Collaborating on Food: An Interview with Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts community garden picture (from Facebook 2012)We spoke to Wayne Roberts, food policy expert and author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building: A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists & Entrepreneurs (2014). For 10 years, Wayne was the chair of the Toronto Food Policy Council, a group internationally renowned for being the first food policy council embedded within a major city government and a leader in the field. Wayne is widely regarded as an expert in building collaborative solutions by demonstrating how embedding food and health into all policy is valuable to all kinds of stakeholders. Check out the Food for City Building group on LinkedIn to connect with Wayne and a community of leaders  working to increase awareness and understanding of the rich relationship between food and cities. We begin with a question submitted by Wayne.

Are you okay with focusing an interview on your 350-page book and 15 year career on the theme of collaboration?

I thought no-one would ever ask! I’m delighted to focus on the theme, because if one word expresses the special reason why food is central to new city policy on food, it’s collaboration.

People understood about the connection between food and collaboration from the earliest days of cities. Think of words such as companion, company and companero. They come from the Latin combination of with (com) and pane (bread). Even the word “trivia”, my favourite, comes from the fact that early farmers markets were set up at the intersection of three (tri) roads (via). And when people got together, they were so excited and chatty, they talked about what authorities considered trivia, but was probably just a put-down of popular collaboration.

If I may say so, I got the food-collaboration connection in my first year at the Toronto Food Policy Council when I was doing research for our brief about problems in the first draft of the Official Plan.

I read Harvard business professor Elizabeth Moss Kanter’s then-famous book, World Class: Thriving Locally in the Global Economy (1995). She made the argument that the fundamental difference between cities that failed and succeeded in the new post-industrial economy was “collaborative infrastructure.” Cities that succeeded had ways for poor and rich, white and non-white, men and women, unions and businesses, etc., to get together and problem-solve or brainstorm. The others failed.

The cities most likely to succeed, I argued, were cities with a robust food scene, starting with simple things like community gardens and baking ovens that bring neighbours together. This connecting power of food — what Welsh academic Kevin Morgan calls “the convening power of food” — has always been central to my food advocacy. It led to the Metcalf Foundation paper that led to the establishment of Sustain Ontario: “Food Connects Us All” (2008) which I co-wrote on behalf of the founding group.

Sustain: In Food for City Building, you use the adage that we frequently overestimate what will change within two years, and underestimate what can happen within a decade. With Ontarians preparing to elect their representatives for the next 4 years, what are some critical changes to expect and/or reasonable goals to achieve within this term?

We haven’t done our ten years, or our 10,000 hours, on the biggest city issue of all — which is that food is central to a dynamic city agenda, and cities are game-changers for a dynamic community-based food agenda.

A big part of the problem is that cities aren’t valued for their importance. The majority of the world’s population now live in cities, but city governments are seen as the place that looks after “parks, potholes and police.” Even progressives feel that way, as evidenced by the fact that so few environment or social justice groups field candidates for municipal elections.

Cities are undervalued, and so is food. But as soon as they’re valued, it’s all downhill from there.

As soon as councillors see how cities are best positioned to deliver food and exercise programs that can prevent child-onset diabetes — at over $1,000,000 in lifetime savings per patient — who will object to healthy snack programs at after-school recreation programs?

As soon as people realize that one-third of all food is wasted — most of it paid for by cities, a Canada-wide bill that adds up to $27 billion — who can object to municipal programs that address food waste reduction head-on?

Our ten year job is to get food on the radar, and when we succeed (our ten years are up soon), it will be transformative.

Sustain: Why should mayors, reeves, and councillors value a Food Strategy? Is it crucial to create a unified regional Food Strategy or Charter to keep food issues at the council table?

I co-wrote the Toronto Food Charter in 2001 for the city’s Food and Hunger Action Committee. It was the first big-city charter in the world, and it needs an update. But the idea of a charter is more powerful than I ever imagined.

A charter allows a city to develop consensus on deep values by what we called backcasting. Think of 20 years from now, not the next city budget.

In 20 years, do you still want 1 of every 5 children going to school hungry or malnourished? Who would say yes to that? Do you want to see ⅓ of all citizens, including kids, suffering from diet-related chronic diseases, just so we can save the economy and keep taxes down?

That’s the “trick” of a food charter. Get your mind free of the space where the rubber hits the road, and think about what kind of city we need. There’s amazing consensus on that, I believe.

Once a city has adopted a charter, advocates can give gentle reminders to city staff and politicians of what they signed on to, and when conditions are right, we can make solid progress.

Sustain: What have been your best sources of inspiration and guidance for councillors looking to innovate in the food file?

At this point in time and for some time into the future, the food file is shouldered by champions fueled by the Power of One. A councillor or city worker or citizen who sticks to an issue makes something happen. I believe that’s most (maybe only) true in city politics — which is the other reason we need to be active at this level.

You won’t find a community garden, farmers market, baking oven,school meal program that doesn’t owe its existence to the Power of One dogged and determined and positive person. To make progress easier, faster and benefit more people sooner, we need to go beyond lone individuals — that’s why food policy councils are so important — but the Power of One will always be the renewable fuel of the municipal food movement, and the major source of inspiration and new ideas. We just need to enable it.

Sustain: You write: “By going local, people are occupying a space they consider a viable source of decision-making power.” Do you see citizens looking to their local governments to take on more ambitious projects and policies?

I think you’re touching on an issue that’s going to create a huge discussion in the years ahead.

The local food discussion needs more content and edge. It can’t just be the distance between the farm and the supermarket. What if the used plastic has to go to China to be recycled, or if the pesticides have to be imported from Alberta?

In my view, the focus should be on localizing the food system as a whole, not just the miles in 1 of approximately 7 major transactions in a typical food value chain — fertilizer, tractor and pesticide factory to farm, farm to warehouse, consumer home to landfill or recycler, for example. Specific needs of a local population need to be considered, as do the needs of poor farmers trying to sell eco-friendly and fair trade products.

All of these factors mean that we need a space to continue discussing and developing pilot policies. As with many things in food, we don’t need a quick and forceful decision; we need discussion, pilots, and learning, and then good decisions that can grow with fairly widespread support.

Sustain: Most of your direct experience has been with Toronto, a huge city inside a huge metropolis. Are your approaches as valid for smaller cities and rural communities?

There is no point, large or small, at which food becomes more or less relevant to a place, just as there is no point, large or small, that an individual relies less on the physical and emotional benefits of good food.

Having said that, specific advantages and opportunities vary with the size of a place, and the different resources and challenges that go with different densities. For example, it’s just as important to have a park with picnic tables, barbeques and a baking oven in small or large communities. That’s because enjoyable food experiences attract more people to a park, making it a safer place for people to be and a place that has another level of meaning, memories, attachment and belonging for people. Whether we live in small or large communities, we all live in a world that can be cold and impersonal, so planners need to think of how food can counter the trend to impersonality and create a sense of belonging in all places, great and small.

Likewise, policy that creates business opportunities for local farmers and food producers and artisans are just as important in small and large communities. I might say it’s even more important in small communities that local governments keep an eye out for economic development opportunities, especially ones that retain young people in the community and keep them from drifting away elsewhere to seek opportunity they should be able to find locally.

Finally, almost all people have problems accessing the food they need at some time in their lives; we need consistent care to ensure that a food system is sensitive to inclusion. Is there a place for older people to enjoy a meal with friends? Has attention been paid to ensuring that comfort foods of people who’ve recently arrived from another country are available and understood and appreciated, so that food can become a tool for welcoming newcomers and learning from them? And does every elementary school have the resources to make sure every kid has the chance to learn on a full stomach, with nutrients that support mental calm and physical vitality?

The point about food is that it is an essential need, just like air and water, and every level and size of government has to make sure there’s always means to access it.

Thank you to Wayne for taking the time to respond to our questions!

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