The Open Food Conference under the Belgian Presidency

Guest Article by Kristof Rubens, Policy Advisor for Sustainable Consumption and Green Economy, Government of Flanders, Belgium, and Stefanie Vandevijvere, Senior Scientist for Nutrition and Health, Sciensano, Belgium.

In March 2024, Flanders organised the Open Food Conference in light of the Belgian Presidency of the EU. It took stock of the progress towards the ambitions and goals set forward in the European Farm to Fork Strategy. This conference tackled a broad range of topics which covered the whole food system, from production to consumption. Prominently visible in the programme was the concept of the food environment and its relevance to changing the current paradigm of individual responsibility to improve the quality of diets. Not only was this topic discussed in a session fully devoted to the food environment, it was also a topic of conversation in several other sessions during the three conference days.

The term food environment is a relatively new term in the policy domain. Also, from a research point of view, it often remains somewhat of an enigma. During the conference, we tried to shed some light on why it is important to look at the food system from a food environment point of view, how to map food environments, and how we can make food environments healthier and more sustainable. Ultimately, the goal is for governments to help their citizens make healthier, and tasty, choices with a lower environmental impact. If we keep focusing on individual responsibility, it will not be possible to create the needed shifts in diets for both population health and environmental sustainability.

Turns out, we still have a long way to go. In a groundbreaking study in Flanders, it was shown that the outlets serving fast food and takeaway, as well as convenience stores, have increased in numbers in the vicinity of schools during the period 2008-2020. According to the researchers, this was negatively associated with the weight of the pupils due to the increased offer of unhealthy food. Especially young children and children from a more disadvantaged socio-economic background are affected. Our environment shapes the way we live. Thus, in order for a society to prevent unhealthy food outcomes, it is important for governments to focus on healthy food choices in a health-promoting food environment.

Reshaping the food environment (or plural food environments, because during the day we may encounter many different kinds of food environments) is easier said than done. Governments do have tools to influence the food environment, for example, fiscal measures or marketing restrictions, but these tools have been only sparsely used. Local governments, on the other hand, often lack the tools to take meaningful actions against, for example, yet another fast food outlet in their streets. Of course, it can be done, as the citizen initiative in Tervuren (Belgium) has shown. Impactful policy instruments remain limited, but the interest in developing them is growing. Crucial in this regard is measuring the food environment. According to Anniek de Ruijter of the Law Centre for Health and Life at the University of Amsterdam, “It’s the same as before we couldn’t measure air quality and when we could measure it, we could regulate it. That is actually the revolution brought about by this research. That we say ‘Now we can measure it, that means now we can actually start doing something.”

What we need are good examples from all over Europe which can show us that changing the food environment is achievable and can result in positive health and sustainability outcomes. This way, we can create, or adapt, European frameworks like the ‘services directive’ to ease the burden on (often) local municipalities which are trying to find solutions to provide a healthier and more sustainable food environment for their citizens. As a society as a whole, we would greatly benefit from that.

Disclaimer: the opinions – including possible policy recommendations – expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EPHA. The mere appearance of the articles on the EPHA website does not mean an endorsement by EPHA.

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