Cities stepping up to the plate : how local governments bring food policy into practice in the Netherlands

Lara Vita Sibbing

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Food systems around the world face severe challenges, such as environmental degradation, food price volatility, and food insecurity. New food governance approaches that address these challenges holistically instead of sectoral are needed. Moreover, for effective food policy-making, local governments might be the new key players, as they benefit from knowledge of the place and the proximity to the community and can hence develop better-tailored solutions.

In this dissertation, I aim to: better understand how local governments in the Netherlands -a forerunner in food policy- are bringing food policy into practice; explore the extent to which this is happening; and ultimately determine if local food policy is a temporary fad or a sustainable trend. I answer the question: To what extent do local governments in the Netherlands succeed in bringing food policy into practice?

Four sub-questions guide the research:

  1. To what extent has food become integrated across local governments’ policies in the Netherlands?
  2. How and to what extent were food system challenges institutionalized within the municipality of Ede?
  3. To what extent did the City Deal Food on the Urban Agenda lead to genuine collaboration for enhancing local food systems, and what stimulated and constrained this collaboration?
  4. What opportunities and challenges did local governments encounter when implementing the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact indicator framework?

I conducted the research empirically, through an exploratory research design, and applied a participatory approach. This entails that I combined the roles of local food policy-maker and researcher.

In chapter 2, investigate how local governments in the Netherlands address food issues, and to what extent they integrated these across their existing policies. I adopt a policy integration lens and systematically analyse policies of large Dutch municipalities. I show that most municipalities integrate food to a limited extent only, predominantly addressing health and local food production or consumption. Municipalities set abstract goals, mostly without accompanying policy instruments. These instruments are predominantly non-coercive, including informative and organizational instruments. Nonetheless, a small number of municipalities have developed more holistic approaches. These municipalities may prove to be a leading group in the development of system-based approaches in Dutch local food policy.

In chapter 3, I investigate how and to what extent food policy commitments result in the institutionalization of food policy across a local government. I unpick how food governance ideas are institutionalized within the executive organization of a local food policy forerunner: the Dutch municipality of Ede. Drawing on discursive institutionalism, I explore how actors, ideas and discourses mutually shaped the institutionalization process. I show that food policy can institutionalize considerably within an organization over a period of only ten years and that organizational innovations and ideational leaders are key in this process.

In chapter 4, I explore how local governments collaborate on developing and implementing food policy within a food policy network. I use Ansell and Gash’s collaborative governance model to explore what collaboration and its outcomes look like, and what stimulates and constrains this collaboration. I study one of the first trans-local food policy networks in continental Europe: the Dutch City Deal Food on the Urban Agenda. I show that food policy collaboration in the City Deal seems to be more about collective identity-building and learning, rather than about collective working. Two interconnected factors seem key for fostering collaboration within trans-local food policy networks: 1) ensuring commitment among participants and 2) striking a balance between a sectoral focus and a holistic food systems focus. Two interconnected factors that constrain food policy collaboration are 1) a lack of shared understanding and 2) a lack of political commitment.

In chapter 5, I provide insight into local food policy evaluation, as assessing the extent to which policies advance their stated aims is the last step in bringing food policy into practice. I identify the opportunities and challenges that local governments encounter when taking up and implementing an indicator framework to evaluate their food policies. I conduct an exploratory case study of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) indicator framework. I show that, at present, implementing this framework is more useful for refining policy content than for assessing policy effect. I also show that some thematic food policy areas require more attention than others and that maturing evaluation requires moving from activity-based towards outcome-based assessment.

My dissertation shows that throughout all stages of the food policy cycle, local governments in The Netherlands –especially in large cities—are bringing food policy into practice and that food policy can be characterized as an emerging trend among local governments. At the same time, this trend is still fragile. For food policy to become a sustainable new governance approach three overarching challenges should be overcome: 1) an overemphasis on a holistic policy character and policy process, coupled with an underemphasis on the policy content and problem of unhealthy and unsustainable food systems; 2) too-abstract food policies that lack urgency; 3) limited institutionalization of food policy into existing ideas, norms, rules and beliefs.

While governments thus need to continue investing in food policies with a systems approach, in my dissertation, I point out a caveat: the food systems approach can also be counterproductive for achieving food systems change. In their attempts to apply a food systems approach, governments can come to overemphasize the holistic nature of the policy and the policy process -everything connects to food and everyone should be consulted-, while leaving the substantive policy problem -the characteristics and drivers of an unhealthy and unsustainable food system- underexposed. In this way, governments –unintentionally or intentionally— depoliticize the policy problem and leave the necessary policy course to address unhealthy and unsustainable food systems under defined. As a result, while the food systems approach theoretically leads to effective holistic policies, in practice, it often also leads to abstract symbolic policies that are not effective for achieving real change. For healthier and more sustainable food systems, scientists, policy-makers, and politicians therefore need to develop food policies that encompass both a holistic approach and concrete, clear choices. This requires strong political leadership.


Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Termeer, Katrien, Promotor
  • Candel, Jeroen, Co-promotor
Award date5 Nov 2021
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463959261
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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