What a city in Spain learned from Sweden about promoting local food and healthier eating

Gemma Safont (right) manages an agricultural park in Mollet del Vallès, 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'. (Amy Labarrière)

MOLLET DEL VALLES, Spain — Overlooking rolling countryside just outside Barcelona, this city of 50,000 has always had a tradition of eating well and protecting the land. But there was never a city-wide food policy linking producers and consumers.

Then, a few years ago, City Hall set up an International Relations department — and officer Albert Garcia Macian learned what was happening in a Swedish city some 1,600 miles away.

The city of Södertälje, close to Stockholm, had found a way to put local, organic and seasonal food on the plates of 24,000 public school students a day. The move had boosted local organic farming, cut the carbon footprint of the city’s public canteens, and given kids healthier food to eat.

How Garcia and the municipality of Mollet del Vallès set out to adapt Södertälje’s “green diet” approach is a story of how innovative urban policies these days can travel quickly across borders, starting in the context of one city and changing to suit another. It’s also a story of how even small cities can make big changes when they think creatively and share ideas.

Garcia learned about Södertälje while looking for innovative public services and networking opportunities through European Union programmes. He discovered URBACT, which accompanies and connects European cities through networks to find sustainable solutions to their common challenges. At that time, Södertälje, the “Good Practice city” leading a network called “Diet for a Green Planet”, was seeking partners just like Mollet del Vallès.

Garcia got in touch with the people managing the programme in Södertälje. Soon after, he organized a trip for a delegation of 14 people from Mollet, including an elected representative, council officers, school principals, cooks and local producers to go and see for themselves what Södertälje has done. When they got home, they started work on replicating the Swedish programme, with some Mediterranean twists.

Albert Garcia Macian (left), Antonio Martínez (middle) and Núria Duñó (right) played large roles in implementing a new procurement system for food in Mollet. (Amy Labarrière)

“When we came back from Sweden, the suitcases we were carrying were packed full of ideas,” says Garcia. “But we also had doubts. Our cities were so different” in terms of food traditions and how public canteens are managed locally.

“How to transfer and adopt what we’d learned” Garcia continues. “How to make it work?”

Finding allies

Södertälje (pronounced So-der-TAIL-yeh) has a reputation in Sweden for promoting sustainable farming while reducing agricultural pollution. And the city of 95,000 has taken full advantage of a Swedish law that puts municipalities in charge of public canteens. In Södertälje’s case, those include dining facilities in schools, elderly care centres and City Hall, as well as two cafes and a bakery at a museum.

Södertälje has a municipal Diet Unit that employs 250 people — including cooks who work for the city — and buys food directly from producers. This means the city can work with farmers, schools and cooks to test new models for giving children local, seasonal, and organic food. The city has reduced meat consumption in schools by 30 percent since 2010, and reduced leftovers by up to 40 percent.

In Mollet, this centralized approach to food was unheard of. Here, the whole task of supplying and running public canteens is outsourced to private companies. The city had a strategy for promoting local food but had not thought about the canteens as part of the solution. “I was amazed to discover how diet could even exist as a concept for a city council,” recalls Garcia. “For us, Södertälje’s Diet Policy and Unit was like a UFO!”

Yet Mollet had some things working in its favor. Most notably, a large land reserve known as Gallecs — part of a buffer separating metro Barcelona from the countryside — runs through Mollet. A consortium put together by the surrounding cities, together with the Catalan government, runs the 734 hectares (1,800 acres) as an “agro-ecological” park. It’s a place where organic farming is encouraged, protecting the environment is valued, and engaging the public is part of the mission: 750,000 people a year come to visit.

Sara Jervfors, head of public meals in Södertälje, helped Mollet officials adapt the Swedish city’s food programme to a new context. (Södertälje kommun)

“We have this fantastic agro-ecological park making up 50 percent of our territory, a culture of enjoying food, and a climate for growing tasty produce year-round,” says Garcia.

The first thing Garcia learned from Södertälje was to find allies, people who could be part of Mollet’s learning process and partners in taking action. He created a local group of enthusiastic teachers, local farmers and cooks, politicians, school principals, and civil servants. “This local group was the perfect platform for bringing local actors together,” Garcia says. “The sense of belonging, a joint commitment to a shared cause… it’s the only thing making these changes sustainable.”

Members of Mollet’s local group visited Södertälje to learn from their Swedish counterparts. In turn, people from Södertälje visited Mollet. These peer-to-peer exchanges not only helped transfer knowledge but also build political support. After hosting a delegation from Södertälje for a three-day visit, Mollet Mayor Josep Monràs came to see the potential of using food as a way of achieving many different environmental, health and economic goals at the same time. Food suddenly became the mayor’s favourite subject.

New criteria

Just after the first visit to Sweden, Mollet carried out its first ever quality audit of the food served at public canteens in three kindergartens. The results were mixed: While children and parents seemed happy with the quality and taste of the food, the audit revealed that much of what children were eating had been frozen, pre-prepared and brought in from far-off places. A good argument could have been made not to change a system that wasn’t generating complaints.

But the Mollet council was inspired by Södertälje’s results, as well as the prospects of encouraging local economic growth in the agricultural sector and a healthier way of living. The council introduced a new public procurement system that enabled food from nearby farms to enter the canteen supply chain — without increasing prices for families.

Planting tomatoes in the Gallecs agro-ecological park. (Amy Labarrière)

Inside the towering concrete City Hall, council officers Núria Duñó and Antonio Martínez are eager to share Mollet’s new approach. A spreadsheet sets out new criteria for selecting the private operator who runs Mollet’s public canteens. It was drawn up in 2014 based on Södertälje’s “Diet for a Green Planet” principles, along with some advice from the Ecological School Association of Catalonia.

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

The criteria include providing food that is tasty and healthy; is organically grown; uses less meat; uses more vegetables and whole grains; is seasonal; is locally produced; and reduces food waste. Each criterion in the selection process contains a number of factors that companies might win or lose points on. For example, under “tasty and healthy food”, vendors are scored based on not using pre-cooked or fried food and using at least 10 different vegetables per week.

“It wasn’t easy to find good companies that could meet these criteria,” says Martínez, noting that some legal advice was also needed to comply with EU public procurement regulations. “We’ve made a few adjustments. Other towns are now showing interest, as well as private schools outside our direct control.”

Some of these adjustments were on expenses. Organic fresh produce from small producers costs more than industrially produced, re-heatable meals. To keep prices down for the families, the council trimmed costs by reducing the cooks’ working hours, for example, and encouraging food providers to lower their profit margins.

Today in Mollet, children from the three kindergartens and from two municipal centres for people with disabilities are eating healthy lunches, prepared with lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, lettuce, beans, carrots and other vegetables. Much of the food comes from Gallecs, while other fresh food, including meat and fish, comes via an agreement with an association that sources food from a wider area within the region.

When Gallecs farmers produce more food than local canteens need, they turn it into sauces and preserves in a shared kitchen. (Amy Labarrière)

The food served in Mollet’s transformed canteens is now, on average, more than 80 percent organic, and entirely in sync with the local growing seasons. All the vegetables travel less than 30 km (19 miles) from field to fork. Even the bread is baked locally with flour from stoneground spelt, an ancient variety recently reintroduced in Gallecs. When farmers produce more vegetables than the canteens need, they turn it into sauces and preserves using a new machine in the agro-ecological park’s shared kitchen.

All this activity means more jobs and economic development. In Gallecs, there are about 20 local producers today, some of them employing twice as many people as in 2013, and numbers are growing. The amount of land in Gallecs used to serve public canteens has grown from 2 hectares to 7. Local producers now supply 14 public canteens in other cities of the region.

Gemma Safont, who manages the consortium in charge of Gallecs, grew up there on her family’s farm. She’s noticed that policies like Mollet’s are beginning to have a real economic impact. “We’re attracting young people back to the fields,” Safont says.

Making adjustments

Mollet has encountered a few hiccups along its path to better food. A big one is cultural disagreements about the virtues of meat. Some parents are unhappy that meat is sometimes replaced by vegetable protein in their children’s meals. One mistake, which Garcia and his colleagues dubbed “the great burger crisis”, was to serve each child with half a big burger. People thought they were being swindled by authorities putting cost-cutting above their children’s sustenance.

At Can Vila, a school for 157 children of all ages with special needs, cooks have to be particularly careful about allergies and other dietary requirements — some children are fed via gastric tube. Autistic children in particular found it unsettling to adjust to whole grain pasta and bread, and meals without meat. Troubles eased some when lentils were made to look like meat. The principal, Montse Tarrés, says the shift to new “green diet” menus could not have gone ahead without close support from the parents.

Overall, teachers and principals here say the system is working. It’s made food — both the sustainable production of it and healthy eating — an integral part of the educational programme in a way that has been a positive for both families and school practitioners.

Mireia Oliva, a principal whose school has long emphasized healthy eating, was part of the delegation that visited Södertälje and helped the Mollet Council develop the new policy. It’s given her energy to renew her school’s commitment to healthy, local food, she says. Asked if the exchange with Södertälje has been a useful experience, with positive effects on the children, she replied in Catalan: “molt, molt, molt” — a lot, a lot, a lot.

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

Mollet’s primary partner in Södertälje was the city’s head of public meals, Sara Jervfors. She was particularly impressed by the relaxed, positive approach in Mollet, the nutritional potential of delicious year-round Mediterranean food, and the strong local culture of sharing and enjoying meals. “Mollet were really advanced in the way they cooperated with the vegetable farmers,” Jervfors says. “They had good ideas for linking schools with local producers.”

In fact, the learning exchange is now going in the other direction. Södertälje 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. Both cities are now part of another URBACT network called Agri-Urban, intended to do even more to foster the economic potential of sustainable local food supply chains.

Mollet has made progress since implementing its diet policy in 2015. Garcia’s group of local allies has evolved into a “food policy group” and now meets regularly to discuss municipal actions related to food. Today, they are continuing the city’s strategy to turn Gallecs into a major local supplier of seasonal, organic produce.

Part of this is a project to convert an old farm into an e-commerce storage and delivery centre. The idea, which has secured investment from local and regional authorities, is to scale up local food businesses. The centre would be located next to the school for persons with disabilities; some of the jobs there would be suited to the school’s graduates.

There are also plans to link the food and health sectors. Working with Mollet Hospital, the city is looking for ways to fight diseases associated with poor diets and obesity, and to encourage residents to eat less sugar, salt and meat, and more vegetables and non-processed foods.

In the council offices, Antonio Martínez reflects on what would be different if Mollet hadn’t met Södertälje. “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.”

This article was produced in partnership with URBACT

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Amy Labarrière is a freelance writer and editor based in Paris, France. Full bio

WHAT MOLLET DEL VALLES LEARNED FROM SODERTALJE

  • Supplying public canteens with local, organic and seasonal food is a potent way to boost farming jobs, reduce carbon emissions and encourage healthier eating.
  • Unlike Södertälje, where local authorities run the canteens, Mollet contracts out this service. To change its food supply chain, Mollet had to reform its procurement rules.
  • With help from a food policy group of local stakeholders, Mollet developed contracting criteria that emphasize local, organic and healthy food options.

 

 

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