Looking for local, sustainable, and healthy food: An interview with Wayne Roberts

In part one of this two-part interview, Canadian food policy analyst and writer Wayne Roberts talks about global food policy and the local food movement.

Name: Wayne Roberts

Affiliation: Leading member of the City of Toronto’s Environmental Task Force, weekly columnist for Toronto’s Now Magazine and the former manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council.

Location: Toronto, Canada

Bio: Roberts earned a Ph.D. in social and economic history from the University of Toronto in 1978, and has written seven books, including Get A Life! (1995), a manual on green economics, and Real Food For A Change (1999), which promotes a food system based on the four ingredients of health, joy, justice, and nature. Roberts chaired the influential and Toronto-based Coalition for a Green Economy for 15 years. He has also served on the Board of the U.S.-based Community Food Security Coalition and Food Secure Canada. He is on the board of Green Enterprise Toronto, an organization of local eco-businesses that’s associated with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies across North America. He has been invited to speak around the world on strategies that combine food security, community empowerment, environmental improvement, social equity and job creation.

Photo credit: www.wayneroberts.ca

Can you tell us what led to the creation of the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC)?


The Toronto Food Policy Council is one of the oldest and most influential food policy councils in the world. It was started by the Toronto Board of Health in 1991, and has been housed within the public health department ever since.

This made three very bold statements about food policy. First, there is this big thing called food: not just nutrition or safety, but food as a whole. Second, the health of the population, not just the agricultural and agri-food sector should be at the center of public policy around food. Third, food policy is part of the mandate and responsibility of city governments, not just “higher” levels of government.

Toronto came to this experiment in 1991 because hunger and food banks had become part of life of too many people since the 1980s, and it was felt to be the city’s responsibility to correct this problem. Toronto had also just become one of the first cities in the world to sign the World Health Organisation‘s healthy city charter and it was felt that a food council could help the city craft policies to make health part of everyday life, not just the result of medical intervention.

What were some of the obstacles the council faced in bringing food into the policy picture?

The approach of the Toronto Food Policy Council has always been that food policy is about opportunities, not problems. The starting point is optimistic but demonstrably true: we already have the resources to make food right so that its production and consumption promote health. And it costs us more to do food wrong than it would cost to do it right. It costs more to treat diabetes or other diseases based on food abuse, for example, than it would cost to prevent disease with a healthy diet.

Likewise, the TFPC always stressed that doing food right would operate in the public interest of all sectors, that it would be equally positive for the environment, community, job creation and education as for agriculture and health.

When we started, there were three food councils in the world. Now there are about 150 in existence or formation. So ours is a history of opportunity, not problems.

What changes in food policy would you like to see in the near future?

I think the key to progress on the food policy file is for all levels of government and public administration to have a designated minister, secretary, or deputy for food. This would be a silo-busting office with a mandate to go to the minister or secretary of education, as well as the president of a university and principal of a college or school and ask, how you are making use of food’s potential as an activity (gardening, for example) that provides experiential learning in soil science and ecology. What are you doing to ensure that all students learn to their potential because they’ve had nutritious meals and snacks? And what are you doing to make lunchtime a series of teachable moments in social studies. The agenda of this ministry of food would be to have every department of public service thinking non-departmentally about the full life cycle of food and extracting its full value.

This agenda has already been proposed by the Toronto city manager in response to the medical officer of health report I worked on called Cultivating Food Connections. As its title suggests, the full empowering potential of food becomes manifest as soon as people become aware of its ability as a power tool of connectivity.

This new multi-functional pivot point for full-service food management is key to making progress in both food and public services generally.

How can we get cities and city dwellers to appreciate and turn to local food?

The best way to promote local food is to certify and identify it as local, sustainable and healthy. The more public purpose benefits are rolled up in a local food, the easier it is to attract shoppers and government incentives.

Typical shoppers have a variety of food passions. Some put a real premium on animal welfare or worker well-being, for example, issues that are covered by sustainable, but not necessarily by local. It’s important that people selling to a pro-local demographic understand that this customer base is committed to a range of positive changes, and does not purchase just on local grounds.

Government programs are often prohibited from preferring foods just because they’re local and usually need another layer of benefit to justify a local choice.

The big opportunity, especially in the US, is to move subsidies away from unhealthy and unsustainable crops and crop uses — most obviously corn for ethanol and livestock feed — and put them behind local, healthy and sustainable crops and crop uses.

Cities, where most food policy councils are, can also do a lot by providing nice spaces and amenities for farmers markets, by encouraging urban agricultural projects, and by purchasing local, sustainable and healthy foods at city events and sites.

Supriya Kumar is a research fellow with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase 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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