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Shifting from Nutritionism to People-Centered Food Policy

January 25, 2018

Ed. note: This piece was originally published in Wayne’s newsletter of 24 January, 2018.

This will be the first full year since 1971 that the leading North American advocacy group on nutrition, Center for Science in the Public Interest, is not helmed by Michael Jacobson. A thorn in the side of the junkfood industry for almost 50 years – Jacobson actually coined such terms as junkfood, heart attack on a plate, and liquid sugar (soda pop) – Jacobson has retired.

His retirement occasioned deservedly lavish praise from leading publications (here and here).

Jacobson deserves to be remembered partly for his hard-hitting campaigns against high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods.

Jacobson also deserves to be respected for two other key issues that remain highly contested and pivotal to an understanding of food. First, he raised the issue that science must serve the public interest, not corporate interests.

Second, Jacobson identified that food is a major public interest issue.  Unlike energy policy, transportation policy, or water policy, food is rarely understood as being a public interest project. The food sector is most often portrayed as being about stakeholders – most notably farmers, agribusiness and consumers – not citizens.

The roles of science and the public interest are fundamental to a proper framing of food issues. All the people who work to promote the public interest in food build on Jacobson’s legacy.

Having said that, his retirement bookends the end of an era in public interest food policy. In terms of food policy thinking, the period from World War 11 until the rise of the modern food movement around the turn of this century, was dominated by a set of food assumptions known as “nutritionism.”

As accurately summarized in Wikipedia, the term nutritionism was coined by scholar Gyorgy Scrinis and popularized (de-popularized, actually) by journalist Michael Pollan. In my own interpretation, laid out in my book, The No Nonsense Guide to World Food, nutritionism was a pillar of Modernist ideology.

As a window on food, nutritionism defined food’s merits and demerits almost exclusively in reference to its nutrients or lack thereof. Nutritionism set the template for Jacobson’s food campaigns and publications. He rarely wandered far from nutritional analysis of food. The Center’s magazine, Nutrition Action, barely touched such topics as social determinants of health, food security, the farm crisis, genetic engineering, pesticides, food waste, urban agriculture, the social side of food, the local side of food, or the sustainable side of food.

Moreover, Jacobson’s Center stayed tethered to a very confining understanding of legitimate food knowledge, as based on professional, mainly American, scientists and their rules of evidence. Jacobson earned a doctorate in microbiology and had a deep commitment to rigorously science-based nutrition recommendations.

Time is passing nutritionism by. The modern food movement, which emerged during the 1990s and which crystallized around 2007, when the Oxford dictionary declared “locavore” word of the year, took its departure from both a broader appreciation of food and food knowledge.

Emerging leaders of city food advocacy and food policy councils felt the need to break free from the narrow focus of nutritionism.

A city’s food needs are one large step removed from the topics featured by nutritionism.

In my own, quite possibly self-centered view, the self-conscious project of city food policy began with the Food and Hunger Action Committee (FAHAC), set up by the newly-amalgamated metropolis of Toronto around the turn of the century. FAHAC (which I was staff co-lead for) presented three reports and a food charter to Toronto City Council during 2000 and 2001.

Shortly after the FAHAC reports were unanimously adopted by City Council, I wrote a critique of a draft of the city’s proposed Official Plan, which all but ignored food issues in its first draft. My critique, called The Way to a City’s Heart is Through its Stomach, was stridently polemical, I’m embarrassed to say, and threw down the gauntlet on city planners as a group.

Fortunately for me and my development as a policy analyst, the critique was promoted by the seminal food planning thinker Jerry Kaufman. This created a dialogue with such Kaufman students as Martin Bailey, Kami Pothukuchi and Samina Raja. That collaboration, which also included planner and urban agriculture specialist Joe Nasr, enriched all of our thinking on food and cities. With Kaufman’s help, we were able to spread our thoughts to a new generation of food enthusiasts. (For an academic review of this evolution, see Alison Blay Palmer.)

I took another crack at writing about food and cities as forces that co-evolve together in my reminiscences written in 2014, a few years after my retirement. The e-book is called Food for City Building (it was my first project with Hypenotic!)

My thinking has continued to evolve. My mantra became “Cities must ask what cities can do for food, and also, what food can do for cities.” As it happened, Barry Martin of Hypenotic was independently evolving in the same direction at the same time.

I now refer to the thinking that flows from putting food and cities together as “people-centered food policy.” (Some of my writing efforts in this direction are here and here.) My argument is that “senior” levels of government have resources and jurisdiction to deal with agriculture and nutrition.

But local governments need to deal with food through the window of people issues – jobs, neighborhood cohesion, neighborhood rejuvenation, public safety, mental health, conviviality, the need for “third places,” immigrant welcoming, multiculturalism and interculturalism, community gardens, walkable shopping, farmers markets, school gardens, on… the whole nine yards of city life.

People- and city-centered food policies deal with a long, long list. Cities don’t have the jurisdiction, resources, know-how or mandate to deal with agriculture and nutrition.  They do have the jurisdiction, resources, mandate, know-how and need to deal with people issues.

One exception to this guideline – very relevant to Jacbson’s legacy — is taxes on pop and junkfood.

Part of the context that needs to guide today’s cities on food policy arises from the fact that “senior” levels of government are taking a pass on almost all the big issues – protecting antibiotics against overuse on livestock, protecting the climate from global warming emissions from long-distance food and meat, protecting local food growing capacity and resilience from trade deals, protecting children from junkfood and chronic diseases linked to poor diets, assurance of food security for people on low income… that list is also very long.

The urgency of some of these high-level issues is such that cities have to “step up to the plate.” Jacobson’s work is relevant to cities in these policies.

But the enduring relevance of Michael Jacobson will come from his work having impact at “senior” levels of government. That will give cities the space they need to develop people-centered food policy. If that happens, city food policy-makers will owe Michael Jacobson a very big thank you indeed.

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