October 31, 2017

FoodTalk | The Strategy to Prioritize Ontario’s Food and Nutrition

by Wayne Roberts 
(This article first appeared on Torontoist, January 31, 2017)

At the beginning of 2017,  a coalition of more than two dozen organizations launched a campaign to redesign Ontario’s food, nutrition and agricultural scene, bringing a new force to bear on issues that have shown little mainstream political heft until now.

In January 2017, the group kicked off its campaign for a Ontario Food and Nutrition Strategy at the head office of Ontario’s ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs in Guelph.

This strategy document brings the soft power of connection and ideas to the political agenda, forces that may well overcome the marginalization the food movement has suffered from—frequently dismissed as a group of foodies far removed from economic realities and of peripheral importance to the general public.

Not any longer, the coalition document says, with 179 references to back the claims in its 47 pages of text.

Healthcare accounts for nearly half the province’s budget, the great majority of which goes to treating preventable diseases often caused by improper and inadequate diets—inexcusable economic planning given that the government spends 0.35 per cent of its overall budget on disease prevention.

Job promotion in the food sector, the province’s top employer, doesn’t fare much better than health promotion, the province’s biggest cost centre, the document shows.

Some 25,000 Ontario farms have been lost over the last 20 years, many capable of supporting local processing jobs if the province invested in the same levels of food infrastructure and government purchasing of local foods that are standard elsewhere in North America. The biggest of the ignored employment opportunities are in vegetable and fruit production, where a comprehensive report estimates that half of the province’s current imports could be displaced by local production.

Those two indictments of government’s ill-suited economic planning make the case for connecting some agricultural, food and nutrition dots….which the coalition is itself trying to bring together.

That’s no easy trick in a field where, as the popular saying by writer and farmer Wendell Berry goes, the health sector doesn’t care about food and the food sector doesn’t care about health.

A review of the 26 “key actors” who brought out the document reveals a sea change in connections and relationships.

Traditionally, medical associations rarely associate with public health organizations, much less environmental or farm groups. Activist and Non-Government Organizations in the food movement rarely make common cause with the likes of charities funding education and innovative medical treatments applicable to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. And the Chiefs of Ontario rarely hang with the Ontario Home Economics Association and Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

Photo of Lynn Roblin by Wayne Roberts.

Lynn Roblin (photo credit: Wayne Roberts)

But there all these unusual suspects are on the inside front cover, thanks to the likes of Lynn Roblin, who’s campaigned for this since 2009, mostly on her own dime but now on staff with the Ontario Public Health Association, alongside Sustain, Ontario, which has finally grown into its tagline as a coalition for “better food and farming.”

Take note politicos: the partnerships are the message, which provide a lot of rocket thrust there.

The strategy document links 25 priority actions in three cross-cutting areas, normally kept apart in separate departments of governments—healthy food access; food literacy and healthy food systems.

It touches almost all today’s key words, from sustainability to productive, resilient and equitable to wholistic health to farm-based environmental foods and services.

While appreciating and respecting what it takes to put together such breadth of visions, I can’t help but list some of my own druthers.

One of my favourite words, empowerment, is missing: it’s rarely rolled off the tips of the tongues of professional healthcare groups raised on the “medical model” of health services dispensed by professionals to their patients.

There’s little hint of the need for a new style of government that actively partners to enable and empower actions already happening on the ground as a result of grassroots groups, social enterprises and non-profits (promoters of farmers markets, community food centres and local and sustainable food campaigners, for example) that have been badly neglected in comparison with their colleagues in the US or Europe.

My other favourite word, though I normally like to steer away from ones that have too many syllables and too little meaning, is subsidiarity. It doesn’t get through my computer’s spellcheck, but it’s all the rage in Europe, where it’s taken to mean that power should be vested “as low as possible, as high as necessary.” We need to make sure that new government funding does not bureaucratize the energy that’s brought us as far as we’ve come to date and overlook the capacity and creativity found in grassroots and citizen groups that are better attuned to things as personal, delicate and cultural as food, health and well-being.

But who am I to complain? Look south of the border. Look east to Europe. This kind of coalition does not happen very often. But now it has been launched here in Ontario.

Click here to access a PDF of the Ontario Food and Nutrition Strategy.


FoodTalk – Thoughts on food and food issues from FoodReach’s lineup of passionate contributors.

Wayne Roberts  

About Wayne:

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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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed within this FoodTalk post belong solely to the original author/contributor. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of FoodReach, its staff, members or Board, its business partners, funders or other contributors.

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