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From Poutine to P-Patches: Learning From Canadian and US Food Policy Councils

February 28, 2008

by Branden Born, Assistant Professor, Urban Design and Planning

Branden Born is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Design and Planning. He studies land use, planning process, and urban food systems. He is a member of the American Planning Association’s Food System Planning Committee and the Seattle-King County Acting Food Policy Council.

The Canadian Studies Center recently co-sponsored a City of Seattle Transformational Lecture Series event that focused on food systems and an increasingly important governance tool known as a Food Policy Council (FPC). Wayne Roberts, the project director for arguably the most advanced FPC in North America, the Toronto Food Policy Council was the featured speaker. His talk was followed by a panel discussion that I served on along with fellow Canadian Herb Barbolet, representing Vancouver’s FPC, and Steve Cohen from the City of Portland and the Portland-Multnomah FPC.

Roberts’ lecture focused on ways that food and cities and their residents interact, and how food systems – the people and processes that produce, process, market, distribute, consume, and dispose of food – can be tools of economic development and community empowerment. The lecture focused on the projects of the Toronto FPC.

Since there aren’t any city departments of food, FPCs have functioned as multi-stakeholder advisory bodies to government. Their suggestions address issues of food access, nutritional adequacy, economic impacts of food systems, environmental effects of food-related choices, and more. From the provision of healthful foods through grocery stores and farmers’ markets, to developing and protecting community gardens, to closing resource loops through composting and food rescue, cities have a hand in making sure their residents have food security or, access to culturally appropriate, nutritionally adequate food through non-emergency sources at all times. And while the Toronto FPC is a pioneer, urban planners and policy makers are turning to FPCs with growing frequency: in the last few years the number of food policy councils in North America has doubled to approximately 70. There are now nine separate efforts at different stages of development in Washington alone. Roberts and the panel discussed the many strategies of their councils and fielded questions from an enthusiastic audience that filled City Hall’s Bertha Landes Room.

The importance of food policy to cities and metropolitan areas is a focus of my graduate course, Urban Planning and the Food System, which was offered at the UW through the Department of Urban Design and Planning in the fall term. Using examples from Canada, the US, and beyond, the course explores food production, global trade, social justice and food access, environmental sustainability, and urban policy formation. Roberts also joined former students and college faculty for a presentation and discussion the day after his lecture downtown. Students from the class have helped conduct research in support of Washington’s Local Farms, Health Kids legislation. They have also assisted the City of Seattle, the Acting Food Policy Council, and local farmers’ markets with service learning research projects.

Seattle, with its P-Patches and progressive-thinking government is an urban leader along with a handful of other cities in the US when it comes to food policy, and yet knowledge sharing across state borders both north and south is pushing food policy understanding and development into new areas for all involved.