‘What life has joined together, let no government tear asunder.’—Wayne Roberts

Toronto, fourth largest city in North America, has just lost its ability to determine the way it elects councilors — people who have, over the past several decades, played a critical role in winning acclaim for Toronto as “the city that works.”

An obsolete clause in Canada’s constitution of 1867 declares cities to be “creatures” of the province, which can be ruled over by provincial governments.

In a herculean effort to stay calm, I offer this newsletter as a commentary on three broad and global issues at play in discussions of food and cities, two forces that are increasingly joined at the hip and co-dependent.

  1. City governments have evolved since 2007, when, for the first time in history, a majority of people made their homes and lives in cities.  The three old Ps that traditionally described city government responsibilities – pavement, parks and police – proved obsolete. To meet the pressing daily needs of city residents, city governments now regularly deal with a full range of issues. Cities have no option but to deal with such weighty matters as climate protection (protection from floods and heat waves), economic development (creating jobs that attract and retain residents), public safety (cities face distinctive crime and safety challenges), and integration of immigrants and refugees (who mostly settle in cities).
    In all these matters, food is a critical lever and tool for cities, even though food has not traditionally been seen as an issue for city jurisdiction. Food “deserts” (a justifiably controversial term) are common in most cities. They testify to the inability of heavyweight corporations and senior governments to address a pressing issue of food access and neighborhood well-being, for example.
    I have developed the term “people-centered food policy” to map out the terrain of food issues particularly relevant to cities. People-centered food policy adds a third leg to the food policy stool that once dealt only with agriculture and nutrition. Today’s food policies must also deal with such issues as community cohesion, neighborhood vitality, green infrastructure, main street development, pedestrian-friendly shopping, loneliness and isolation, and a hundred more people-problems and personal opportunities common to cities.
    Thus, the rise of cities as a major presence in the lives of most of the world’s people intersects with the rising importance of food. The methods by which both cities and food are decided must change in keeping with these realities.
  2. New city and food realities complement each other perfectly. It’s like the pairing of wine and cheese. To express this, I have coined the saying: “It’s not enough to ask what cities can do for food; we must also ask what food can do for cities.” What life has joined together, let no government tear asunder.
  3. The European Union retrieved ancient Church doctrine to establish its founding principle of “subsidiarity.” This guideline holds that responsibility for issues should be placed “as low as possible, as high as necessary.”
    To follow this wise principle, cities and food have to be treated differently. Food is an issue where an individual’s personal agency is fundamental, from the babe’s first suckling on a mom’s breast, right on through to the adult citizen shopping for fairly-traded, local and sustainably packaged food. There are times when responsibility must be very personal. There are also times when food issues should be dealt at the neighborhood level. But there are also situations where responsibility must rest with the community and government — food safety and food security, for example.
    This means that food must be dealt with as a partnership between individuals and multiple levels of modern governance. Such partnerships and governance must evolve through negotiation. They cannot be dictated.

For reasons such as these, the powers and resources of city governments must be protected and enhanced to provide proper oversight and governance of new food challenges.


This post was originally published in Wayne’s newsletter of 12 September 2018.