When I was a kid, all of my friends loved starting with a small fistfull of snow and rolling it along as it gathered enough snow to become a huge ball that could be made into a snowman or fort. We understood what it meant to go from a little ball to a huge ball, as we gathered volume by picking up snow from all sides.
This is exactly how food works, I’m reminded by the last line of a 2011 article I unfortunately just read today about how food got planned in a mid-sized city with a right-sized planning and public health staff. I highly recommend the article (see link below) to anyone wondering about the first steps a city and regional government can take to promote food jobs and nutritional health.
Here’s my list of takeaway to-do’s:
1. Talk big, act small. Big picture visions are important but so are “micro-level policies” because in food, the god (and devil) is in the details. You need to have key activities, such as local farm auctions that supply wholesalers, permitted as legitimate uses of public space.
2. Talk up universal public service. In this era of trade deals, when governments are prohibited from intervening in the monopoly-dominated market simply because they want to help the locals, the objective and universal merit of a public expenditure or regulation must be featured. The language of motivation must be “bullet-proof,” I like to say. All the Waterloo plans were justified as “improving the availability and accessibility of health-promoting foods, ” or “reducing the demand on transportation infrastructure and the growth in vehicle emissions.” These changes are designed to promote an essential public service or address an essential need, not to favor or protect a local business interest. Such measures are considered acceptable grounds for government intervention.
3. Talk up jobs. Few people know that food is a job-rich sector of the economy. That’s one reason why the food system, as the Waterloo public health people put it, needs to be classed as a “social determinant of health” — namely a universal public benefit, not a narrow and parochial private interest. The Waterloo people point out that 11.3 per cent of the labor force is linked to the farm sector, and that each agricultural job supports four additional jobs in the local economy. As well, each dollar of sales in the agricultural sector generates an extra CA$2.40 of sales in the local economy. Anything non-food has to beat that job-creating power, while also matching the health and environmental benefits of local food. From that standpoint, I would say, food is almost unbeatable.
4. Make the invisible visible. I believe the biggest contribution of the Waterloo studies was making the full absurdity of “redundant trade” visible. Most people think we import goods we can’t produce — bring in strawberries from California because they’re not available here. Actually, about half the miles travelled by food are for no good reason at all. A truck is leaving Waterloo on any given day delivering apples far away, and on the same day a truck full of apples from far away is heading to Waterloo. The trade and miles are redundant, unforgivable in an era of global warming. Making this absurdity visible highlights a market failure, which makes the universally acceptable (by today’s standards) case for public intervention to correct the absurd result of government subsidies to cheap transportation — the government intervention that got us into the mess in the first place. I’d like to think that when people read this publication, they will think that this is the day when public money to support absurd subsidies instead of health-promoting assistance met their Waterloo.
5. Plan for snowballs. Start with a tiny fistful of issues, such as a neighborhood that lacks access to health, and roll that issue up inside other issues nearby, such as farmers who lack access to a market, and kids who need proper nutrition to thrive at the local school, and safe neighborhoods that need more people to know and care for each other, and on and on it rolls.
Let the avalanche begin!