22nd Mar 2018


Cities united by love of good food

  • Gemma Safont (r) manages an agricultural park in Mollet, just outside of Barcelona. She says a new emphasis on serving local, organic and seasonal food in Mollet's public canteens is attracting young people back to the fields. (Photo: Amy Labarriere)

Overlooking the rolling countryside just nine miles from Barcelona, Mollet del Valles, a city in Spain of 53,000 people, always had a tradition of eating well and protecting the land. But there was never a city-wide food policy linking producers and consumers.

That was until 2013, in the midst of economic crisis, when the city hall set up an International Relations Department to look for innovative ideas on public services and networking opportunities through EU programmes.

They discovered the URBACT programme. URBACT enables cities to work together in networks, exchange good practices and develop policies to respond to their challenges.

Sodertalje in Sweden - leading an URBACT city network called 'Diet for a Green Planet' - was seeking partners just like Mollet del Valles to transfer their existing good practices. Sodertalje, with 95,000 inhabitants, has a reputation for promoting sustainable local farming as a solution for feeding people while reducing agricultural pollution.

Unlike Spain, Sweden has a national law that puts municipalities in charge of public canteens. Sodertalje's municipal 'Diet Unit' employs 250 people - including cooks - and buys food directly from producers. Providing 24,000 free school meals a day, the city has reduced meat consumption by 30 percent since 2010, and reduced leftovers by up to 40 percent. About 60 percent of Sodertalje's schools are supplied with local, seasonal, organic food.

Sara Jervfors, head of public meals in Sodertalje. (Photo: Sodertalje kommun)
Albert Garcia Macian (l), Antonio Martínez (c) and Nuria Duno (r) played large roles in implementing a new procurement system for food in Mollet. (Photo: Amy Labarriere)

Innovative urban policies

Thanks to EU programmes like URBACT, the story of how Mollet set out to adapt and adopt Sodertalje's approach is one that spotlights how innovative urban policies can travel quickly and have an impact across borders .

In Mollet, where the task of supplying and running public canteens is outsourced to private companies, this central approach to food was unheard of.

"Reading about Sodertalje, I was amazed to discover how diet could even exist as a concept for a city council. For us, Sodertalje's Diet Policy and Unit was like a UFO," Albert Garcia, head of Mollet's EU and international department, recalled excitedly.

"The municipality wanted to create markets for local food, as foreseen in the city strategy for 2025, but the public canteens had never been seen as a solution for agri-urban growth. Yet, we have this fantastic agro-ecological park of 734 hectares, Gallecs, making up 50 percent of our territory, a culture of enjoying good food, and a climate for growing tasty produce year round," Garcia said.

As required by URBACT, Mollet set up a local multi-stakeholder group - composed of elected officials, school principals, cooks and farmers - to explore how they would transfer Sodertalje's Diet Policy into their community.

One of the first actions of this local group, just after their visit to Sweden, was to carry out a quality audit of the food served in public canteens.

The results were two-sided: while children and parents seemed happy with the quality and taste, the audit revealed that much of the food that children were eating had been frozen, pre-prepared and brought in from far-off places. Some asked: "Why change the system if people are happy and we don't have any complaints?" But Sodertalje's inspiring results, the prospects of local economic growth and a healthier way of living in Mollet pushed the council forward to reform.

Diet for a Green Planet

Following local meetings and discussions in Sodertalje and in Mollet, the city introduced a new public procurement system based on quality rather than price, transforming supply and enabling hundreds of children to eat food from nearby farms - but without increasing prices for families.

This new public procurement system was drawn up in 2014 based on Sodertalje's 'Diet for a Green Planet' principles - tasty and healthy food, organically grown, less meat, more vegetables and wholegrain, seasonal food, locally produced, and reduced food waste.

Rather than choosing companies on price alone as in the past, under the new model the local council sets a fixed price for running its canteens, and then uses a points system to select and monitor the winning company based on quality.

Tendering companies are compared according to their scores on areas, such as: nutritious and tasty food (factors here include "not using pre-cooked and fried food" or "at least 10 different vegetables per week"), ecological foodstuffs, and local fresh produce (which includes "average distance from vegetable suppliers less than 30 km").

Today, children from three public kindergartens, as well as from the two municipal centres for people with disabilities in Mollet, eat healthy lunches, prepared with lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, carrots and other vegetables from Gallecs - the 734-hectare agro-ecological park on the city's doorstep.

The food served in Mollet's public canteens is now, on average, more than 80 percent organic and 100 percent seasonal. All the vegetables travel fewer than 30 km (19 miles) from field to fork. A steady supply of other fresh food, including meat and fish is ensured, thanks to an agreement with a regional association. Parents in three of the ten publicly-run primary schools have followed suit to transform their canteens - with more and more schools showing interest - in Mollet and beyond.

Tomatoes being planted at the Gallecs agro-ecological park. (Photo: Amy Labarriere)
When Gallecs farmers produce more food than local canteens need, they turn it into sauces and preserves in a shared kitchen. (Photo: Amy Labarriere)

A learning journey with local results

All of this activity means more jobs and economic development. In Gallecs, there are about 20 local producers today, with some of them employing around twice as many people as in 2013, and numbers are growing.

Gallecs now counts seven exploitable hectares, compared to the two hectares before the project started, and local producers now supply 14 public canteens in other cities in the region.

In 2015, the city voted, in Swedish style, for a diet policy with cross-party consensus, to turn Gallecs into a major local supplier of seasonal, organic produce beyond public canteens.

Antonio Martinez, a local council officer, reflects on what would have been different if Mollet hadn't joined URBACT and introduced to Sodertalje. "Everything!" he exclaims. "There's a chance we'd be right where we were five years ago, facing budget cuts, but no way to improve our services. We've managed to introduce something new - without increasing costs."

When Mireia Oliva - principal of the pioneering Can Besora school, which was involved in the exchanges with Sodertalje - was asked if this has been a useful experience with positive effects on the children, her answer in Catalan was categorical: "Molt, Molt, Molt" - very, very, very much so.

Mireia Oliva, a principal whose school has long emphasised healthy eating, was part of the Mollet delegation that went to Sweden and helped the Mollet Council develop its new food policy. (Photo: Amy Labarriere)

The learning exchange has gone in the other direction as well. Sodertalje was so impressed by the Gallecs model of sharing management of a regional agricultural park that the Swedish city is embarking on importing that idea from its Spanish counterpart. Mollet and Sodertalje are now part of another URBACT network, Agri-Urban, to further foster the economic potential of sustainable local food chains.

This is an edited version of the article - What a city in Spain learned from Sweden about promoting local food and healthier eating - written by Amy Labarriere for URBACT and first published on


Interested in adopting a good practice from somewhere else? Discover URBACT's good practices and apply to the ongoing URBACT call for Transfer Networks by 10 January 2018!


URBACT is the European Territorial Cooperation programme enabling EU cities to develop integrated local solutions through networking, capacity-building and knowledge-transfer activities.

Disclaimer: This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.


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