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Food policy councils (FPCs) are known worldwide as an innovative way to engage citizens in policymaking related to the food system, including issues of agricultural production, public health, economic development, community wellbeing, social justice, and environmental sustainability. FPCs typically operate at the local, regional, or provincial level and provide a platform for coordinated action between diverse stakeholders. Some are formally embedded within government structures while others function independently as non-profit organizations.

Over the last three decades, the emergence and presence of FPCs on the policy scene has garnered rising attention and interest from academics, advocates, and policy analysts. Critics have begun to document, analyze, and evaluate the work of FPCs, drawing attention to the successes as well as the tensions and challenges presented by the FPC model of collaboration and policy deliberation. At present, over 100 FPCs exist across North America, each established to identify opportunities for improving the food system. It is widely acknowledged that one of the major strengths of FPCs is their ability to be locally relevant, and to cater their activities to meet the needs of their own communities.[1]

Experience in the development of healthy public policies in Canada has demonstrated that the municipal level of government is often viewed as the political sphere in which citizens and grassroots groups possess the greatest capacity to bring issues forward and exert a direct influence. Local governments frequently serve as the testing ground for the formulation and implementation of innovative policy ideas that eventually become more comprehensive in scope as they are adopted by surrounding jurisdictions.[2] As such, local FPCs often seek to establish a long-term role in advising local decision-makers on specific food issues while simultaneously advocating for broader policy reform.

In 2011, the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) celebrated 20 years of citizen leadership in municipal food policy in Toronto. A subcommittee of the Toronto Board of Health, the TFPC is comprised of up to 30 members at any given time; these include city councillors and citizen volunteers embodying a broad array of thinking about food and health, from a range of organizational and community backgrounds. The TFPC plays a key role in food issue identification, community animation, and advocacy. It is an important resource for Toronto City Council when food issues are brought to city committees and council meetings. The TFPC enabled the formation of the provincial food advocacy network Sustain Ontario, supported the establishment of the world’s first Youth Food Policy Council, and serves as the community reference group for the new Toronto Food Strategy led by Toronto Public Health.

Lauren Baker, a University of Toronto lecturer and founding director of Sustain Ontario: The Alliance for Healthy Food and Farming, is the current coordinator of the TFPC. In late 2011, TFPC member Catherine Mah sat down with Baker to discuss the past, present, and future of food policy in Toronto.

Catherine Mah: Food policy councils have been around for a while now. Why the sudden surge in popularity?

Lauren Baker: It’s a really interesting time for food policy councils, and more broadly, the idea of citizen engagement in food policy. I think there’s a confluence of several factors.

One factor is that people are just more aware now of food issues; there’s a broader public awareness of these issues. We see food issues represented in the media frequently. Beyond the local food policy initiatives, we’re seeing a process of linking and scaling-up. Groups are beginning to work across municipal or regional jurisdictions to support each other and network, but also to address broader policy issues.

Another factor is that this awareness of the challenges in agriculture, health, and food is resulting in people taking action in their own personal lives and communities. It speaks to the broader context we’re in. The crisis in the environment around climate change, the economic crisis, health crisis—when you bring all these issues together, I think there’s an acknowledgement that we all have a role to play to generate solutions. There is an awareness of the multifunctional[3] or “stacked” benefits of healthy food and farming. In order to generate results, there is an acknowledgement that we have to work together, that we have to work in partnership. It’s simply not possible to do it all from government, from industry, or from the community.

CM: Can you tell us a little bit more about the move to "scale up" and link local food movements? Cities have been able to get together across jurisdictions on other issues, for example, such as sustainable development. How do you think that’s happening now for food policy councils and local or regional food strategies?

LB: One of the examples that I think illustrates what you’re talking about, Cathy, is what happened at the 2011 UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa. City leaders came together; they’re the ones that could agree on a common path forward and make a declaration. The nation states were effectively paralyzed. We’ve actually seen that over and over again at international summits—the city, municipal, and local governments are able to come together and set a common agenda.

It has something to do with the actions being more concrete at the local level. You can say, “in our jurisdiction, this is our scope and we can do these 10 things within that scope."

CM: The TFPC has been very successful in engaging diverse actors around food issues. The governance structure around the TFPC is also somewhat unique, in the sense that it is embedded within city government. From your perspective, Lauren, how does it help the TFPC to be positioned where it is?

LB: The TFPC is successful because it’s deeply rooted within the food community that exists in Toronto: people see themselves in the Food Policy Council. Many organizations—and to some degree, businesses—see their mandate strengthened by the work of the TFPC. They see the role the city can play in their work and the importance of coming together to connect with their colleagues. There are always such interesting synergies that happen around the TFPC meeting table with different members. These synergies happen at both the micro level, between two or more members that make an interesting connection between their work, and the macro level, with larger initiatives. The work around food in Toronto has a long history and close connection with the history of the TFPC. Another reason that the TFPC is unique is its relationship to Toronto Public Health. The TFPC’s work supports the mandate of Toronto Public Health to reduce health inequalities and advocate for public policies that make Toronto healthier. The TFPC facilitates and builds bridges between the community, city staff, and councillors.

CM: Could you tell us more about specific strategies that the TFPC has used to engage various stakeholders?

LB: In the early days of the TFPC, in the mid 1990s, the strategy was to develop research papers and bring food systems issues in front of the Board of Health. Another important strategy has been convening people: community, industry, politicians, and city staff simultaneously. The TFPC can ask city councillors for meetings, table issues, and work in a strategic way to bring these issues forward. The TFPC is always thinking about key policy opportunities, and moments to move issues forward. The Food and Hunger Action Committee comes to mind as one of the most successful elements of the TFPC’s history, and that process led to the adoption of the Toronto Food Charter. More recently, a similar process was used to develop Toronto’s Food Strategy.

CM: You attended a few meetings recently that brought together different food policy councils. Does the TFPC’s type of relationship with city government, community, and other stakeholders exist anywhere else?

LB: It does exist in other places. It happens in each place a little bit differently, but I think that the food policy councils that are effective have direct links both to municipal staff and to political channels. Sometimes it’ll be a political champion or a city councillor that sits on the food policy council. Sometimes it’s a strong chairperson and the committee of the food policy council who foster these relationships. Often, in other food policy council examples, there are city staff members who understand the food policy council, nurture the relationships, and make the linkages.

There are many groups struggling to make the case for a food policy council in their jurisdictions. We need to begin to talk about this work as something that should be happening more evenly across the country. One of the reasons I would want to have conversations with other food policy councils is to begin to legitimize this work, and to articulate the importance of citizen or stakeholder engagement in food policy. That’s part of the equity challenge I see around food systems work—it happens really unevenly.

CM: What is the job of the TFPC Coordinator?

LB: Facilitator, convener, horizon-scanner, advocate, researcher/writer, strategist. I think an important part of the job is relating to the council as a whole, and the ability to pick up on what individual members are involved in. At the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) Food and Farming Strategy process, for example, there were TFPC members who sit on the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee and who have actively been involved in developing the GGH Food and Farming Strategy. I don’t sit on the committee, but I attend the meetings as a city staff person. I observed that the surrounding regional councils are beginning to endorse the Strategy and that the people who are developing the Strategy are beginning to shop this around to different regional governments. Because the TFPC’s involved in this process, there’s an opportunity to bring the Strategy to the decision makers at city hall.

CM: Are there any tensions or challenges in the way the Coordinator—a City staff person—relates to TFPC members?

LB: As usual, the tension is around time, resources, and priority-setting. It’s really interesting how members instinctually understand this very interesting structure. Historically, there’s been a lot of trust in the Coordinator to facilitate relationships, to act in their best interests, to engage them in the conversations that are relevant for them and their work, and while some of this happens very spontaneously, often it requires strategic timing.

CM: I agree with you. What do you think—is there a special ingredient that enables these relationships and the work of the TFPC to go forward?

LB: Well, from your perspective as a new council member, how do you see it? You’re sitting around the table with all these people and you’ve been a very engaged council member. What are your thoughts?

CM: This is not a great answer, but my answer is: it just works! Council members seem to have a particular way of working, engaging with others, taking ownership of issues, and leading initiatives in a collaborative way. I think the Coordinator plays an important role in creating the type of environment where that can happen. I’ll put it back to you, Lauren: you’re new to your role as the Coordinator, but you’ve also been a TFPC Council Member.

LB: The work of the TFPC is a shared responsibility, because there’s the Coordinator, the Council Members, and the Chairs. Council members are so connected to what’s happening, that the right things get tabled at the right time. This experience has made me realize that we need members who are participating actively in the everyday work of the food and farming sectors. The incredible thing about the Food Policy Council is that you working with a whole group of thought leaders.

CM: At the recent TFPC 20th anniversary conference and celebration which happened in Toronto in October 2011, you and former TFPC coordinator Wayne Roberts spoke about the TFPC as a platform: where Council Members and others can have a place and a space to create dialogue and engage collaborators on relevant issues and initiatives, beyond their own circles and networks.

LB: I think it’s a platform for a variety of issues and initiatives. It’s definitely a platform for these longer-term policy initiatives.

CM: What are some of the TFPC’s “greatest hits” coming from this platform?

LB: We can look over the past 20 years and say, “because of the TFPC we have a Food Charter, we worked to ban recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in milk, started the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, have the Toronto Food Strategy…”. I think one of the greatest hits has been the Food and Hunger Action Committee. It just fundamentally speaks to me about how the Food Policy Council should work: this idea of convening city staff, council members, the community, and politicians to go out into the community to understand what the issues are and develop a report that results in specific initiatives, in this case, the Food Charter. The Food Strategy is the most recent greatest hit! The incredible thing about the Food Strategy is that it has been able to mobilize more capacity internally at the City to do this work. It’s really exciting that there’s a whole team working to implement the strategy, and such a capable team. The approach builds on the process started by the Food and Hunger Action Committee—very collaborative.

CM: What about future greatest hits? Do you see any issues coming up the pipeline that are going to be big?

LB: The issue of diversity and representation in the food system is really interesting. I think it points to the emergence of a more neighbourhood-based strategy in the near future. To engage the greatest sectoral, geographic, ethno-cultural diversity across this amazing city.

I think what’s brewing is an initiative to work on food issues ward-by-ward. In many cases this is already happening. I am inspired by what Vancouver has done with their neighbourhood food networks. It seems like this is the direction we’re headed. It very much affirms the Food Strategy’s work and approach.

I think it’s the right time for the neighbourhood-based approach—there are many city councillors across the city who recognize the good work that’s happening in their communities, either in the jobs that are created through the food industry in their wards, or the community initiatives, or what’s happening in the public spaces in their wards.

It also speaks to the idea of food justice. Some wards have less access to healthy food, to the organizations working on food, to avenues to participate in food policy work.

These different perspectives are so important for the TFPC. I want to engage people who are actually doing work in their neighbourhoods, through their businesses, in their local parks, or in their community organizations. There are different scales of projects and approaches I want to engage with at the TFPC. A combination of people who are immersed in particular neighbourhoods or sectors, as well as people who work across the city or across sectors. One of the challenges is that there are so many people who are doing this work. It pushes us to think about what the right mix is. Who do we need? Who’s leaving the TFPC? What are our gaps? It’s a really interesting process. I think there are other ways that we can engage people beyond the Food Policy Council, which of course we are beginning to do through the new Associates membership category.

CM: I recently attended the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) 3rd Sustainable Food Planning Thematic Group Meeting in Cardiff, Wales, and one of the major themes that emerged in the discussion about urban food strategies is that it’s not only about the way in which we frame food system problems, but also the way we frame solutions and potential outcomes.

LB: I find the framing of multifunctionality, or thinking about the stacked benefits of a healthy, sustainable food system, really useful. If we can begin to articulate this more clearly—the food-health nexus—our work will continue to gain traction across Canada and North America.

It’s the benefits of doing things at the local, neighbourhood level and how that reinforces or shapes what happens across the municipality more broadly. Being able to do cross-jurisdictional work and all of the benefits that come from that: health, economic development, city building, urban design, and agricultural viability.

CM: I love that. From a health perspective, you’ve expressed this idea of health equity not only in terms of health outcomes or even determinants of health, but in terms of the participatory or deliberative processes, the ways in which we enable people to join in the conversations about solutions.

LB: You’re reminding me of when I first started my job with the Toronto Food Policy Council. I was learning about the work that Toronto Public Health does, and reading the Ontario Public Health Standards. From my interpretation of the Standards, it makes perfect sense to have something like the TFPC within a public health unit. There’s a foundational standard that is all about exactly what you just said, Cathy. How do we approach health equity broadly, not just from a physical health perspective? Again, this is why we need to link across the country to begin to articulate our work as embedded in the many different, but related, provincial and federal policy frameworks, and draw attention to these connections in a very explicit way.

We have done this kind of work in the past: around the rBGH, for instance, but around other things too. I think the TFPC is not only a platform for municipal food issues, but also a platform for engaging in other jurisdictional venues.

It speaks to the role of public health around some of these issues, even in agriculture. How do we engage people in these cross-jurisdictional conversations? I think we’re starting to see the infrastructure to do this emerging across Canada through the provincial food networks and through the food policy work that is happening at the federal level. I think it’s very important for TFPC members to have access to that kind of infrastructure. Over the next three to five years, Food Secure Canada is going to become a major actor in food policy at the federal level, and this will provide a venue for people across Canada to participate in these discussions.

CM: I agree. I’d like to see more dialogue on this in the public health community as well. It’s continuing this message of thinking about health and health equity in a very broadly defined way: that food shapes our lives and health in myriad ways at the individual and the population level.

LB: We have a role to push that agenda forward within public health. There’s a lot of interest within public health, one of the reasons being that the story of citizen engagement and all the work that people are doing in communities across the country to reform the food system is a really good story, a really positive story. Sometimes in public health, we have this “Big Brother Public Health comes in and shuts everything down” reputation. We’re really lucky in Canada and Toronto, to have the kind of regulatory regime we have, and the resulting food safety system. But the media often focuses on the regulatory quagmires. When public health is doing its job right, public health isn’t acknowledged. But public health is constantly enabling new initiatives to flourish. So we’re not telling the stories of success effectively.

CM: Speaking of quagmires, we haven’t really talked about the current political environment.

LB: The current political and fiscal environment is really troublesome at all three jurisdictional levels. I think that the platform idea is helpful in this particular political context. We have a really broad agenda at the TFPC—we have many agendas—and we can be strategic around moving issues forward that will work in this context. The strength of our work is that it’s not tied to the political process or timelines. This work speaks for itself on the ground. It has positive outcomes and is sensible. What we are doing is advocating for a different policy framework for the future.

CM: I agree, I think it’s very much this idea of working longitudinally. Continuing to lay the groundwork, a portion of it separate from or alongside the political agenda; being reflexive, pragmatic, maintaining the linkages.

So looking at the next five years, or even towards the next 20 years, what issues do you foresee as being front and centre in food policy debates? What are some of the promising solutions?

LB: I’m interested in talking about the big global problems we face, and the very concrete things that people are doing at the local level to address them. This is a really compelling way to tell the story, because we can talk about the big problems for a long time. But in my experience, it is at the local level that people are experimenting with possible solutions and pushing new agendas forward. Urbanization is a global challenge that has specific local and regional ramifications: sprawl, for instance, and the loss of prime farmland and rural communities. One of our challenges and opportunities is building urban-rural linkages, and there are a couple of exciting things happening. The City to Country tours, the Greater Golden Horseshoe Strategy, the interest in local food infrastructure, and the work that is happening around food hubs are just a few examples.

For Toronto, a big challenge lies in the increasing economic disparities and inequities across the city. I think that this affirms the focus on neighbourhoods as part of the solution.

At the provincial and federal levels, the question is: how do we insert the local work into the conversation? The next five years will be very interesting. I believe we are going to see a new policy paradigm emerging from the lack of imagination seen in this round of the renegotiations of the agriculture policy framework and the Canada Health Accord.

CM: I look forward to working with you on some of these issues in the next five years! Thank you, Lauren, for taking the time to share your thoughts.

LB: Cathy, it is an exciting time for food policy in Canada. Thanks so much for this stimulating conversation!