by Wayne Roberts
(This article first appeared on Torontoist, November 8, 2016)
There’s been a big shift recently in how the municipal government handles these initiatives.
Last week’s Toronto Board of Health meeting adopted a brief report on four low-budget food projects that may foretell a quiet revolution in healthy public policy. A major change is going down—literally, a huge drop from the pomp and circumstance of grand policy down to the street level where changes actually happen.
The report’s nondescript title, Toronto Food Strategy 2016 Update [PDF], belies the light buried under a bushel: innovative programs coming out of a partnership with several government departments, non-profit agencies, and community groups that will make a difference for some of the most disadvantaged people in the city.
Fifteen years after the City adopted a food and hunger action plan, and six years after signing up for a food strategy [PDF] (disclosure: I was a senior staff writer for both), the City can now report meaningful progress on its food access file.
Sad but true, implementation makes for a red-letter day in government health and social policy.
In recognition of its significance for the city food scene generally, the global coalition of cities supporting the Milan Urban Food Pact gave Toronto an award for its Grab Some Good program.
Grab Some Good is one of three initiatives that make it easier and more convenient for the general public, and especially people with low and fixed incomes, to get their hands on fresh, healthy, local, and culturally sensitive food.
One project works to help three corner store owners transform their businesses into ones that feature healthy alternatives to the junk, tobacco, pop, and slushies that are the mainstay of the variety-store business. There’s not much healthy variety in ye olde variety stores.
Corner stores are such a fixed and nondescript part of the urban landscape that few people pause to consider that these stores give junk food a virtual monopoly status. Taken together, outlets featuring foods and snacks low in nutrients and high in sugar, salt, and fat are four times more common than outlets in which healthy food receives some kind of preferred placement. Corner stores are also frequented by school kids for lunch and snacks, and by people on low incomes, often renting lower-cost apartments further from essential services, who depend on them for daily shopping.
Hmmm, I wonder if that might have something to do with rising rates of obesity and food-related health disorders.
James Johnson-Piett, the New York City consultant who’s made a specialty of transforming corner stores across the U.S., has long argued that this is the secret place where bad food habits—or good ones—get ingrained.
The trick is to transition owners of these stores from being “passive entrepreneurs” who let salt, sugar and fat purveyors set up their own displays, and then simply stand behind the cash register to pocket the price difference between the bulk price and retail price.
Johnson-Piett works to turn store owners into active entrepreneurs who know their food trends, and who turn their businesses into hubs of local economic activity— places where nearby residents can keep money in the neighborhood by cooking up a dozen sweet potato pies for sale at the corner shop as a quick, tasty, affordable, and nutritious main dish.
To bring about change in tens of thousands of these stores across North America is tantamount to gaining a presence for health in places that have the supreme advantage of “location, location, location.”
Though the potential results are anything but small change, no publicly funded university business schools seem inclined to teach business skills to corner store owners, and no governments seem inclined to direct publicly funded universities and colleges to offer such courses.
If this scale of nitty-gritty change is going to happen, it will come about because of public health departments.
A second Toronto Public Health initiative features the makings for fresh, nutritious, and affordable dinners at pop-ups in front of three busy TTC subway locations that are close to communities where people with low incomes live.
A third initiative is based on the ancient business proposition that if the people will not come to the health store, the health store can come to the people.
FoodShare operates the Mobile Good Food Market, with a retired old bus retrofitted and donated by TTC, to deliver attractively displayed and affordably priced food to neighbourhoods where many people have mobility barriers—from people with disabilities to seniors worried about venturing too far from home to moms minding kids—to accessing a conventional food market.
A separate initiative from Grab Some Good is called FoodReach, which simply applies the economics of bulk buying to a scattering of organizations serving food to people on low or fixed incomes. Instead of 1,000 community agencies, 750 school nutrition programs, and 900 childcare programs all buying their food on their own at retail prices, FoodReach provides one-day turnaround on local, fresh, and nutritious foods at a wholesale discount none would have the ability to get on their own.
Started off the side of the desk of food strategy manager Barbara Emanuel, FoodReach now has three staff to help the operation function and morph into an independent social enterprise.
FoodReach will also offer educational exchanges that help beleaguered cooks at isolated locations get advice on recipes and mass-scale cooking techniques.
None of these projects has government staff telling anyone what to do. They’re about government enabling community service groups — a huge change in how governments interact with the public. The concept of an enabling role for government and public health policy has been a foundation of public health thinking since 1986, when Toronto Public Health inspired the World Health Organization to develop and adopt the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion.
The whole field of putting social, health, and environmental policy into practice has been neglected by scholars and policy experts, says Lori Stahlbrand, now finishing a doctoral dissertation at Wilfrid Laurier University on implementing local and sustainable food programs.
What passes for a theory is the famous slogan of the Mondragon co-ops in the Basque region of Spain: “We build the road as we travel it.”
The slogan is a challenge to organization leaders to think on their feet while keeping their feet on the ground, and thereby develop an ongoing back-and-forth between policy and practice, integrating action learning and action research, or workers and wonks.
A rare management book devoted to the subject is Ronnie Lessem and Alexander Schieffer’s Transformation Management.
Dr. Catherine Mah, a pediatrician and doctor of health policy who teaches at Memorial University in Newfoundland, sees what she calls “bottom-up public policy” as the next new thing in public health.
We need to “connect big, broad public health” to “small and tangible solutions in the everyday,” she argues in a recent podcast. “Practice-based solutions—that’s where policy lives: on the ground.”
Likewise, Irena Knezevic, who teaches health communications at Ottawa’s Carleton University, makes the point that the “tectonic plates crashing and smashing” is not how change happens in public health.
“It all comes down to hundreds of grassroots activists working on the ground for hundreds of incremental changes,” she said two weeks ago, at an international public health conference celebrating 30 years of the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion.
Emanuel, the manager of the food strategy team implementing these programs in Toronto, worked in the development education field during the 1980s, when such educational theorizing was de rigueur.
She sees her unit’s role as performing “action research” that produces “prototypes.” That’s one large step beyond pilot projects, which test the viability of one project to be adopted, she says.
“We’re looking at programs that can be scaled up and replicated, so that positive changes can get established.”
We do food policy as we eat it.
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Wayne Roberts is one of Canada’s leading food system analysts and practitioners. He managed the Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010, and has since spoken to and consulted with city food leaders throughout North America and Europe. He is the author of 12 books and a PhD dissertation, and writes regularly for a number of Canadian news outlets.
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