Food for Thought at the Policy Innovation Initiative’s 2018 Policy Hackathon

By Michael Smolinski and Harrish Thirukumaran

“We increase every year. Last year, we [gave out] over 1.6 million pounds of food, so it shows you there’s a lot of need in the community and surrounding areas.” This striking statistic, provided by Pauline Cripps of the Guelph Food Bank when commenting on the organization’s food needs doubling over the previous five years, speaks to food security’s enduring relevance in public policy discourse. Inspired by that line of thinking, the Policy Innovation Initiative (Pii) at the University of Toronto recently hosted their second annual policy hackathon, centered around solving issues concerning food security and sustainability in urban areas.

A policy hackathon is a collaborative problem-solving exercise which explores and designs solutions to policy issues by incorporating knowledge and expertise from a variety of professional backgrounds. The day-long event, held on March 25th 2018, was attended by participants representing the public, not-for-profit, private, and academic sectors. The event’s keynote speaker Lori Stahlbrand, the director of the Toronto Food Policy Council, delivered the keynote address, where she spoke to policymakers’ growing interest in food policy, and the many ways in which food can be used as a policy tool to lead to healthier and more dynamic communities. The event was also facilitated by Adeline Cohen from the University Health Network, Reg Noble from Ryerson University, and Cassandra Gentile from the Food Innovation Hub, who assisted participants by offering their expertise and knowledge in the areas of food security, procurement, and literacy. The event facilitators from the Pii focused on integrating design thinking tools and techniques into their event, such as empathy mapping, journey mapping, and prototyping in order to help participants build policy solutions which accurately addressed the concerns of those negatively impacted by the issues at hand.

Hospital food proper sizeParticipants at the event were divided into three groups, and each group was assigned one of the following three food policy challenges to tackle:

  1. Public Institution Food Procurement: Publicly-funded institutions such as schools, hospitals, and post-secondary institutions can have a considerable impact on the local food industry by simply changing their procurement practices. However, many institutions remain unaware of opportunities to seek out healthier and more sustainable sources of food, while others are reluctant to pursue these opportunities. What policies or tools could facilitate changes in these institutions’ procurement practices?
  2. Food Literacy: Developing strong food literacy skills, including understanding the health, environmental and economic impacts of one’s’ food choices, ensures people’s ability to access and prepare healthy and sustainable food. However, opportunities to develop these skills can be limited, and efforts to promote food literacy can be culturally inappropriate or can fail to communicate scientific evidence in ways that generate awareness around healthy food habits. How can we improve access to opportunities for mobilizing food literacy?
  3. Home-based food businesses: Regulations concerning the production and sale of food by home-based businesses are complicated and restrictive. Across most provinces, the sale of food produced at home is prohibited, and selling food from your home is highly restricted. As a result, starting a small food business from home can be exceedingly difficult for potential entrepreneurs. How might we ease such barriers for aspiring entrepreneurs wishing to run a small food-based business out of their homes?

The team tackling Public Institutional Food Procurement chose to focus specifically on hospital practices, and designed a toolkit that could be used by local healthcare advocates to encourage hospital administrators to change their food procurement strategy. The toolkit included recommendations for telling effective “food stories” – narratives highlighting the importance of food on patients’ health outcomes and overall wellbeing. The team also recommended disseminating the toolkit to patient advocacy groups, who could use it to apply pressure on hospital administrators to facilitate changes in hospital food procurement practices. The team addressing food literacy focused on the concern that many food literacy initiatives are not appropriate for culturally diverse Canadian cities. They therefore proposed creating an intergenerational cooking class curriculum, which integrates food literacy components and could be designed in a more culturally-appropriate manner.

Incirlik Unit School Culinary ArtsFinally, the team working to reduce barriers to building home-based food businesses chose to focus on improving entrepreneurs’ access to commercially-licensed kitchens. Rather than modifying local regulations to facilitate cooking at home, they envisioned the creation of an online application that matched people seeking licensed kitchen access with local restaurants and community centers offering their kitchen space during off-peak hours.

The influence of design thinking exercises throughout the day were evident in the solutions that the three teams ultimately proposed. Design thinking places considerable emphasis on arriving at specific and tangible solutions to a given problem, as well as the need to empathize with the the end-users of the developed solutions. As such, all three teams designed solutions for a very specific population and problem, and they all ultimately focused on the nuances of their intervention’s design, as opposed to designing broader policy measures or legislative changes.

The day-long event provided valuable food for thought, in addressing a few of the many challenges that come with the provision of a secure and sustainable food supply in urban areas. The solutions that were ultimately put forward, with their focus on the end-user, illustrate the potential for solving these problems through the public, private, non-profit sectors, or through another partnership model. As such, the Policy Innovation Initiative, through a successful hackathon, was able to provide insight into innovative techniques to address a series of pressing policy challenges.

Michael Smolinski is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy program at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His policy interests include innovation, research and development, and the regulation of disruptive technology.

Harrish Thirukumaran is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He completed an honours Bachelor of Arts in political science with a concentration in public administration at Brock University. A few of his policy interests include innovation in the policymaking process, international affairs, and Indigenous policy. He has experience working at multiple levels of government, including Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, the Regional Municipality of Niagara, and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.