread