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Urbanization's impact on access to affordable, nutritious diets

By Roberta Fortugno

The impacts of urbanization on access to affordable healthy diets, food security, and nutrition have raised concerns across rural and urban areas. While urban regions generally enjoy better access to nutritious foods and higher incomes, numerous challenges need to be addressed nonetheless.

Urban populations face a significant challenge in accessing affordable and nutritious diets. Individuals living in urban poverty often struggle with the high costs and limited availability of nutritious foods. This issue results from several factors, including the increased demand for fresh products that leads to higher prices, as well as the uneven distribution of supermarkets, which tends to concentrate in wealthier neighborhoods leaving low-income areas with limited access to healthful food sources. To tackle these challenges, it is important to come up with innovative solutions that prioritize affordability and ensure equal access to nutritious foods for all people living in urban areas.

Furthermore, the rapidly increasing share of highly processed foods of high energy density and minimal nutritional value, especially in urban consumption patterns, is linked to the rise in obesity and non-communicable diseases. In turn, this highlights the importance of promoting healthy eating habits and raising awareness about the risks associated with excessive consumption of processed foods. Encouraging the availability and affordability of fresh, locally sourced products can contribute to improved nutrition and enhance overall health outcomes in urban areas. New evidence for Africa suggests that consumption of highly processed foods and high-calorie snacks and beverages is spreading across the full spectrum of the rural–urban continuum, even among the rural poor – a trend of great concern.

Recent empirical studies show that the risk of food insecurity could also be higher in urban areas than in rural ones due to the intra-urban inequalities present in many rapidly urbanized countries. According to new country case studies in sub-Saharan Africa, urban and peri-urban areas have similar or even higher rates of moderate or severe food insecurity based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale than rural areas. Access to healthful food across the rural–urban continuum is complicated, with multiple variables to consider.

Rural-urban migration plays a complex role in impacting access to nutritious foods in rural areas. On the one hand, migration can improve rural incomes through remittances, providing opportunities for households to afford healthier diets. However, remittances may not be sufficient to replace lost workers with hired labor. Lost labor and associated reduction in income or food production might lead to reduced access to nutritious meals or longer working hours for women in subsistence farming to ensure household food security. Balancing the benefits of migration with the need to sustain agricultural livelihoods is crucial to ensuring food security and nutrition in both rural and urban areas.

Further, malnutrition rates differ between rural and urban populations due to various factors. Rural areas tend to have higher malnutrition rates, which can be attributed to limited access to diversified diets, inadequate healthcare services, and lower incomes. However, the proximity of rural areas to urban centers can provide opportunities for improved nutrition. Strengthening rural-urban linkages, promoting agricultural development, and implementing targeted interventions to address malnutrition can help alleviate this disparity.

In conclusion, the "urban advantage" in terms of access to affordable healthy diets is not as straightforward as it may seem. While urban areas generally offer better access to nutritious foods, challenges such as affordability, limited availability, and the prevalence of processed foods need to be addressed. Additionally, the impacts of rural-urban migration on food security and nutrition require careful consideration. Analyzing the rural-urban continuum will help identify both the challenges and opportunities to improve access to affordable healthy diets, promote food security, and address malnutrition.

As Observatory on Digital Communication, and central to its core mission, OCCAM has been advocating and operating to bridge the urban-rural continuum by the provision of services, both in presence and at distance, that prevent the deepening of existing issues, including access to safe water and nutritious food as well as to health facilities and basic services, to avoid massive migrations from rural areas to urban ones in favor of the safeguard of local traditions, of job creations and improvement of overall living conditions given a generalized (e-)welfare for all.

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