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.