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Food systems planning is a public health prevention measure of chronic disease. 

Food systems are integral to public health and well-being and food systems planning is a public health prevention measure of diet-related chronic disease. 

Based on research conducted by Canadian Planners and Practitioners, the following overview plan was derived: 

In 2019, the federal government created the Food Policy for Canada. It’s initial directives included: 

1. Development of infrastructure for food processing, and 

2. Support for climate change mitigation in agriculture. 

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many glaring food system issues and increased awareness of the need to advance more resilient and equitable food systems and communities. 

In 2021, the Canadian Food Policy Advisory Council was created to further support federal food policies. 

Who should be responsible?

There’s a lack of clarity around who’s responsible for food systems planning; local, provincial or federal? And this is causing food systems issues to remain unaddressed. 

Currently, those in decision-making roles are not impacted by food system inequities and that’s why food systems planning doesn’t get attention. 

The Lived Experience of planners alters their perspectives when engaging with food systems. A lack of lived experience, especially in leadership roles, impacts how food systems are understood and limits how they’re addressed. 

The Unique Perspective of Lived Experience

Leah's Lived Experience allows her to put herself in the shoes of the most vulnerable because she's been a part of this population group herself for a very long time. Having lived in public housing since 2008, and being on and off of ODSP since 2017, Leah's experience has uniquely qualified her to design fresh food delivery systems within the context of urban planning around vulnerable population groups, as her experience has enabled her to put significant consideration into the social mobility issues plaguing vulnerable peoples.  
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Food Systems

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Food systems expand access to locally-grown and produced foods. It is the transportation of food within foodsheds while using the most efficient methods. Effective food systems allow for faster and cheaper delivery of fresh food into households. 

Food System 1

Here's an example of a food system in Barrie, Ontario that Fresh Food Weekly created for our meal box delivery program. Here, we have some of our main and local food suppliers, as well as some of our main and local food donors within the vicinity of this screenshot. 

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On the morning of each delivery day, our volunteers would go pickup our wholesale orders or bulk donations and bring them to our operating facility (a church basement). This location could also be called a fulfillment facility since it's where all the food is brought to be individually packaged (if needed), and packed into individual meal boxes to be picked-up by volunteers and then delivered to program recipients. 

Food Systems Planning Map

When planning your next food system, one of the most important things that must be considered are the significant number of families residing in public housing. 

 

Furthermore, when selecting the proximity to conduct food support programming, the term “close proximity” must take into consideration those in wheelchairs and walkers throughout all months of the year. 

The number of people without access to food during the winter months and who don't have family support or financial resources to create their own "food system" is unconscionable. 

On February 2, 2024, Fresh Food Weekly submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Ministry of Children, Community & Social Services of Simcoe Muskoka for the number of Barrie and Innisfil residents living on Ontario Works (welfare) and ODSP (Ontario's main disability support program). Although they responded with the OW numbers the next day, they still haven't provided the ODSP numbers. These numbers will provide a more accurate understanding of the true numbers of people experiencing severe food deprivation. 

Here's a map of all of Barrie's public housing addresses (both Barrie Housing and Simcoe County Housing):

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If food programming initiatives aren't going to provide access to food at food-insecure households, then they must take into consideration where the most food-insecure population groups are living so they can increase program participation and therefore results. 

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The Ontario Food & Nutrition Strategy

The Ontario Food & Nutrition Strategy (OFNS) is an expert and evidence-informed strategy for improving the health and well-being of Ontarians through food policies and programs that contribute to reducing the financial burden of chronic disease. It integrates the food, agriculture and nutrition sectors, and aims to improve the health of Ontarians through actions that promote healthy food systems and environments.

 

The OFNS has identified the provincial and federal government as having “few, if any,” comprehensive food, agriculture and nutrition strategies that address the complexity of the food environments and health. Furthermore, the recent Pan-Canadian Sustainable Food Systems Report Card highlighted a lack of sustainability in the Canadian food system, reporting decreases in food access and production and increases in food insecurity over time. 

Key Food Environment Features in Food Systems Planning 

The OFNS has listed four key food environment features that affect food choices and eating patterns, and interact with socio-economic disparities facing food insecure households: 

Geographic food access is the extent to which a person’s food preferences are influenced by exposure to their immediate food environment. Researchers have noted that access to nutritious food is influenced by both spatial and non-spatial mediators that result in inequality of food access across communities.

A healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups, in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits. The core elements of a healthy dietary pattern include consumption of fruits and vegetables, grains (especially whole grains), low-fat or fat-free dairy, protein foods, and oils.  ​ It’s also recommend to limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, sodium and large amounts of carbohydrates. Having access to healthy, safe, and affordable food is crucial for an individual to achieve a healthy dietary pattern. Improving access to foods that support healthy dietary patterns is one method for addressing health disparities and population health. Attracting more grocery stores in underserved neighbourhoods doesn’t improve food access for anyone living on social assistance since they can’t afford food at any price, regardless of how much the price has been reduced. Instead, people living on government assistance need access to free and nutritious food if their income rates aren't quadrupled. 

Low-income groups with some spending money tend to rely on foods that are cheap and convenient to access but are often low in nutrients. Fresh foods are more expensive at convenience stores and small food markets than in larger chain grocers. Recent research indicated that “low-income residents who shop for food in their neighbourhoods may pay more, on average, for produce (apples, bananas, oranges, carrots and tomatoes).” Not only are disabled and elderly Ontarians not able to buy any food at all, able-bodied working Ontarians with some spending money are forced to spend more on food because they lack transportation to cheaper alternatives.

Food quality is about the dietary intake and absorption of a food’s nutrients. Food storage, preparation and hygiene are all aspects that affect health. The body is built from various nutrients including carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, vitamins, and minerals. The type of food, quality, and frequency of consumption play a critical role. Adequate food consumption makes the body able to withstand diseases and can be referred to as, a public health prevention measure of disease.

Spatial Mediators: Physical Food Source Inequalities 

People tend to make diverse food consumption choices, including where, when, how, and which types of food to consume. For disabled and elderly people living on social assistance, distance to free food sources and a lack of transportation to free food sources are both barriers to healthy food options. Individuals without a vehicle, or access to convenient public transportation, or who do not have free food sources with healthy choices within walking distance, have no access to foods period, let alone foods that support healthy dietary patterns. Additionally, people without access to a vehicle, or convenient public transportation, can’t afford the cost of travel time to find healthier options.

For disabled and elderly Ontarians living on assistance, their deficiency in food procurement is due to the scarcity of healthful food in their vicinity. An unexplored direction of research is to measure if vulnerable people’s preference for food is elicited by exposure to a particular type of food environment, such as one that lacks free nutritious food sources in it. This finding would also offer compelling evidence for shaping strategies to improve the health of communities. Exposure to a local food environment is measured in terms of availability or density of free food resources attainable in a disabled or elderly person’s daily travels. In the City of Barrie, when people don’t have a vehicle, their daily travels are limited to walking distance. Additionally, their food transportation capacity has been severely compromised to whatever they can physically carry. For elderly people, in-store grocery shopping is simply not an option because they don’t have the physical strength to carry even one bag of groceries. Therefore, when individuals have no vehicle, as well as no money, exposure to their particular food environment can only be measured if their food environment exists. For people living on government assistance, their food environment can’t include grocery stores as their monthly budget for food is zero dollars. If they’re expected to pay their rent, hydro, laundry, phone and internet bills, they cannot spend one single dollar on food.

Non-Spatial Mediators: Food Policies & Policy Processes

Municipalities in Ontario are increasingly undertaking food policy initiatives and are positioned to intervene in their local food system, including the enacting of policies and programs that build local food initiatives.

Furthermore, recent reports are emphasizing the importance of regular monitoring of the food environment, as well as health inequality measures to access population status for the purpose of tailoring policy and program development.

This means, those who are monitoring can’t just stop at monitoring. Currently, reporting organizations aren't required to implement evidence-based solutions for the results they’re reporting and as a result, they don’t implement solutions.  

In November 2013, Toronto’s City Council formed the Toronto Agricultural Program (TAP). This involved spending funds on: defining the roles of the various urban agriculture centres, coordinating the City’s activities in relation to the GrowTO initiative, and addressing barriers facing growers looking for available land. In this comprehensive paper titled ‘The Role of Policy in Developing Sustainable Urban Agriculture: Recommendations for the Toronto Urban Growing System’ written by Angela Gong at the University of Toronto on August 27th, 2020, Angela details key barriers that could easily be addressed if the city’s goals were aligned with it’s community’s goals: “The program committed to developing three community gardens annually, improving education around Sustainable Urban Agriculture (SUA), supporting school gardens, promoting the City’s Eco-Roof Incentive Program, and engaging in partnerships with other city departments. The TAP released a 2013-2014 workplan upon formation with detailed steps for developing SUA… since 2014, the TAP has not released further updates or plans regarding their activities. Furthermore, interviews since 2014 with municipal policymakers have highlighted that SUA is not yet a strong focus for the City, and commitments to improving land access through zoning bylaws have not been met. For example, even with support from relevant powers, community organizations must pay $16,000 CAD to submit a rezoning application that would allow them to build a greenhouse for protected multi-season growing. At Malvern community gardens, gardeners largely choose to self-govern and resolve conflict “within house, because the scare is always that if we involve the city too much, they might just take the space away from us.” The gardeners lack clarity and security around what powers the City has over their land access, preventing them from seeking as much technical or social support as they may require. Furthermore, the City prioritizes aesthetic value of the park and garden space over the functionality and benefits of SUA: “We’re not allowed to have trellises or structures over a certain height, we have to keep all the grass cut.” The activist highlights this aesthetic standard as a barrier to developing SUA, and calls for new developments to change the standard landscaping protocols: “Those landscapes within development should all have components of native plant habitat and food growing possibilities... as defaults rather than simply sodding over with lawn.” These accounts are in contrast to recognition at all government levels that improved land access and tenure are key to expanding SUA, demonstrating a gap between commitment and implementation at the policy level. The Government of Ontario is well-positioned to take decisive policy-based action to promote sustainable agricultural practices. However, the Province’s most recent environmental protection plan made no concrete commitments to sustainable agriculture, despite the existence of previously released provincial documents demonstrating awareness of the benefits and pathways to sustainable agriculture. In terms of urban agriculture, the Ontario Trillium Foundation published Opportunities for Growth: An Urban Agriculture Toolkit in 2017, highlighting how current provincial legislation can be a barrier to expanding urban agriculture. For example, guidelines for selling produce are only applicable to medium- and large-scale growers, and many provincial public lands are inaccessible for allocation to community garden programs. Despite highlighting case studies and concrete actions that the Province could take to promote urban growing, the Province has not yet made any commitments towards helping develop sustainable urban agriculture. The Malvern garden lead also highlights a need for more top-down development and support for SUA. Fresh City Farms CEO asserts, “We need to see more city leaders really focusing on these areas as more than just a place to spend free time.” He suggests that to motivate this change, we need to highlight the health benefits and environmental incentives to grow in the city. However, when it comes to governance at the community level, the activist asserts that the government should help remove barriers to it, and “recognize the power within community”.

Who's Doing This Now?

The United States is generally more progressive towards urban agriculture and food systems planning for vulnerable population groups than their Canadian counterparts. Although some Canadian Cities have grassroots organizations making changes, and some other cities have started making investments to improve health inequities, Canadian policies and policy-making processes have generally excluded vulnerable population groups from participating.  

In New York City, it started with Mayor Bloomberg

Here’s an excerpt from a Forbes Magazine article published on Nov. 21, 2017; Cities Are Growing More Powerful, And That May Be Good For You.

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When billionaire businessman and philanthropist Mike Bloomberg first became Mayor of New York City (NYC), the 2nd most populated city in the world, he was asked whether extra security was needed at the United States Conference on Mayors in NYC. Bloomberg responded, "I told them I didn't think any of the mayors would be that dangerous." Well, during his 12-year term as Mayor of NYC, he found the opposite: a mayor can actually do quite a lot to help prevent death and suffering. He introduced a number of public health initiatives such as banning trans fats from restaurants, requiring restaurant chains to post calorie counts for their food items, and banning smoking in bars and restaurants...

As Bloomberg related, during his term as Mayor "the life expectancy of New Yorkers increased by three years and became two years longer than the national average." These experiences helped him realize that Mayors of large cities could play major roles in preventing and controlling non-communicable diseases (NCDs) around the world.

Policies addressing the three primary targets—retail access, nutrition content, and food support—are generally coordinated through the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, which the Bloomberg administration established in 2006, appointing the Food Policy Coordinator as the office lead. This office brought together anti-obesity and anti-hunger policies and stakeholders for the first time and allowed for city agencies to take a broader perspective on food policy. The Mayor’s Office of Food Policy also brought departmental programs that Mayor Bloomberg created earlier under a broader food policy umbrella. Since 2006, the city government modified or expanded these programs layered a host of new programs onto the food policy landscape. - Innovations in NYC Health & Human Services Policy.

The Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Food Policy Program has committed over $435 million to help public health advocates and experts promote healthier diets through policy change. - A Bloomberg charity

Under Mike Bloomberg, New York City’s welfare rolls fell 25 percent, and nearly 900,000 people moved from welfare to work. - Bloomberg's website

Legislative Advocacy Success

New York City has played the leading role in charting the path of new urban food governance in the United States. 

Ex NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg trail-blazed The New York City Mayor's Office of Food Policy in 2006, creating the foundation for food systems planning everywhere, all because he had a vision for a better life for New Yorkers.

In 2022, The NYC City Council wanted to establish a New York City Office of Urban Agriculture and in this two-minute YouTube clip, Gabrielle Blavatsky, the Policy Director at a non-profit called Equity Advocates, explains how they were able to effectively advocate for equitable change at the 
legislative level to implement new food policies within the city. To watch the full one-hour video, you can watch it on YouTube here.

The Office of Urban Agriculture

The Office of Urban Agriculture is responsible for developing and implementing climate-based urban agriculture and food system strategies in the city. 
 

New York City has leveraged their governing power to promote more equitable health outcomes for its city’s most vulnerable population groups. They've demonstrated that urban food governance can alleviate food insecurity within low-income households, as well as prevent the onset of diet-related chronic diseases. 

 

Their methods are effective because they don’t just monitor food insecurity, they've focused on food access policies through advocacy. They know that food systems can reduce or exacerbate food access inequities at different stages of urbanization and as a result, they've prioritized policies that improve equity. 

 

Those who bear the heaviest burden of inequitable food environments have unique insights into what needs to change, and you can expect these insights to be dramatically different than insights from those without Lived Experience. And thanks to Bloomberg's actions back in 2006, millions continue to reap the benefits.

Urban Agriculture in Canada

Dr. Wayne Caldwell is a retired professor in Rural Planning and Development and member of the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs Greenbelt Council with a long-time career affiliation with the County of Huron’s Department of Planning and Development. 

Caldwell is also:

  • A Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Planners, 

  • A past President of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute,  

  • Served on Council for the Canadian Institute of Planners,

  • Is the past President of the Association of Canadian University Planning Programs, 

  • A founding member and Past Chair of the Ontario Rural Council,

  • A founding member of the Huron Stewardship Council and the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation,

  • Appointed by the Ontario government as Chair of the Provincial Nutrient Management Advisory Committee,

  • Holds a PhD in Regional Planning and Resources Development from the University of Waterloo. 

On Dec. 7, 2023, Dr. Wayne Caldwell participates in a discussion regarding one of his research projects titled, ‘Assessing the Capacity of Municipalities to Respond to Evolving Rural and Agricultural Issues’. This hour-long discussion is excellent and is definitely worth watching, but we’ve highlighted a few clips from this discussion for quick access: 

The evolving role of municipalities in agriculture

1 min, 5 secs.

Dr. Caldwell talks about the relationship between planning and elected officials.

What is urban agriculture capacity?

1 min, 18 secs.

Regan Zink is completing an MSc in Rural Planning and Development with a specialization in One Health under the supervision of Dr. Silvia Sarapura and Dr. Wayne Caldwell, and explains what capacity means in urban agriculture. 

Why is capacity important?

2 mins, 7 secs.

Dr. Caldwell speaks to urban agriculture planning and how it directly affects quality of life. 

Examples of Ontario municipalities engaging in urban agriculture

1 min, 14 secs.

Regan Zink provides three examples of municipalities in Ontario who've started investing in a city-held urban agriculture department. 

Example: Grapes in Huron County

1 min, 3 secs.

Dr. Caldwell provides a great example of Huron County taking leadership in new development that supports agriculture and the community. 

Opportunities for Municipal Food Policy Changes

There are multiple policy avenues that can support people growing food where they live. For example, municipalities and local public housing providers interested in improving their local food policy environments can consider:

  • Creating incentives that encourage local and homegrown food in rental housing, manufactured home parks, nursing homes, assisted living, and senior living communities, including the creation of bylaws that prevent public housing corporations from unreasonably restricting homegrown food. 

  • Leveraging local zoning laws and bylaws to support local and homegrown food, including permitting growing food in all zones and prohibiting gardening restrictions in new developments. 

  • Repealing restrictive bylaws pertaining to growing food, including laws that prohibit edible gardening or urban agriculture, restrict gardens to only back and/or side yards, and mandate lawn or other restrictive yard appearance.

  • Encouraging public housing authorities to inform and assist tenants in meeting the Canada Health Act, whose primary objective is to facilitate reasonable access to health services without financial or other barriers. 

  • Supporting edible landscaping on public land, foraging, and community gardening, particularly in areas with multi-unit rental housing and small lot sizes. 

 

  • Resisting preemptive laws that limit local action to support food growers. 

In the United States, more public housing authorities are recognizing the value of gardens for residents to grow food. Here are a few examples of public housing initiatives creating space for residents to grow food where they live:

In Seattle, Washington, many of the public housing buildings managed by the King County Housing Authority have facilitated residents growing food through container gardens, raised beds, indoor gardens, and individual plots in community gardens. Notably, a resident-built garden at Wayland Arms earned an Award of Merit from the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials.

In Denver, Colorado, the Denver Housing Authority partners with Denver Urban Gardens to establish community gardens for public housing residents. For example, the Tapiz Community Garden has been run by the residents of two public housing buildings since 2012.

New York City Housing Authority’s “Garden and Greening Program” supports over 700 gardens and connects residents with technical assistance from GreenThumb, which provides free seeds and bulbs to resident gardeners, gardening instruction, and additional support. NYCHA’s long history of gardening competitions demonstrates the commitment of the housing authority to supporting tenant gardens over the past 50 years.

In Canada, we have a lot of work to do in Manitoba, but there are some Canadian public housing providers leading the way in British Columbia.

Manitoba Housing says Joey Cowan has to remove the raised garden he built in his front yard, calling it a hazard for children.

According to Manitoba Housing, it has seven community gardens on its various properties, but when I asked how many other properties could be ripe for large-scale vegetable gardens, officials didn’t have a number. That suggests to me Manitoba Housing isn’t promoting the concept. Perhaps, in part, that’s because of what I witnessed on the way home from work at the public housing neighbourhood called Gilbert Park. Where a community garden thrived not so long ago, there is only scrub grass, weeds and leftover raspberry bushes lining the fence.

- Gordon Sinclair Jr. from The Winnipeg Free Press

Manitoba Public Housing's community gardens.

The Garden Fund provides start-up funding of up to $3,000 to BC Housing non-profit housing partners to build gardens and start garden programs at their buildings. In addition, Garden Fund recipients will have access to phone support from BC Housing’s People, Plants, and Homes team for their first growing season.

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