The New Gastronome
by Bianca Minotti, Silvia Moroni
by Bianca Minotti, Silvia Moroni
The term ‘food councils’ “mainly refer[s] to governance tools that help connect stakeholders and food issues, clarifying the spheres of action, objectives and processes needed to define, implement and measure policies”1. Food policies characteristically work on a multitude of different levels, are multisectoral and transversal to many disciplines. The systemic and integrated approach that food, by nature, needs, plays an essential role in local food policies. For this reason, the concept of collaborative governance is, potentially, the most important area of action for these policies as it helps to implement actions in different categories, such as sustainable food and diets, social and economic equity, food production, food availability and its distribution, food waste and more.
The term governance has many different definitions and meanings but in the context of local food policies, it refers to new forms of collaboration between public bodies and those citizens that help improve the participation of stakeholders and integrate local initiatives into programs for the ultimate purpose of developing local sustainable food policies. For this reason, governance can be seen as a horizontal approach compared to current government structures, which are mostly vertical or top-down. It is, therefore, collaborative governance or “an interactive process in which a myriad of actors with various interests, perspectives and knowledge come together” that forms a system, which produces contextualized and coherent local food policies.
To apply these principles of collaboration, local governments and associations around the world have begun to use food councils as “a framework that brings together stakeholders from different food-related areas to examine how the food system works and propose ways to improve it”2. Introducing this type of governance tool does not mean the taking away of power from local government but accepts that multiple levels of action are needed to address the complex challenges of the food system. Currently, the globalized food system is characterised by an unbalanced distribution of power: between producers and consumers, small producers and large transnational corporations, rich and poor, rural and urban areas, the global North and South. Food councils seek to restore power to each actor of the supply chain, starting at the local level, using the experience of the individual as a lever to change small pieces of a larger system. Participation is, therefore, the fulcrum of these new governance tools – between rural and urban areas, the territory, citizens, institutions, business – as they strive to redistribute power.
“Currently, nearly 300 food councils exist in North America and more are emerging in Europe, bringing together representatives from various sectors of the food system.”
The first food council originated from Robert Wilson’s research on urban food insecurity at the University of Tennessee and was founded in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982. It was the first experiment of a place for political dialogue in which to bring together the representatives of the city food system and from it, many further food councils began to appear in American cities – especially from the 1980s onwards, as the need to improve citizens’ health became more evident.
Currently, nearly 300 food councils exist in North America and more are emerging in Europe, bringing together representatives from various sectors of the food system. The birth of these councils underlines the need for cities to find integration, to channel all actors and, to give greater visibility to food within the territory. The first food councils were created with the aim of gathering the skills and needs of the actors in the supply chain – consumers, third sector and institutional subjects – to generate sustainable solutions to the problems of the city’s food system. To date, the governance of local food policies has taken on different forms and objectives depending on the context of the city in which they are implemented.
According to a study on food councils in Canada, conducted by Mac Rae and Donahue (2013), a food council can be:
Several studies on food councils have shown that the link to the local government is a crucial issue for their role and function. Statistics from 2018 show that in North America, 34% of food councils are hosted by an association, 26% are incorporated into the government, 20% are born from spontaneous citizen movements, 13% are independent organizations and the remaining 5% are incorporated in universities. Interestingly, while the first food councils were created as government organizations with a close link to local governments, over the years, the trend has turned towards autonomous or semi-autonomous food councils that often have indirect or no contact with local governments.
“Yet, around the world, cities of all sizes and types, from Toronto to London to the Plain of Lucca are in continuous experimentation, implementing small and large results.”
Generally, it can be said that food councils have the dual purpose of acting as either networkers and facilitators of the different interests of the food system, as they include many different points of view; or as “knowledge centres”, as they work as communicators and educators on sustainability and food systems within and outside networks.
As a relatively new form of local government, food councils are still a question mark and raise many problems related to communication, participation, and organization. Yet, around the world, cities of all sizes and types, from Toronto to London to the Plain of Lucca are in continuous experimentation, implementing small and large results. For example, with the support of the London Food Board, the London’s Child Obesity Taskforce was created to half the percentage of obese or overweight children by 2030. In collaboration with the Mayor and public health departments, they worked directly in schools to narrow the gap in childhood obesity rates between the richer and poorer areas of London. Another example is the Toronto Food Council, which launched “Food by Ward”, an interactive map that catalogues all the good food assistance practices, farmers’ markets and community gardens in the city of Toronto, district by district, making the information easily usable and understandable for citizens and administrations.
The world is full of examples of this type, not only in North America and Canada, where food councils are very common but also in Europe. Here are some European examples:
 Calori and Magarini, 2015, p.39
 Haysom, 2015.
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Calori, Dansero, Pettenati & Toldo, 2017, Urban food planning in Italian cities: a comparative analysis of the cases of Milan and Turin, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 41:8, 1026-1046.
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Toronto Food Policy Council, 2020. Food by Ward.