When I meet someone I don’t know, I am often asked, “What do you do?” Responding that I work on food policy usually gets me a puzzled look or a quick change in topic. Everybody eats, so why is it so hard to talk about food policy?
Food policy reminds me of the wizard behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz; the wizard is mysterious and intimidating, until Toto pulls back the curtain. By understanding all the different buttons and levers on the wizard machine, we can start to demystify food policy and identify opportunities for change. Unfortunately, we don’t get an instruction manual!
Policies guide action, set out roles and responsibilities, and reflect values and priorities. They can take a number of different forms, such as directives, guidelines, rules, regulations, or laws. Food policy shares many of the following characteristics with other policy areas, but with a few unique elements.
A Little Slice
Our experiences with food are shaped by our food systems. We usually only see a little slice of those systems as we purchase, prepare, or dispose of food. The many factors and policies that contribute to the kinds of foods that are available, how they were produced, and where they come from are hidden from easy view.
When the Stars Align
When I first started doing policy work, I was introduced to a linear process of policy development; it seemed so clear and logical. I have never witnessed a policy process like that in reality! Instead, the process is less predictable, messier and driven by a variety of actors and agendas. A lot of the work is about persistence in raising the issue at every opportunity for evidence-based decision making, finding champions, and being in tune with ongoing conversations that can help generate interest. Policy change is a bit like evolution – a lot stays the same until there is a spike of rapid change.
It’s All Connected
Policies that shape our experiences with food can be found in a range of policy areas, such as environment, health, agriculture, fisheries, employment and income, transportation, trade, economic and community development, and more. It is challenging to unravel the many threads that shape food-related policy, but that makes it even more vital to consider the connections and work on multiple approaches.
Food at All Tables
Policies affecting food are within all levels of government, from band councils and municipalities to international agreements. Without an understanding of shared responsibility and accountability, food can fall between the cracks or misdirect efforts. We need to break down silos within, and across, governments and sectors to work together to address food issues.
Food policy may not be very relatable, but food is. Many people are interested in helping to create change, but the challenge is in finding something they feel comfortable or interested in doing. It’s hard to answer, “What can I do?” For those of us working on food policies, we need to find better ways of creating and communicating opportunities for people to get involved. That includes hosting dialogues and events and creating tools so it’s easier for people to share their concerns and raise voices together. It also involves creating space for individuals to take on leadership roles.
I think it will be a while before it’s easy to talk about food policy, but I’ve already seen a lot of changes. More people are aware of the issues, asking questions about the root causes, and seeking opportunities to work with others towards impactful and long-lasting change.
Blog written by: Satya Ramen, Senior Coordinator, Ecology Action Centre
Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre. Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood