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The People’s Food Policy Project--Health Promotion in Action


I Introduction
II What is the People’s Food Policy Project?
III Why the People’s Food Policy?
V Food Sovereignty – A Way Forward
VI Health Promotion – Enabling Citizens to shape Programs and Policy
VII Citizen Engagement – Theory and Tools for Increasing Citizen Control
VIII The People’s Food Policy Project – Citizens Engaging Citizens in Policy Development
IX Conclusion

--submitted by Amanda Sheedy, National Coordinator, The People’s Food Policy Project,

I Introduction

The People’s Food Policy Project (PFPP) is part of a vibrant food movement that is gaining strength here in Canada and around the world. At the heart of this movement is the desire for healthy, accessible, appropriate and safe food that is grown, processed and transported in just and sustainable ways. Many practitioners have been busy for years building what some call the alternative food system – community gardens, community supported agriculture, organic agriculture, collective kitchens and more. The consultations that led to the development of the PFPP reveal that food leaders across Canada are ready for the next challenge – the challenge of developing and implementing a food policy for Canada that would support the movement’s vision of a healthy food system. Arguably, a federal food policy could be one of the biggest policy developments since the Canada Health Act, and one that deserves the attention of all of us.

This feature explores the overlapping schools of thought that inform the PFPP including food sovereignty, citizen engagement and health promotion. It also explores potential roles for health promoters in supporting the food movement and the PFPP more specifically by hosting Kitchen Table Talks this fall. These Kitchen Table Talks present a great opportunity to engage program participants, coworkers, friends and family in a national conversation about the future of food.

II What is the People’s Food Policy Project?

A network of organizations and citizens from coast to coast to coast has come together to create the People’s Food Policy.  This policy grows from a philosophy that has been driving food work for years (and that is fundamental to some cultures): That food is a sacred part of our daily connection to the Earth and each other, and as such the act of eating must do no harm.

During the last year, over 1000 people contributed to developing a first draft of the People’s Food Policy. An incredible team of over 100 volunteers made this possible, including farmers, community organizers, academics and others. The animators, a group of 25 people spread across Canada who were already food leaders in their communities, took on the task of speaking with members of their communities about what kind of food policy they wanted. They summarized these conversations and submitted their ideas to the policy writing teams. Ten policy-writing teams gathered around 10 broad themes (which have evolved into 10 discussion papers available on the website at: including:

  1. Indigenous Food Sovereignty
  2. Food Sovereignty in Rural and Remote Communities
  3. Access to Food in Urban Communities
  4. Agriculture, Infrastructure and Livelihoods
  5. Fisheries, Infrastructure and Livelihoods
  6. Environment and Agriculture
  7. Science and Technology for Food and Agriculture
  8. Food Trade and International Aid
  9. Healthy and Safe Food For All: Towards a National Food Policy
  10. Food Democracy and Governance

Several drafts later, the discussion papers are ready for the next round of conversations that will be taking place in October and November 2010. During the Cross-country Kitchen Table Talks the PFPP aims to hear from even MORE people about what we want our food system to look like.

III Why the People’s Food Policy?

Food is ubiquitous: we must eat everyday; it is inherent to our culture, our health, our celebrations; it is dependent on the climate, water, earth and air; and it is governed by every government jurisdiction (municipal, provincial, federal) including seven federal ministries.  Despite the fundamental nature of food, we currently have no body that oversees food – it is governed like pieces of a big puzzle (agriculture, nutrition, fisheries, safety, transportation, energy...) with few mechanisms or institutions to ensure that the parts make a coherent whole.  Because food is so fundamental to our lives, we all deserve a say in the food system.

No one needs reminding about how broken our food system is.  But just to give you an overview of the breadth and complexity of the situation:

  1. Obesity rates continue to climb – for 24 – 35 year olds, the obesity rate has doubled in the last 30 years. (1) Along side food insecurity and the subsequent dependence on food banks – which saw an 18% increase between 2008 and 2009, this is the largest increase in obesity rates on record. (2)
  2. Farmers’ numbers are dwindling – down 20,000 farmers between 2001 – 2006. (3) As well, the average age of our farmers in Canada is now 52, the symptom of an industry that is both unappealing (Canadian farmers net yearly income is negative $20,000) and difficult to enter (due to high costs of land, quotas and equipment). (20)
  3. Our food system accounts for 44% – 57% of greenhouse gas emissions (from fertilizers to deforestation to transportation) (5) and between 56% – 72% of water pollution in lakes and rivers. (6)
  4. 25% of global fisheries are overexploited, depleted or recovering, up from 10% in the mid-seventies. (7)
  5. Indigenous peoples territory (and source of food) continues to be threatened by development and contaminants. (8)
  6. Herbicides and pesticides with known impacts on human health continue to be used, including atrazine (a widespread weed killer) that has been linked to low sperm counts, low birth weight and menstrual disorders in humans (9) (further,it has been shown to turn male frogs into female frogs! (10)
  7. We may be on the brink of another global food crisis (11) – the last food crisis of 2007 – 2008 was marked by soaring food prices (caused in part by speculation and increased biofuel production, which diverted food into the energy sector) resulting in malnutrition and death among the world’s most vulnerable. (12)
  8. Farm land is being bought and leased by foreign states, companies and speculators (called ‘land grabs’): there are at least 10 examples of this already happening in Canada, (13) representing the tip of the iceberg on a troubling global trend. (14) There has been a market increase in land grabs since the 2007 – 2008 food crisis.

One of the most worrying trends within the food system is the concentration of power and money.  Ten companies control over 50% of the seed business. (15) Five slaughterhouses in the US control 88.7% of the beef market. There is also a vertical concentration of power, like the chicken industry where, “a firm contracts with a poultry grower and provides everything—chicks, feed, veterinary services, vaccines—and buys the chickens... at the end.” (16) Government policy and the signing of free trade agreements have supported this. (17)

The BC government passed a law in 2007 making it illegal to slaughter animals outside of provincially or federally licensed slaughterhouses. This made a rather common practice of raising and slaughtering animals on a small-scale (for friends and family or small business) illegal. In the name of health, this new policy has made it impossible for small abattoirs to survive, which makes it difficult or impossible for a local form of food business and food self-sufficiency to survive.

It is clear that a food policy will be vast and complex, and as such, will require an elaborate development process that pools collective knowledge and builds on visions of a food system that rests on people’s shared values of health, justice and sustainability.

V Food Sovereignty – A Way Forward

Out of this context has emerged a global movement for food sovereignty. Food sovereignty seeks for people to gain control of their food systems at a local, regional, national and even international level (read more: and strives for the following six principles:

  • Food for people (i.e.: not for biofuels, the growth of which have been linked to the 2007–08 food crisis)
  • Values food providers (e.g., giving farmers a voice in policy development)
  • Localizes the food system (e.g., recreating local food distribution systems)
  • Localizes control of the food system (e.g.,  Toronto Food Policy Council) (18)
  • Works with nature (e.g., hunting and gathering, organic agriculture)
  • Builds knowledge and skills (e.g., collective kitchens and others programs)

This vision emerged from the landless peasant movement in Brazil where peasants started reclaiming abandoned land simply to feed their families.  This movement grew into La Via Campesina (19) – a global network of peasants and food citizens who are struggling to recreate a food system that is inclusive of all. 

VI Health Promotion – Enabling Citizens to Shape Programs and Policy

Despite the drastically different roots, health promotion works towards a very similar vision:  enabling people to increase control over and to improve their health. Depending on where we work from, this can be put into practice in many ways – educating people to make healthy choices, creating environments where those choices are easier, and of course creating healthy public policy. Increasing citizen control of food policy is precisely the challenge that the PFPP is tackling. Citizen engagement offers some theory and methods of interest.

VII Citizen Engagement – Theory and Tools for Increasing Citizen Control

According to citizen engagement, citizens should have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. (20) It seeks for citizens and governments to share power and information in the task of governing. It draws on the rich tradition of participatory and deliberative democracy theory which advocates for a deepening of our democracy through the active participation of constituents through their informed and genuine ‘dialogue and deliberation.’ There are an increasing number of cases where citizens are being asked to join in policy discussions and decisions, as exemplified by the Romanow Commission, the Canadian Institute for Health Research (21) and the Mental Health Commission of Canada. (22)

Citizen engagement / participation can be practiced in many ways within an organization and might look a lot like an ideal model of empowerment, where members get to make decisions about what programs to develop and what policies govern their organization. There are some fascinating examples of participatory democracy at the community level, including one of the groundbreaking Community Health Centres (now Clinique Communautaire in Point-St-Charles, Quebec) (23) and Vancouver Coastal Health. (24)

The literature of citizen engagement speaks largely to governments as a mechanism to engage with citizens in order to increase the legitimacy of and improve the quality of public policy. In other words, citizen engagement is used to hear from citizens on a specific subject that the government (or government institutions) has decided it wants public input on. What happens when social movements engage citizens in a policy conversation and present this to the government without solicitation?  Enter the role of advocacy – a role that is increasingly delegitimized and unwelcomed by the current federal government. (25)

The PFPP draws on all of these movements, theories and tools to create what is a truly dynamic part of the food movement in Canada.

VIII The People’s Food Policy Project – Citizens Engaging Citizens in Policy Development

The cross-country Kitchen Table Talks (October and November 2010) will see thousands of people across Canada talking about the food system they want and the policies they want to support it. This presents an exciting opportunity for health promoters and others to engage people they work with in this conversation and thus to engage in an experiment in grassroots policy development. An invitation has been sent out to all to be a People’s Food Champion: Host a Kitchen Table Talk!

What’s a Kitchen Table Talk?

A Kitchen Table Talk can take place in your meeting rooms (with peers), in your community garden (with program participants), and even in your kitchen (with friends and family). It’s really an excuse to have a great conversation about food while at the same time contributing your voice (and that of others) to the future of food in Canada. A detailed participation guide ( has been developed to support those who would like to be a People’s Food Champion and training sessions are being offered ( Three workshop formats have been proposed, each tailored to different groups with different forms of knowledge.

IX Conclusion

What is the role of health promoters in creating an enabling environment within institutions so that citizens can be heard?  How can we deepen our practice of democracy where we work?  In our programs? Our policies?  In our governments? 

There is a general discontent with our democracy, a democratic crisis, some would say.  People are voting less than before. There is a distrust of politicians and governments. They are no longer seen as working for their citizens. Yet citizenship has the potential to be a part of the many institutions throughout society that we are part of – schools, councils, boards, tables and more.  There is a culture of democracy that we can all contribute to building. And the People’s Food Policy Project is an invitation to contribute to an experiment with participatory policy development. I sincerely hope that you will join us in hosting a Kitchen Table Talk.


  1. Dieticians of Canada.
  2. Hunger Facts 2009. Food Banks Canada.
  3. Statistics Canada, Historical Overview of Canadian Agriculture. Cat. no. 93-358-XPB, July 1997; “Census of Agriculture 2006, Agriculture overview, Canada and the provinces.” .
  4. Statistics Canada, Farm Debt Outstanding - Agriculture Economic Statistics. Cat. no. 21-014-X, November 2009.
  5. Grain, 2010. Small Farmers Can Cool the Planet.
  6. Ongley, Edwin, 1996. Control of Water Pollution from Agriculture – FAO irrigation and drainage.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
  7. FAO Fisheries Department, 2006.  The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.
  8. Kuhnlein and Chan, 2000.  Environment and Contaminants in Traditional Food Systems of Northern Indigenous Peoples. Annual Review of Nutrition. Vol. 20: 595-626.
  9. Stanko JP, Enoch RR, Rayner JL, Davis CC, Wolf DC, Malarkey DE, Fenton SE, 2010. Effects of prenatal exposure to a low dose atrazine metabolite mixture on pubertal timing and prostate development of male Long-Evans rats. Reprod Toxicol. 2010 Aug 18.
  10. Sanders, Robert, 2010.  Pesticide Atrazine Can Turn Male Frogs into Females. University of California Newsroom:
  11. Reguly, Eric, 2010. As food prices jump, UN group tries to avoid fuelling new crisis. Globe and Mail, September 6, 2010.
  12. World Health Organization.  Health Impacts of the Global Food Security Crisis.
  13. National Farmer’s Union, 2010. Losing our Grip: How Corporate Farmland Buy-up and Rising Farm Debt, and Agribusiness Financing of Inputs Threaten Family Farms and Food Sovereignty.
  15. Grain, 2010. Global agribusiness: two decades of plunder. Seedling, July 2010.
  16. Murphy, Sophia, 2006. Concentrated Market Power and Agricultural Trade. Ecofaire Trade Dialogue Discussion Papers.  No. 1 Aug. 6.
  17. National Farmer’s Union, 2007. “Free Trade” Is it working for farmers?
  20. Sheedy, Amanda, Mary Pat MacKinnon, Sonia Pitre and Judy Watling, 2008.  Handbook on Citizen Engagement: Beyond Consultation.  Canadian Policy Research Networks.
  25. Read the declaration of the Voices-Voix coalition: