Urbanisation and changing food systems


Ongoing urban transformation, with inadequate capability to cope with the housing, services, and changing patterns of livelihoods and labour (SDG 8, SDG 11), leads to nutrition transition, increased obesity and other nutrition related Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs). This creates a triple burden of malnutrition for families (SDG 2, SDG3, SDG 5, SDG 13). In addition, changing food industries are transforming both food demand and supply (SDG 8, SDG 11).

The project established an interdisciplinary network of scholars and practitioners in Eastern and Southern Africa and South Asia with the specific purpose of developing a major grant application. We conducted a synthetic review of the current state of knowledge on drivers of nutritional status amongst poor urban migrants and dwellers of informal settlements. We developed a strong, conceptually grounded and multi-disciplinary approach, which allowed us to probe the drivers of malnutrition in these populations at individual, household, community and urban levels.

Our work contributes to an emerging interdisciplinary research agenda on the role of informality, migration and pluralistic market systems in shaping urban nutritional outcomes. These are all areas in which the University of Sussex, Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and partners can demonstrate global leadership. By comparing distinct urban and peri-urban settings, the project sought to understand the synergies and trade-offs between SDG 2, SDG 11, and SDG 5.

Project description

Three research officers (ROs) with expertise on nutrition, market systems and migration worked together under the direction of the Principal Investigator (PI) and Co PIs to produce the synthetic review; support the development of a large proposal to the GCRF; and organise an international workshop.

Research methods were developed for the broader proposal. Our interdisciplinary and comparative approach considered how priorities for action vary across the cases chosen and what this implies for policy. Methods included analysis of available demographic and health survey data, comparative food recall and nutritional practice surveys; broader qualitative and participatory approaches.

One workshop (in Cape Town) completed (in December 2017) brought together partners from South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Bangladesh and Nepal. The workshop was organised by IDS and the University of Sussex and provided an opportunity to discuss the proposed research agenda, sketch out a common research project and define concrete next steps.

The IDS and Sussex research team developed an initial conceptual framework. Based on this, 6 short literature reviews were carried out by the ROs funded by the project, and presented at the Cape Town meeting. The next step was a working paper integrating this literature and identifying key gaps. A summary of this working paper was developed into a paper suitable for publication as a as a review piece in a top-ranked journal (i.e. Global Food Security).

Expected Impacts: This work, and the proposals that emerged from it, improves understandings of urban food and nutrition environments in a very practical way, by developing a deeper understanding within the academic but also policy community of how migration and mobility, household level decision making and informality and pluralism influence these environments and resulting nutritional outcomes.

Timeline and funding


April 2017-September 2018




Background research, concept development, two international research meetings, sustained collaboration leading to a major GCRF application in July 2019 – Reimagining Infrastructure: how is marginalised people’s food and nutrition security shaped by a continuum of urban infrastructure assemblages?


The population of food and nutrition insecure urban residents is growing in absolute terms in many cities in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and is relatively higher in informal and marginalised settlements. Food and nutrition security comprises multiple dimensions of food access (factors affecting purchase or exchange), availability (what/how much food is available and where) stability (do prices/ availability and quality fluctuate) and both safety and nutritional considerations (sufficiency, diversity, avoidance of harm or over-consumption).

The food and nutrition security of the urban poor is dependent in precarious ways on multiple forms of infrastructure and time-cost burdens and governance challenges associated with their provisioning – from transport and communications in support of markets, to fuel or electricity infrastructures for cold-storage and cooking, to water and sanitation for safe food preparation in homes and retail, and disposal of human waste. Gaps in local authorities’ knowledge and assumptions about the relationship between infrastructure and food (including how people meet their needs at the interstices of ‘on-‘ and ‘off-grid’) can either undermine or criminalise existing provision such as street-food vending adding to the precarity of supply, safety and livelihoods. 

We have developed a ground-breaking conceptual approach, linking literatures on urban food governance, urban systems and nutrition, and we will use this to focus on the interactions of such assemblages in the lives of the marginalised with implications for food. Much of this work has been siloed – whether on food production, food security, or nutrition, with not enough written about how other transformations such as demographic, livelihoods, or spatial distribution affect nutrition outcomes in urban areas.

The framework is circular to represent the systemic and reinforcing nature of these relations, as it is non-lineal. The framework shows how, for example, what a person decides to buy and eat or their time use will determine their nutrition status (individual). At the same time, the ability of that person to buy food or their time availability will depend on the transport infrastructure around them or on food prices (environments). Transport infrastructure or food prices are outputs of the policies of the area, of the social norms or of international events (systems). In turn, individuals deciding to use certain services or eat certain foods (individual) will also affect the type of food available (environments) or the cultural norms (systems) which will impact their nutrition outcomes. 

In the end, simply trying to chart urban systems separately can lead to top-down visions and responses to urban issues. Instead, by foregrounding the everyday contestations and experience of food within the other systems we will draw on a view of urban systems rooted in every day realities, providing real pointers for re-imagining planning more sensitive to the needs and lives of the most marginalised.


Building on this ground-breaking conceptual approach, this project has achieved its aims of forging new partnerships with key actors in the field of urban studies, urban food governance and nutrition and in submitting a major GCRF application.  We await the outcome of our GCRF application and will build on this further to carry out further work on this important challenge via our international partnerships.

The team

Where we worked

Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Bangladesh and India, with a focus on second-tier cities.