In Focus: Supporting cities to improve urban nutrition

Our 'In Focus' series sits down with people at the cutting edge of improving nutrition outcomes to understand their perspective, passions and latest projects. Today we talk with Kathrin Demmler from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.
Name and title
Tell us a little about yourself …

I am a trained nutritionist and agricultural economist, and my field of interest covers all aspects of food systems. In addition to my academic interest, I enjoy working in that sector since it implies engaging with people around the globe from different fields and with different backgrounds. I love this work because it is super diverse and never gets boring, which might also be a reason why I love living (and cycling) in London – in addition to the fantastic food choices.


What got you interested in nutrition? 

Growing up in Germany in the late 90s and early 2000s with both of my parents working, it seemed quite normal to leave your children with a selection of - back in the days - novel readymade lunch choices. After a while, I got tired of the selection that was available so I started doing my own little lunch experiments. I remember one of my first innovations was a sauerkraut mushroom salad. My brother refused to try it and I admit it was a bit odd, even for Germans. While I tend to think my own recipes have improved over time, the passion for food,  and the question of how the environment we are living in contributes to the choices we make, has continued.   


What do you work on?

As technical specialist at GAIN, I support different teams and projects in all aspects related to data, research, evaluation, and monitoring. For example, in the Urban Governance for Nutrition programme we worked together with partners and implemented landscaping analyses in the cities of Tunis and Dar-es-Salaam. Based on this work, we gained intriguing insights into the realities and contexts of food environments for urban consumers and vendors. By gathering this kind of knowledge, we can support city governments in making use of their governance power to promote the inclusion of nutrition in urban food system activities to address urban malnutrition. Data on food system and food environment aspects on the sub-national or municipality level in LMICs are unfortunately often very scarce. This limits evidence-based decision making and tracking of indicators over time, which is something we are working to improve.



How does your work relate to public private engagement for nutrition? 

To understand what works as a means to help get more nutritious foods into urban food environments, we work with policymakers, vendors, small businesses and consumers. We look at how public policy impacts supply and markets, and how markets impact consumers’ food choices. By promoting multisectoral approaches, we also encourage the engagement between cities and the private sector as important alliances for better urban nutrition.   


What is exciting about your work? 

We are currently working in 10 different cities in Tunisia, Tanzania, Kenya, Pakistan and Indonesia. There is a lot of discussion and coordination with actors across the globe which I really enjoy. And urban food systems in general are an extremely fast-moving sector and have always excited me. Worldwide, we already have more than half of the world population living in cities. This means that changes in the urban food system have a huge impact, not only on cities’ own population, but also on rural food producers that supply them. Therefore, it is an enormously exciting environment to work in, and there are many more fascinating city activities ongoing. I hope with our work we can empower and support even more cities to use their governance and integrate nutrition into their policies and programmes to address urban malnutrition.


What is challenging about it? 

While I appreciate working in a programme where we interact closely with policymakers there are sometimes also challenges based on different agendas or changes in the political settings. Those might lead to shift in priorities or slow down the processes to integrate nutrition and healthy diets to policies and programmes. From a research perspective, we are often also limited by the available sub-national data or evidence in the food environment dimensions. That needs to change, and I hope we can encourage timely and cost-efficient data collection that is collected regularly and easily accessible.



What’s next? 

We are currently engaging with a group of national and international experts in 6 cities to explore the needs and observations of policymakers, vendors and other city stakeholders on how the markets in those cities were, or are, functioning under COVID-19. That’s super exciting as we hope it will help inform real-time understanding of different urban contexts – and it’s exciting from a methods perspective as we are making use of a range of different techniques. We also hope to gain a better understanding of policymakers needs that could guide further data assessments and support the development of targeted solutions in those cities and help to keep food markets working during the pandemic.


What’s the latest news or a recent success?

It has been a busy year. We recently published a series of very informative factsheets exploring the critical role of urban informal food retail, the relevance of urban food environments, the challenges of urban nutrition, and the effectiveness of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and taxation.

We also discussed the issues of cities food system planning related to the call to action on new city development and the definition of urban governance for nutrition. Furthermore, we published several working papers highlighting examples of urban policies and programmes from LMICs, including nutritious food procurement in Addis Ababa and Puna, India’s clean street food hubs, the Punjab Food Authority, and the nutrition action plan in Tanzania. These case studies also add on to the “Menu of Actions”, which highlights examples of urban policies and programmes, from countries around the world and in all income bands. Very inspiring and encouraging not only for other cities but simply exciting to read about these very innovative actions – many of which involve cooperation and coordination between public and private sectors.


What is your favourite food or meal to share with family or friends?

Hah it is definitely not the mentioned sauerkraut combo earlier, although I am a huge fan of sauerkraut. No, but I have a great passion for any type of pulses. I could simply eat chickpeas, broad beans, lentils, or any of these every day. One of my all-time favourites is red lentil soup, with cumin, chili and garlic, topped with some fresh mint and yoghurt – a fantastic option, especially during this time of the year.