“Every city should have a food policy council”

Wayne Roberts on ensuring food safety for our cities

Wayne Roberts believes Food Policy Councils are crucial to feeding the growing populations of our cities every day. They can often achieve more on food safety issues by offering a holistic approach than governments or corporations.

When Wayne Roberts started working at the food policy council in Toronto, Canada, in 2000, there were only three others in the world. Fast forward 18 years and there are over 300 – including one recently opened in Amsterdam – dedicated to solving the complex issues associated with food in cities. Now retired but still a passionate food policy advocate, Roberts spoke to Rabobank about the history of the organizations and the potential they have for solving many of the world’s food-related problems.

When and why did food policy councils first come about?

“The first ones started in the 1980s in North America. Many cities lost factories that had once anchored their economy, leading to increased poverty and hunger. Food policy councils looked beyond food banks – the usual response to food insecurity in North America – to solve the problem. Food banks frequently offer highly-processed food and a stigmatized experience. Seeking a more humane and effective way to support society’s most vulnerable people, these pioneers included ‘policy’ in their title, convinced that legislation needed to be part of the solution.

“Toronto established its council in 1991 as part of the second wave of food councils. It championed a holistic approach, urging governments to integrate health and food policies. It argued that investing in food for people on low incomes would lead to savings in medical care later on.”

How do food policy councils operate?

"Food policy councils are grassroots affairs and there are few fixed rules. That’s good because it allows them to evolve and encourages innovation. Central to their ethos is encouraging system thinking in proposed policy. So they strive to include all food stakeholders. The Toronto Food Policy Council includes farmers, food bank volunteers, school meal organizers, executive chefs, people from immigrant and anti-poverty groups, students, professors and policy makers. Food councils give a voice to disadvantaged people such as those on low income, from minorities, with disabilities, facing mental health challenges and start-up entrepreneurs. They are all experts in how policies can fail and where they need improvement!”

With so many different interests represented, how do you avoid conflict?

“The amazing thing about food is almost everyone agrees on basics. We all think hunger is bad, food should support human health and food producers should protect the environment. And we all agree farmers, food workers and entrepreneurs do essential jobs. Despite this consensus, many food issues excite polarization and division. That's a sure sign of bad ‘issue management’. Food policy councils work to improve people’s skills so they see a bigger picture that lets them find common ground and waste less time on unproductive conflict.”

"There's a saying that today’s cities are nine meals from anarchy”

- Wayne Roberts, Toronto Food Policy Council (ret.)

How did you get involved in food policy councils?

“I started at the Toronto Food Policy Council in 2000. I saw that food was an essential for cities, not just a personal health need. Individuals can survive for weeks without food; cities can't last longer than a few days. There is an English saying that today’s cities are only nine meals from anarchy. That insight led me to shift the question from: ‘What can cities do about food problems?’ to: ‘What opportunities does food unlock for cities?’”

Wayne Robert at a farmers market

How successful have food councils been in achieving their goals?

“I would say we succeeded and failed where we least expected to. Public awareness of food issues is far ahead of what it was 30 years ago. Good food sales have advanced on every front. Schools are making real progress with healthier, more local and sustainable meals. Sales of fair trade, local, organic and artisan products have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, food issues are widely covered in the traditional and electronic media and most North American universities offer food courses or full programs.”

"Food policy councils look at issues from different perspectives”

- Wayne Roberts, Toronto Food Policy Council (ret.)

Where do you think they have not succeeded?

“Where it comes to actual behavior and results. Obesity, consumption of processed and fast food, chronic disease and food waste have worsened. Monopolies exercise more power. There are fewer farmers and less biodiversity. Global warming from food sources has increased. Overuse of antibiotics keeps getting worse. We had little idea of what we were up against when we started or what it would take to change the food industry’s business model.

“The reasons for these failures are obvious. Even if all of the world’s food councils had a budget of US$100,000 (€81,450) each, they would only have US$30 million (€24.5 million) to spend. By contrast, ‘Big Food’ spends about $600 billion (€488.7 billion) on advertizing alone. Less than a tenth of one percent of Big Food's advertizing budget would put us well on the road to success.”

“Governments haven't solved food waste or environmental damage”

- Wayne Roberts, Toronto Food Policy Council (ret.)

Can food policy councils solve complex issues such as food waste, supply chain security and sustainability?

“The magic word there is ‘complex’. The achievements of the modern food system have been amazing. But these came at the price of neglecting complex issues such as food waste, chronic disease and environmental degradation. National governments and global corporations have also failed to manage them. Food policy councils are staffed by people who look at issues from different perspectives. This kind of problem solving is what the fourth and fifth wave food councils will bring. I think food policy will become more people-centric. We will no longer focus on agricultural production, supply chain logistics or nutrition. We will focus on the health, economic, social, psychological and spiritual needs of people.”