Citywatch: Food loops and food loopholes: What cities can learn about food purchasing from mis-steps of an early mover

By Wayne Roberts

Citywatch: Whether it’s action or traction in the food world, cities are stepping up to the plate. The world is fast going urban, as are challenges of social, economic and environmental well-being. Citywatch is crucial to Worldwatch. Wayne Roberts, retired manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council, has his eye out for the future of food in the city.

On July 12, Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly to advise companies bidding for the city’s $11 million a year in food contracts that “it is a policy objective of the City to increase the percentage of food that is grown locally when all factors, including costs, quality and availability are equal.”

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The motion was hailed as a modest victory by the local food movement. It deserves some kind of international award for absolutely unenforceable gibberish.

Let me count the loopholes and weasel words: a policy objective, instead of the policy; “increase the percentage” (now probably about 10) instead of identifying a specific target reached over time; food instead of food and beverage; local, as long as “all factors…are equal,” as defined and decided by??? –no-one in particular.

This is Toronto, the city that works — even when a mayor is extremely conservative, as now, or quite progressive, as is usual. One reason Toronto council works is that long-term working relationships matter as much as specific outcomes, which means that people who engage are usually allowed to save a little face and find a little ray of hope or foothold to carry on.  Whether a motion is seen as meaningful or meaningless depends entirely on perspective.

The meaningful or meaningless motion on local food follows almost four years of efforts – some of them mine, when I was a City employee — to put Toronto at the forefront of world cities striving to reduce global warming emissions by, among many other things, purchasing local and sustainable food.

There is no shame in making mistakes while aiming high. Innovators, like all infants, learn to walk by falling. Indeed, the real point of going first is to make a gift of lessons to others. We all share the same air, climate and planet, and we may as well share lessons in keeping it safe and sound.


It takes a Big Lens on a Big Picture to see that food availability and affordability can’t be taken for granted, any more than the health, social, environmental and economic consequences of food decisions. Without a change in Big Picture thinking, there’s little hope of change on the most modest of projects.

Food might be called an “intermediate good.” People rarely buy it just because it is food, anymore than they buy electricity because they want electricity.

Individuals buy particular foods because they love the taste, want something fast, easy and filling for supper, want to give themselves a treat or celebrate, want to try something new, want to impress or please friends, and so on.

Reasons for food choices are almost always helter skelter, unless there’s an acute matter with some urgency, such as a dietary requirement or allergy, or a deeply-held ethical reason related to protecting farm animals, local farms or sustainable fisheries.

Toronto’s political energy around local and sustainable food arose when the newly-amalgamated city signed onto a big picture in 2001. That’s when Toronto unanimously adopted a food charter pledging to act as a model of creating health, equity and jobs by purchasing local and sustainable food. In the same spirit, Toronto City Council requested policy on food purchasing in 2007, when food purchases were identified as a way to reduce global warming emissions and build the city’s reputation as a champion of civic action on global warming — an ambition since displaced by the current mayor’s Big Picture crusade against gravy trains and wasteful government spending. (Tea Party…Gravy Train… just another way that Canada and the U.S. are different!)


A Big Picture perspective allows people to identify the values and measure the qualities desired from local and local-sustainable foods, in a way that allows the price of food to be put in perspective. For someone who thinks global warming or disappearing local farmers will prove very expensive in the near future, extra money for local food today will seem a good buy, for example. But for someone who thinks every penny has to be squeezed, local food will seem outrageously expensive.

In my experience, there is no use wasting time on a project to introduce local and local-sustainable foods if price is the ultimate game-changer. Local and local-sustainable (we’ve usually tried to build a big tent of local/local-sustainable and organic in Toronto’s food community) foods inevitably cost more than non-local, unsustainable foods because only long-distance foods and long-distance food corporations get massive government subsidies, and take the two shortcuts that deliver lower price – cheaper labor and harsher treatment of the environment, both permitted by faraway governments.

There is no reason to mince words on this inescapable reality of sticker price – which is, of course, deceptive compared to the “real” long-term price.

A city planning to purchase local and local-sustainable foods needs another metric besides price – a different way of defining a good deal, such as more environmental protection or better protection of local food producing capacity into the future or greater numbers of local jobs.

Government objectives framed around cheap costs and “respect for taxpayers,” rather than around respect for health or general economy, inevitably give short shrift to job creation stimulated by local and local-sustainable food purchasing.

There are at least two reasons why relatively modest premiums for local food costs pay off in terms of job-rich benefits.

Since more money circulates back and forth in a localized food system, a multiplier effect is created whereby what goes around comes around – which doesn’t happen when money goes into the supermarket cashier and out of town in minutes. People may save money on at the checkout when they buy imported food, but they’ll lose when they’re paying unemployment insurance premiums or when they can’t find buyers for the products they sell.

Apart from the multiplier effect, food is an extraordinary job creator because there are so many “backward” and “forward” linkages – so many pitchforks and tractors before the harvest(backward linkages), and so many processors and distributors after (forward linkages). Indeed, Toronto’s economic development department estimates that each dollar of food grown purchased from the local countryside creates five dollars of jobs in the city; those processing and wholesaling jobs would not be local if the food came from far away. If the berry was grown in California, it will be cleaned, cut, frozen, packed and shipped from there too. In terms of costing jobs, ostensibly cheap imported food is five times more expensive than local.

So a city considering local and local-sustainable foods needs to be prepared to invest in the price of local in order to reap the rewards. Smart city policy will not require local and sustainable food producers to compete on price, but on overall value.


Big pictures are one thing, ideologies are another. There is no room for ideology in food purchasing, where both the devils and the gods are hidden in the fine-grained details, and require people willing to roll up their sleeves and get their hands in the dirty details.

The idea of local bread sounds good until you realize that bread-quality grains come from the hot and dry summers found only in the western prairies. Since these grains can be shipped energy-efficiently by train or boat without refrigeration, there’s no reason to get knickers in a knot about distance. Likewise, the idea of off-season berries travelling thousands of miles on a huge truck sounds nauseating, but food travelling a few hundred miles in a small pick-up may cause more pollution per pound of berries.

Indeed, on-farm energy use – for fertilizers, tractors, pesticides and so on – accounts for about 21 per cent of all energy used in the food system, compared to less than 15 per cent for transportation. From the viewpoint of Nature and global warming, the issue is total energy, not miles. This proved the most difficult point to make to City councilors, many of whom, four years ago and now, worried that “sustainable” was a frill issue, and unaware that sustainability is THE issue.

Sustainable is as important to environmental protection as local. There is no reason for local preferences to become an ism, any more than there is a reason for any ism to govern food, which is a delicate mix of both public and private benefits.  It’s the Big Picture and the tiny detail that count, not prejudice, assumption or ideology. No reason to go out on a local-only limb only to have the limb chopped off by other benefits of higher priority.


Attention to detail rather than ideology means deep competency is an essential prerequisite in food matters. This detail was overlooked.

Competence is an unsung virtue among policy experts, who often turn their noses down at mere implementers. Competence can’t get no respect from lefties, who tend to be Big Idea people who want to be spared the petty details. Ultra-conservatives aren’t much different. They tend to dismiss the knowhow and discipline required to work public institutions and achieve public benefits.

The Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA), which took the lead in promoting the citizen side of the local food campaign, had no previous experience of note in food matters, and refused to identify food as a major issue during the 2010 municipal election. Despite the reference to Environmental in the org’s title, TEA campaigned strictly for local food, with no regard for pesticides or other non-local factors that might define local purchasing benefits.

Any organization with competence knows that there is no independent or authoritative certification for local in Toronto or Ontario, or most areas of North America for that matter. In Canada, Canada’s “supply management system” means dairy products, eggs and poultry are Canadian, but beyond that, there’s no assurance of being local. In countries as tall and wide as Canada or the U.S., defining country as local is far from what people other than supermarket owners think of as local.

Yet TEA in 2008 promoted a 50 per cent local purchase objective that imaginary people of Lala Land would have had trouble meeting, let alone city officials in Toronto with no experience in — or budget to learn about — local purchasing. Progress in food, competent people know, does not proceed in increments of 50 per cent.  In the time since 2008, for example, local universities partnering with Local Food Plus edged their purchases of local and sustainable foods by 5 per cent a year – a model of what can be done when there’s a commitment to continuous improvement.

The motion to move toward 50 per cent local fell flat on its face, as noted by a recent consultant’s report. That report creating such a fooforah in City Council that the matter of the city’s commitment to local food was brought back for reconsideration.

Competency turns out to be the sleeper issue in food matters. The cost-cutting mantra that has transfixed public discussions about government across North America since the 1980s has devalued government competence.

This trend is especially tragic in Canada, where — as Herschel Hardin explains in his well-named and insightful book, A Nation Unaware –  dedicated public servants  have built broadcasting networks, community colleges, medical insurance services, public health departments, transit and electric utilities that were once the envy of the world. FDR’s “brain trust” and government staff were no less ingenious and capable in the United States of mid-century.

The inept governments we see today are the result of a 20-year campaign to destroy public competence, and to put governments in the position, as sloganeers had it, of “steering” rather than “rowing” –  aka, not having the foggiest idea of what is going on, but still in charge of saying where we want to go.

A tiny and symbolic example: the Ontario government forked up money to evaluate what Toronto had accomplished with its 2008 decision to buy 50 per cent local food, but gave not a cent beforehand for consultants to help the city plan and train to accomplish something of substance. Any appreciation for competence would have led the government to fund training beforehand rather than evaluation of untrained efforts after the horse has left the barn.

The entire getting-back-to-basics and “core service” ideology is about this level of threadbare competence, not the resilient and “redundant” skill set which my pilot friend Walt Palmer talks to me about:  the old space age saw about “a superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid having to exercise his superior skill.”

The “respect for taxpayers” dogma based on discounting the costs of government has no respect for resilient government capacity or resilient food systems.

Local and local-sustainable foods can easily become victims of this penny-wise pound-foolish approach to government.  The Toronto experience provides a compelling reason for advocates everywhere to spend time now gaining both deep and practical knowledge in the management of food system change and in effective municipal advocacy of the benefits of new purchasing models.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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