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Why cities matter for the global food system

Francisco Obreque's picture
Also available in: Español
La Paz, Bolivia. Photo by Andy Shuai Liu / World Bank

I was with the World Bank delegation at the Habitat III Conference in Quito last week, reflecting on the future of cities and speaking at a panel on food security. While there, I could not help but remember the story of Wara, an indigenous Aymara woman, one of eight children from a poor rural family living in the Bolivian Altiplano. Poverty forced her to migrate to the city when she was young.

Now living in La Paz, Wara has been working as a nanny in households for decades. She has three teenagers. Her oldest son is overweight and has already had several health problems. He occasionally works with his father building houses. The other kids are still in school and Wara hopes that armed with an education, they will be able to find a good job.

According to statistics, Wara is no longer poor. Indeed, Wara and her family are better off when compared to her modest origins. The truth is, however, that she is vulnerable and can easily fall back into poverty and hunger.

As in most Aymara families, Wara’s husband administers the money, including her own earnings, but she is the food-provider for the family. Each Saturday he gives Wara some money to get food for the week. She wakes up early to go to one of the four big markets in La Paz to buy basic staples such as potatoes, fresh vegetables, rice, sugar and oil, among others.

At the market, Wara doesn’t always find everything she needs. Climatic or logistic factors often hamper food deliveries to the city. When this occurs, perishable food arrives in bad condition or with lesser quality, and many products are just thrown away.

The story of Wara illustrates some of the current and future challenges for the food system.