Fake Policy Places: What happens when policy doesn’t have a home?

Vass Bednar

Policy-makers work hard to make sure that there is clear accountability for a range of distinct policy domains: health, education, infrastructure, finance, and the environment are traditional examples. They (we) then add the word “policy” after these departments: health policy, education policy, infrastructure policy, finance policy, environment policy, to describe accordant regulations and initiatives. Simple enough.

But what about policies with more enigmatic jurisdictions? Who or what has responsibility for them? I sometimes think of these uncharted policy spaces as “fake policy places.” But unlike knock-off Chanel handbags, these policies aren’t cheap, mass-produced imitations of legislation. Rather, they are condition-improving enterprises without a crystal-clear home. A policy realm without a Department or a Minister, sustained mostly through public championship. Roses by any other name.

The best example of an artificial policy zone that I can think of is food policy. It is an umbrella term with multiple entry points – food security, nutritional health, health promotion, environmental sustainability, poverty and social assistance, food safety, food prices, food deserts (economic geography), production systems, and global trade are just a few of the disparate jurisdictions and motivating interests that align under the moniker. There’s a lot to chew on.

This marvel is at once food policy’s most compelling strength and most obvious weakness. Who owns it? Where does it happen? Who should worry about it? That is unclear; which is not to say that the different levels of government haven’t tried to put a fork in food policy’s meaty goodness.

At the federal level, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada provides information, research, technology, policies and programs for the security of the food system, health of the environment, and innovation for growth. At the provincial level, we have the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), which exists to regulate the marketing, trade, and export of food and protects consumers though rigorous inspection programs. Both of these institutions focus primarily on the imperative of food safety, not food security. In Toronto, food policy work comes out of Public Health, which runs food safety programs like the Dinesafe Food Premises Inspection and Disclosure System (now available on the iPhone & Android!), and food security programs like the Toronto Food Strategy and the Toronto Food Policy Council.

And yet this inter-governmental vagueness has not stopped supplementary initiatives from the academy or non-profit sector from working to satisfy this obvious gap in authority. Places like the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University, Sustain Ontario, the Stop Community Food Centre, and Foodshare in Toronto, and research like the Metcalf Food Solutions Papers (2010) or the Martin Prosperity Institute’s Food Deserts insight (2010) fertilize thinking around food security. The People’s Food Policy Project is “creating food policy from the ground up” through A People’s Food Policy for Canada. At the same time, I worry that the vibrant advocacy of these non-governmental initiatives, when aggregated, create an illusion that food policy – with the ambition of achieving food security and a sustainable food system – is real.

So the question is whether we’ll be able to farm this ambition to harvest a legitimate, coherent policy strategy and space. Perhaps the many objectives of food policy will thrive because they are seeded in so many disparate policy portfolios and subsequently uninhibited by the boundaries that characterize other policy “places:” like foreign policy or Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. Maybe “food policy” will never gain sufficient traction because its goals are too varied and dispersed among pre-existing and clearly defined policy subjects. Or it may be the case that the lines of the policy map will be naturally re-drawn to accommodate the continuous support for a newly defined public goal of a food secure and hunger-free Canada – one with a National Food Strategy.

Until then, let’s fake it ‘til we make it.

Vass Bednar is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy (MPP) Program at the University of Toronto (2010). She currently works as the Manager of Engagement and Executive Assistant (EA) to the Director at the School and is an Action Canada Fellow, a distinction given to the country’s emerging leaders. Vass sits on the Board of Meal Exchange, has conducted research for the Ontario Association of Food Banks, and ran the McMaster Campus Food bank, the “Breadbin” in her final year of undergrad (2008). She blogs affectionately at vicariousass.com

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Lindsay F. says:

    These thoughtful observations immediately invoked images of my grade four class food web project. You know the one where you map from sun, rain and soil to plants and insects all the way up to humans. For an eight year old, the interconnectedness of our ecosystem and our dependency on this fine balance for our own survival as humans seems obvious. At times, it seems to me that policy makers could use a refresher course on the elementary components that allow for a health society to not just survive…but thrive.

    During times of economic stress, when everything seems like bad news bears, we (our policy makers included) tend to revert to survival mode, and we miss out on the opportunity to thrive. If only we took the time to reexamine our food web.

    V.Bednar, I think you are correct to point out that on a micro – level Canadians are making considerable efforts in the area of food security. What worries me is more the meso and macro-level. Is Canada stepping up to the plate in the global “food web”? With more international attention focused on environmental initiatives, climate change and food security, where does our Government stand on issues like land grabbing in Africa, deforestation and freshwater security?

    We need to help policy makers remember back to grade four – remind them that when one species does not survive, others certainly will not thrive!

  2. Caitlin C says:

    Interesting food for thought!

    The closing line – that we’ll have to fake it ’til we make it – definitely hits home. I often wonder about whether the prevalence of “supplementary initiatives from the academy or non-profit sector” are building the case for real food policy spaces or if they are contributing to the lack of these spaces.

    On one hand, I believe that grassroots food policy initiatives that are free of government ties are putting forth more innovative, critical, responses to the community needs; they set a precedent for real food policy spaces to live up to down the road. The academic/non-profit food sector is getting really good at ‘faking it’, at understanding structural issues and opportunities to advance our food systems. Despite a lack of ‘real policy space,’ food policies are being developed for our public institutions, within corporations, and in a growing number of regions and municipalities.

    On the other hand, I’m reminded of how the rise of charitable food banks in the 80s effectively lifted the issue of hunger from off the government’s plate. Charities stepping in here enabled the government to step out. Is the same offloading happening for food policy? Lest we forget the UN Special Rapporteur on Hunger’s visit to Canada this past Spring, and the neglect of our federal government to meet with him.

    If we build it, will they come? And if they come will they live up to the expectations that we’ve built for them?

    Real policy space or not, academic and non-profit groups are making important contributions to the dialogue on Canadian food security and food systems. Time will tell what ‘real policy space’ will add to the movement – legitimacy? coordination? increased funding? – and what will it detract – freedom to criticize? increased bureaucracy? centralization?

  3. Spot-on post! Very insightful!

    I agree with the author that food policy doesn’t have a home. But you know what? ‘Environment’ didn’t have a home, either! There is no mention of the word ‘environment’ in our constitution in Canada, and so we had to create a space for it. Following public outcry, Ontario started developing acts and regulations, starting fifty years ago with the Ontario Water Resources Act (1961), and continuing on to air and waste and toxic substance acts, as well.

    We made a Ministry of the Environment in 1972. (It’s still an infant!)

    Like ‘food’, the stakeholders and interests and entry points around ‘environment’ are widely varied (air, water, and noise pollution thresholds and permits and caps and prohibitions, natural resource preservation versus extraction, etc) but public concern and participatory decision-making through the ’70s and ’80s pushed both Ontario and Canada to progress (… or should I say net-progress, as we have seen some regression lately) significantly to where we are today.

    In other countries, a person’s basic right to a healthful environment is expressed explicitly in the constitution.

    Take the Philippines, for example:

    Philippines Constitution, section 16, article 2: the State shall protect and advance the right of the Filipino people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.

    In Canada, though, we had to fake it until we made it with environmental law and policy, and now we will do the same for food.

  4. Catherine Mah says:

    What’s in a name? Simply: a lot. Language has power to convey meaning in policy and politics. Words matter, not because of what they say, but how they say it.

    ‘Food policy’ conveys what problems it intends to tackle (food and food systems) but also what solutions (policy). Other terms such as ‘food access’ get at the notion of inequity and how people face barriers – social, economic, geographic – in the world around them. Words can create definitions and boundaries: Why food, and not food and nutrition? Or obesity? Or noncommunicable diseases? Or eating? And as you’ve noted, words also embed suggestions about policy participation: Who is responsible for taking action? Who should be included in deciding upon those actions?

    As food system thinker Kevin Morgan at Cardiff University has noted, food has a ‘multifunctional character.’ Food – not to mention ‘good’ food or ‘healthy’ food – means different things to different people. And this is a good thing. One of the most valuable mechanisms used by the Toronto Food Strategy is how it makes food visible within city government; how it highlights where food fits into existing mandates and diverse professional domains. Through such framing, food is transformed into a health issue; a local economic prosperity issue; an income issue; a geographic issue; a transportation issue. So does it matter whether everyone is doing a bit of food policy or whether the food policy happens in one place? I think we’re beginning to see results with the former. In fact, I would call what the Toronto Food Strategy and the Toronto Food Policy Council are doing ‘food policy’ but not necessarily ‘food security.’ We can debate about whether to call them ‘programs’ also!

    I think it is worth acknowledging that current views on governance suggest that policy doesn’t always emerge from formal authority. It can emerge from, and depends on, networks of actors inside and outside of government, including citizens. To paraphrase a recent food movie, Ratatouille, not everyone can create great policy, but great policy can come from anywhere.

    And food is certainly not the only domain (or language) that is contested in policy. Is there less or more health promotion happening in Ontario now that the Ministry of Health Promotion and Sport has been subsumed into the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care? How do the Healthy Kids Panel and the now defunct Bill 126, Healthy Decisions Made Easy, frame what’s needed for health and food?

    What I’m getting at is: is formal authority – in the form of a profession, a department, or a piece of legislation – always needed for ‘real’ policy change (or inaction)? Does having a ‘crystal-clear’ name for a policy domain really mean a direct line of accountability between our societal or governmental aims, and the money we spend or the outcomes we achieve? My view is that institutions are just one part of the story.

    We don’t need to fake it to make a real difference. Food policy is real policy because we say it is and we make it so.

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