Act: Inspiration

Nine-Tenths of the Power, Glory and Empowerment of Food are Hidden Beneath the Surface

January 18, 2018

In this digital age of virtual reality, we have grown to understand a real world which we can’t see, feel, smell, hear or touch. We might invest in a company’s brand, not just its assets, for example. We mobilize campaigns designed around soft cultural power, as well as hard physical power. We respond to debates moving around on the blogosphere.

But when it comes to food, we continue to believe that what you see, touch, hear, smell and taste is all that you get.

Thankfully, food cannot be digitalized. But quite a bit short of that, I believe we need to do something to make ourselves more mindful about food’s unseen powers.

I think the power of the invisible applies to food in two ways.

First, many important things about food’s impact and processes can’t be seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard. As a consequence, many things about food can’t be measured, in the way that government legislators and researchers like to be able to measure. If it can’t be measured, it can’t be legislated, many government officials seem to believe.

Second, we need head space and cultural sensitivity to see processes and impacts that are more than the eye can see.

Food’s invisible powers need to gain the same reputation for reality in the public mind and public policy that virtual reality media enjoys.

Let me explain.

Most of us experience food as a commodity that fills our tummies and satisfies our physical needs and senses.

But the future of food policy, especially in cities, must deal with the 90 per cent of food that’s beneath that surface level.

Ironically, public discussions around food are dominated by interest groups that work hard to keep themselves invisible — particularly the ten corporations that control the business of global food systems. They argue that food policy must stick to the bread and butter issues that can be seen, touched, tasted, touched and smelled, and therefore can be owned, bought and sold. There’s no need for public policy to go beyond that. Render unto Caesar (not talking about the salad dressing here) only that which is Caesar’s.

People don’t find what they don’t look for, so debates about food usually end up being about agriculture and nutrition. Fairly often, governments look one step beyond agriculture and nutrition to consider food safety, food jobs, and more recently, food insecurity.


Neglecting what we can’t see, hear, feel, touch and smell ignores a lot of space that we could work productively with. Let me give a few examples:

Conviviality: We can use the invisible convivial power of food to create neighborhoods, build friendships and romances, celebrate important events and overcome loneliness and isolation. The word “companion” or “companero” descends from the Latin roots for ‘with’ and ‘bread’, suggesting how deeply this food connection runs in our minds.

We can use the invisible convivial power of food to create neighborhoods, build friendships and romances, celebrate important events and overcome loneliness and isolation. Is there anything in this that a government could work with, or anything that could form the basis for people-centered food policy, as distinct from food policy based simply on nutrition and agriculture?

Life skills: We learn many things in the course of dealing with food, mostly one step removed from the physicality of the food experience. Both baby and mom learn to breastfeed and learn bonding from that. We also learn practical skills, such as skills to protect our health, such as hand-washing and healthy eating habits. We learn to air-dry dishes, which is more hygienic than trying to get rid of invisible germs by using a visible washcloth. We learn manners, which are based on courtesy toward and empathy for others. We learn to share. We learn to have a conversation that goes back and forth. We learn how to argue. We learn how to reach out to someone and offer something, however humble, as a token of hospitality and friendship. We learn to serve, as well as to be served, and we learn to share, as well as to receive.

Is there anything in this that a government could work with to develop social skills and social capital in an area where so many trends support impersonal relations and when mental ill-health rates are going through the roof?

Heritage: We find out where we come from, why we eat rice instead of wheat or corn, what that means about us and our history, how we have adapted foods from other people and how other people have adapted foods from us, why it’s important to show respect for our own food traditions as well as those of other people, why it is we sometimes deny ourselves food so we learn about another dimension of life.

Food heritage promotes warmth and esteem among all groups, but especially groups that have suffered from cultural dismissal, appropriation or mockery.

Is there anything in this that a government could work with in terms of dealing with multiculturalism and interculturalism, likely to be one of the most powerful forces affecting cities?

Connections: We see that food is connected to water, and to energy, and to transportation, and to the economy and environment, and that all of life is connected, even though that can be forgotten when governments organize themselves according to divisions rather than wholes. Is there anything in this that a government could work with so that we can see food as deserving treatment as a whole-of government/whole-of-society/whole of person force in life?

Power: We discover our power, our power to choose foods that require fewer resources, to choose foods that are more nutritious, to choose foods that are grown and processed by people who were well-treated, to grow our own food on balconies, backyards and green roofs, and to use our purchasing power to support local and sustainable food systems. Is there anything in this that a government could work with?


Before meals, many people say a toast or grace, a form of thanks to all the non-visible forces and people who brought food to us. We see how food connects us all, and how we all depend on one another, and how the right place to start solving a problem is to find how to protect the things that give life by working together. Is there anything in this that a government could work with in terms of promoting collaborative infrastructure, one of the defining features of resilience?

If you think there is anything here that a local government, or school board, or regional or national government could work with, then you understand the spaces that need to be created, and the spaces that get opened up, when individuals, social movements and governments convene around food.

This is the power and empowerment that food policy councils bring to the table.

(You can’t see them, but I write this because of a discussion some time ago with my daughter, Anika,who gave me an angle that allowed me to see this; because of an article by Ben McKay I discovered about political space in Latin America; and because of business thinker Laurette Dube, who helped me understand food as an issue that bridges whole-of-government/whole-of-society/whole-of-life/whole-of-humanity thinking. You might also be inspired by these writings: )

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, food policy