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Pinning Big Hopes on Small Food Policy

I was in Montreal last week, meeting with a terrific group of public servants working their way through the complex issues of establishing a food policy council on a big island with many municipalities.

I couldn’t have been there at a better time. That week, the story went international that Montreal’s mayor was preparing to lead a battle to make Montreal the first major city in the world to ban all sales of water in plastic bottles.

At a time when plastic throwaways are filling rivers, lakes and oceans with debris that poisons global fish stocks, it is passing strange that cities -- instead of nation states that claim to be looking after big issues -- are taking leadership on a range of life-threatening files.

The same is happening with city leaders rising to the challenge of global warming, the supreme public health, economic and environmental problem of our times.

The global pattern of nation states’ persistent neglect of the world’s most pressing issues is the unstated background to today’s precedent-breaking discussions about cities and food.

The paralysis crisis of our times has forced city leaders, like everyone else, to confront the question posed by the ancient Jewish leader, Hillel:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

Concede that food is not a subject that has been assigned constitutionally to cities. Nor are agriculture, fisheries and food matters that cities have the physical space or financial resources to manage.

But if cities will not be for the food that urban residents depend on for life, who will? And if they do not do something pro-active now, when?

That line of questioning is behind the rapid rise of food policy councils.

When I started to manage the Toronto Food Policy Council in 2000, there were three in the world, two of them in relatively small and little-known American cities. Now there are over 200, in such cities as Seattle, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Rotterdam and Bristol.

Like all the cities thinking of starting something like a food council, Montreal’s civic leaders wonder exactly what is involved. They wanted to hear about three models of food policy councils.

One model, represented by Moe Garahan of Ottawa, is a council of community activists based on independent citizen groups. Another model, represented by Anne Palmer of Baltimore, is a council of health experts responsible to a city planning department.

I was there to speak about a third model – a council of community and food sector leaders, organized by a City staffer paid by the public health department, and accountable to the city’s Medical Officer of Health and Board of Public Health.

My presentation was based on six basic ideas. This newsletter summarizes two of them:

There Are No Rules to Break

The oldest food council in the world is 34, most have been around fewer than 5 years. The movement is too young to have fixed rules. There is just a “community of practice” that has developed a rough consensus around basic guidelines.

As a result, the only wrong decision is not making a decision to proceed, preferably as a pilot with permission to review basic guidelines after three years of experience.  

There are no rules to break because there are no rules! Food councils are instruments of empowerment, and must start with people taking their own power!      

Small p Is Beautiful

The most common mistake of food policy councils is to think they will be doing Big P Policy. This is rarely the case. Few cities have the resources to implement Big P policy, such as raising wages and social allowances so that vulnerable people can enjoy food security.

But the opportunities are almost endless to create conditions for food system improvements by bringing different kinds of people together to work on practical and positive projects. Think of the food council, in other words, as a linktank, not a thinktank.

In 2004, I worked with Lori Stahlbrand, a graduate student in environmental studies who was given a work study project  to work with me (coincidentally, her husband) to co-host a working conference of three groups. One group was academics from the city’s three universities, who often invited food leaders to give guest lectures to their classes, or asked them to supervise students in work-study projects. Leaders of community food organizations often invited to help out academics were the second group. Public health researchers and community workers were the third.

The conference was organized around this question:

“We have accomplished a lot without planning anything; what could we accomplish together if we acted intentionally?”   
By the end of the day, the relationships were built for what became the “overnight” explosion of food studies programs at Toronto universities. As well, a grouping called Food for Talk held regular meetings where graduate students in food-related areas from all three universities and some community colleges could discuss their work.

And the Toronto Food Policy Council got an added mandate, which most people were very happy about: to help inspire and prepare the next generation of food professionals and leaders.

Not bad for small p policy!

Convincing charity foundations to see food projects as projects worth funding – weird as that may sound today, when it is so commonplace – represented another big small p policy victory before 2005. It would have been harder to do without the TFPC because we were able to advocate, even though we had no vested interest and would not be direct beneficiaries.  

When I started at the TFPC, I wanted to shift media coverage on food topics from the women’s and family section of newspapers to the news section.

Part of the reason for success was that I became the first person new reporters called to get briefed on the background to their assignment, and to find the best person to interview. Being a trusted public servant made it easier to fulfill that role, and the coverage given to food issues in the Toronto media confirms that value of providing that support to major vehicles of public education and dialogue.

Again, not bad for small p public policy education!

Archimedes at work

My major breakthrough in understanding small p policy came from a tour of food projects with Elyse Parker, a planner responsible for keeping the city clean, litter-free and beautiful. By the end of the day, she saw community gardens and farmers markets as activities that made people feel a place belonged to them, and a place they would therefore take responsibility for keeping clean and beautiful.

Elyse learned to value community gardens and markets, and I learned that food was most important to a city as a lever that could move the needle on non-food programs.

The concept of leverage made it into the Medical Officer of Health’s 2010 food strategy for Toronto. I was a senior writer of that report.   

My next small p policy learning: I learned to think as a servant leader who offered a desert tray, rather than as an advocate pressing for one program. I made it a practice to offer officials three action options, as if I had a desert tray. If they chose one to work with me on, that was great. If none appealed to them, no hard feelings.

From my point of view, there were hundreds of opportunities to work with hundreds of people on projects they wanted to do that related to food. Why waste my time, energy and frustration working with people who didn’t want to work with me when I could work with people excited to see if food could help them advance their projects? (This was a lesson I learned from the Zapatistas in Mexico, who did not like the idea of wasting energy on friction.)

The decision cost me Big P Policy achievements, but lots of headway was made on scores of practical projects.

My final small p policy learning came from reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point.

Reading it made me realize the opportunity that the TFPC could provide organizations by tipping an issue.  Janice Etter, then the citizen chair of the TFPC, gave that tipping service the name of “issue management,” which we both thought was a grand name.

This borrows from Everett Rogers’ famous concept that most reform ideas – be it abolition of slavery, votes for women, free elementary education, publically-funded medical care, whatever – go through the same stages. At first, they’re only supported by early adopters. Then they win over an early majority. Then they win over almost everyone – the late majority.

My belief is that food policy councils are best suited to helping advocates make the case and arguments and connections that can take issues from the early adopter to the early majority stage. The early adopter work is best done outside a food council or government body. By the time an early majority has been won, carriage of the issues is normally taken by politicians or others in power positions where they can do implementation.

Many good causes falter on the way from early adopters to early majority, and improving the rate of success is a big thing.

But it means forsaking one’s own agenda, and going with the flow of what is there for the taking – as in taking from the early adopter to early majority stage.

It’s about intervening to seize opportunities, or as a food advocate might put it, making hay while the sun shines. It’s about being a Solutionary.

Some people might see that as a small p policy role. I prefer to see it as a big role in adding to the machinery that begins to normalize good food movements and the governmental changes they need.

We celebrated some of our success in moving small p forward in a relatively big way at my retirement party in 2010, when a group of city councillors stormed our meeting and presented me with illegal chickens as a farewell present. (see picture at top) May as well get fired if you're going to retire anyway!!!

Editorial Notes: This article first appeared in Wayne's March 24th 2016 newsletter.

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