Municipalities play an important role in shaping and supporting local and regional food systems in Ontario. Decisions around planning, public health, economic development, social services and other areas directly influence our agriculture and food systems and how we, as citizens, interact with food.
There are over 440 municipalities in Ontario. They vary significantly in size – as measured by both population and geography – and also in administrative structure. The names and responsibilities of municipal departments will often vary and, depending on their size, capacity and circumstances, certain functions or departments may not be available in all municipalities. However, the following provides a high-level overview of municipal functions and their connection to food and farming.
- Public Health Unit
- Economic Development
- Tourism and Culture
- Transportation and Transit
- Water and Waste-water
- Waste Management
- Planning and Development
- Parks, Forestry and Recreation
- Housing and Long Term Care
- Employment and Social Services
- Taxation and Revenue
- Licensing and Standards
- Corporate Services – Policy, Procurement, Financial and Legal
Public Health Unit
What it does: Public health units are official health agencies established by single or multiple municipalities to provide for the health and well-being of the community and its residents. They are mandated, through provincial legislation, to develop and deliver policies, programs and services around health education and promotion, disease and injury prevention, health protection, and population health assessment and surveillance. They are also responsible for monitoring the safety of drinking water and water for recreational use (e.g. public pools, beaches), as well as food safety at restaurant and foodservice establishments.
Each health unit is governed by a Board of Health, which is an autonomous entity under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, and is administered by a Medical Officer of Health who reports to the Board. The Board is largely made up of elected representatives from the local municipal councils.
Connection with food and agriculture: In many communities, the public health unit has taken a leadership role on food policy issues, coordinating community engagement in the development of overarching food charters or strategies for their region. They play an important role in increasing food literacy and education through healthy eating programs (e.g. food skills and nutrition workshops) targeted at different population groups to meet their specific needs (e.g. pregnant women, infants, youth, seniors). They also help to support increased food access through initiatives like student nutrition programs (which provide healthy meals and snacks for school-aged children) or good food boxes (which provide baskets of healthy food for an affordable cost). Health units also support the safety of our food system through the inspection of restaurant and foodservice establishments to ensure safe food handling and storage.
What it does: The objective of this department is to support economic growth and job creation. They develop strategies and initiatives to help new businesses succeed, support the growth of existing businesses, and attract new investment to their community. Their activities can be quite tactical and focused (e.g. helping a specific business find input suppliers) or strategic in nature (e.g. developing a workforce development strategy for their region). In some municipalities, this department may also be responsible for tourism and culture (see below).
Connection with food and agriculture: This department can provide many tools, resources and services to help new and existing food and farming businesses succeed. They can help to identify challenges and opportunities for local farm and food businesses, and bring the right partners to the table to resolve a problem or seize an opportunity. They can also help to ensure that the right conditions are in place to support the growth of farm and food businesses in their community.
Tourism and Culture
What it does: This department is responsible for promoting their community as a destination for tourism, and supporting the development of arts, culture and heritage. On the tourism side, the department may engage in promotional activities to encourage visitors and residents to patronize local merchants, restaurants and hotels; it may organize or support festivals and cultural events to encourage tourism; or ensure that the proper infrastructure (e.g. signage, information/welcome centre) is in place to support a vibrant tourism sector. On the cultural side, it is responsible for ensuring there are a range of cultural activities available for residents and visitors, encouraging public art projects, and, in some cases, operating cultural facilities, such as museums, historic sites and performing arts centres.
Connection with food and agriculture: Many communities and businesses are recognizing the opportunities for agricultural and culinary tourism and for promoting their region as a destination for those wanting a rural, agricultural or culinary experience. Municipalities, in partnership with the business community, often support the development and promotion of “buy local” maps highlighting local food and farm businesses, events like farmers’ markets, or agri-tourism opportunities such as a butter tart trail or wine trail.
Transportation and Transit
What it does: Municipalities are responsible for the planning, construction and operation of transportation infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges, bike paths, parking lots) and public transit within their communities. This includes services required for the ongoing maintenance of transportation infrastructure, such as snow removal, roadside vegetation control and signage. Some municipalities may also have responsibility for the operation and management of ferries, ports and airports.
Connection with food and agriculture: Safe and efficient transportation systems are crucial for food and farming operations as they help to get products to market, both close to home and around the world. However, agricultural operations can be negatively affected by the need for new and expanding transportation systems, as there is pressure to take farmland out of production for new infrastructure because it is well suited for roads (e.g. flat, well-drained and removed from existing development) or because farms are situated on aggregate resources (e.g. sand, gravel) needed to build them. New roads can also fragment existing farms, making them less efficient. Highway maintenance, such as the use of road salt and cutting down habitat for pollinators, can also have an impact on farming operations.
Water and Waste-water
What it does: Municipal water departments are responsible for planning, constructing and operating water systems that collect, treat and distribute clean water to residents and businesses. They are also responsible for collecting and treating waste-water, and managing storm-water and drainage to reduce the risk of flooding and the associated negative impacts on the community and the natural environment.
Connection with food and agriculture: Access to clean, reliable water is essential for the viability and success of Ontario’s food and farming systems. Farms normally rely on wells or surface water (e.g. rivers and lakes), instead of municipal water systems, for their water needs. They work closely with municipalities and the province to ensure that proper drainage infrastructure is in place and that water quality is not impacted as a result of their operations (e.g. from nutrient or pesticide run-off). Food manufacturers are major water users, as water is often a key ingredient in their products and/or used for cooking, processing and cleaning. Waste-water from their operations also often contains high levels of organic material that is costly to treat and dispose of properly. While some food manufacturers operate their own water systems, most rely on municipal water and waste-water services. This can create pressures for municipal systems, in terms of handling their water and sewer needs, and makes water and sewer rates a key competitive issue for food manufacturers.
What it does: Municipal waste management services are responsible for the safe disposal or diversion (e.g. recycling) of solid waste from households, businesses and institutions. Depending on resources and community needs, they develop and implement programs and infrastructure for garbage, organics, electronics, and household and industrial hazardous waste. They are also responsible for planning, building and operating waste management infrastructure, such as landfills, incinerators and biodigesters (which turn organic waste into energy).
Connection to food and farming: Most waste from agricultural operations is returned to the soil to improve soil health/quality and increase crop yields. However, farms do use municipal waste management services to dispose of household waste and solid waste from on-farm processing or retail operations. Food manufacturers generate significant amounts of different types of waste – organic waste from agricultural inputs, plastics and cardboard from packaging, wood and plastic from pallets for storage and distribution – this makes them a major user of municipal waste management services and may drive demand for different types of services to meet their particular needs. Food and farm businesses are looking for more sustainable ways of disposing of their waste, or reducing it altogether, which may make them willing partners to pilot innovative waste solutions with municipalities.
Planning and Development
What it does: Planning and development departments are responsible for how a municipality grows and evolves over time. Working within a provincial policy and legislative framework (e.g. the Provincial Policy Statement, Places to Grow Act, 2005) that provides strategic direction on where and what type of growth should occur, municipalities are responsible for creating their own official plans and policies to encourage sustainable development within their communities. They have the authority to zone lands for different types of uses (e.g. residential, commercial and industrial), and to approve and set conditions on development proposals. They are also responsible for ensuring that the necessary public infrastructure (e.g. roads, water) is in place to support new development.
Connection to food and farming: Urban growth and development is putting significant pressure on farming operations located near urban centres, as municipalities look to develop new residential or industrial lands or as urban dwellers move to rural areas and purchase smaller farms and take them out of production. Protecting prime agricultural land and ensuring that farming remains viable is crucial to the future of food production in Ontario. Urban development is also placing pressure on many older food manufacturing facilities, as residential areas grow around them, creating transportation issues and preventing them from expanding or renewing their operations.
Parks, Forestry and Recreation
What it does: Municipal staff responsible for parks, forestry and recreation are tasked with ensuring access to quality recreational programs and facilities that meet the unique needs of their community. They develop and deliver programming (such as fitness and swim classes), and own and operate recreational facilities, such as public pools, ice rinks, golf courses, tennis courts, and hiking trails. They are also responsible for access to, and the care of, public parks, open spaces, ravines and forests.
Connection to food and farming: In many communities, trails for hiking, skiing or snowmobile use run next to farms, or farmers may make some of their land available for public use. Proper policies, signage and enforcement is needed to ensure that trail users do not trespass on private property and that private land is treated with respect. It is also important that appropriate legal protections are in place to protect trail users and landowners in case of accidents or injury.
Housing and Long-term Care
What it does: Staff in these departments are responsible for policies to support affordable housing for low-income residents and long-term care facilities for seniors who need supportive housing and medical care. Municipalities are also responsible for the construction and operation of affordable housing units and long-term care facilities. Some municipalities may also provide additional services for seniors, such as social programming, in-home nursing services, and other in-home supportive services (e.g. meal preparation, light housekeeping).
Connection to food and farming: Often, people living in affordable housing complexes are food insecure, either because they are not earning a living wage or because there are no stores within walking distance that sell healthy, affordable and culturally-appropriate foods. Policies and programs, such as community gardens, mobile food markets or good food boxes, may be needed to help increase access to healthy food for people living in affordable housing, in addition to longer-term planning policies that encourage food retailers to locate in these areas. Long-term care facilities can be significant purchasers of local food, but may require policies to encourage local food procurement or facilities to allow for cooking of fresh ingredients on-site.
Employment and Social Services
What it does: Staff in this department provide employment supports, financial benefits and social supports to residents in their community. They help youth, newcomers and other job-seekers find work or connect them with training programs to enhance their employability. They also help residents access financial benefits through the Ontario Works program and other provincial social assistance programming, as well as connect them to health, housing, childcare and other social services. This department may also be responsible for operating municipally-run daycare facilities.
Connection to food and farming: Helping people earn a livable wage is critical to ensuring that they are able to buy healthy, culturally-appropriate foods. Additionally, daycare facilities can play a part in helping support food security and literacy, through food and nutrition programs, and can be buyers of local food to support their programming.
Taxation and Revenue
What it does: Municipal revenue comes from several sources – property taxes, development charges, user fees, and transfer payments from the provincial or federal governments. Property taxes are the primary source of revenue for municipalities in Ontario, and are assessed against residential, commercial and industrial lands at a rate set by the municipality based on property valuation set by a provincial agency, the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation. Development charges are intended to offset the capital costs of growth-related public infrastructure (e.g. roads and sewers), and are collected by the municipality when building permits are issued. User fees are charged to the users of municipal services to cover all or part of the costs of providing these services (e.g. transit fares, recreation program fees).
Connection to food and farming: To support the viability of farming in Ontario and ensure fair taxation for services received, eligible farmland can be classed as “farm property” and taxed at a lower tax rate (i.e. 25 per cent of the residential rate). However, if a farmer conducts other value-added activities on farm, such as a retail store or food processing (e.g. baking, cheese-making), that portion of the farm is taxed at a higher commercial or industrial tax rate. This can create a real barrier for farmers that want to diversify their operations and increase the economic viability of their farm.
Licensing and Standards
What it does: Municipalities have the authority to license businesses operating within their jurisdiction to set conditions for issuing the licence, and to inspect businesses to ensure that those conditions are being met. They also have the ability to regulate business operations in areas such as noise, odour, vibration and dust that interfere with the health and well-being of community residents.
Connection to food and farming: While the province regulates the registration of farm operations, all other food and farm-related businesses should have a municipal business licence. Additionally, restaurant and food service operations are subject to inspection by municipal Public Health Units to ensure safe food handling and storage, and operations can be suspended by municipal staff until food safety requirements are met. Food and farming operations are also subject to municipal regulations around noise, odour, vibration and dust, unless they are identified as interfering with normal farm practices, as determined by the provincial Normal Farm Practices Protection Board.
Corporate Services – Policy, Procurement, Finance and Legal
What it does: Corporate services support may be provided to municipal staff and council through a variety of departments or offices. They provide specialized expertise in the fields of policy development, procurement, financial management, legal services and other areas, and provide advice to municipal councils that inform their decision-making.
Connection to food and farming: Staff in these departments have technical knowledge and expertise that is valued by municipal decision-makers, allowing them to influence the adoption of certain courses of action that can support the development of healthy, sustainable food systems. For example, innovative approaches to policy and procurement can lead to the adoption of a local food procurement policy for the municipality to help encourage the purchase of food from local farmers and food manufacturers by municipal departments or agencies.