Space for community conversation in municipal food planning

Policy shifts in Canada have transferred more power to local governments regarding food policy,[1] and amendments to the Municipal Act[2] enacted on November 16, 2016 give municipalities the ability to pass bylaws regarding climate change. The 2014 Ontario Provincial Planning Policy also directs that municipalities make planning decisions that reduce climate change impact[3] and increase access to local and sustainable food.[4] To date, most municipalities have done little to engage those powers.[5]

Transformative frameworks can disrupt the common impasse of policy becoming ineffective at local levels. I view municipal law as uniquely situated as interconnected with local food systems, creating possibility for meaningful transformation.

Too often initiatives are top down and reproduce the “same systems of maldistribution that organizations are purportedly targeting. Inside those organizations, white elites determine the fates of the vulnerable and get paid to make decisions about their lives while people directly impacted are kept out of leadership.”[6] Municipal policy provides opportunities to disrupt the injustice of unequal access to space for growing and eating food, as municipalities are situated such that they can focus on local needs and ways of knowing. In the words of Professor Maxine Burkett, municipalities have a duty or obligation to “create or empower institutions” to meet those obligations.[7]

In this post I use Windsor, Ontario, as an example of food governance following the trajectory of increasing agriculture and development without focussing on local food systems.[8] I critique municipal planning practices and discuss potential spaces—in this post, community gardens—where community can inform municipal approaches to food policy to increase sustainability[9] of a municipality’s local food system.

In discussing municipalities as uniquely placed in relation to planning decisions, Burkett states:

[M]unicipalities … “represent the common good.” They are responsible for everything from land-use planning and development to infrastructure management to public health and emergency planning. Climate-induced weather extremes compromise each of those core responsibilities … Despite access to better information and knowledge of the diverse costs of failing to adapt to climate change … local governments fail to represent the common good by failing to plan appropriately or by dissenting from key substantive recommendations.[10]

Burkett argues that municipalities have largely shirked their duties of vigilance by ignoring these realities. However, many local food initiatives develop from grassroots organizations largely outside of government or corporate structures.[11] If municipalities are to represent the “common good”, consultation and local law and policy need to evolve from planning decisions made by those communities instead of for them. Below, using the above critiques of Professors Burkett and Dean Spade, I consider how changing where and how planning decisions are made can create institutions that disrupt the systems of maldistribution.

In thinking about how to link municipalities and community, I engaged information municipalities have, such as the mapping of the city, to envision a shift in how local food law and policy can be generated locally. Interactive food mapping is a tool increasingly being used by municipal governments[12] and food activists, including for urban foraging and food saving.[13] The map for this blog post was generated using GIS software.[14]

In my work with Windsor community gardens,[15] I came to recognize their benefits as shared living spaces. I met refugees who shared their bean harvest and bean knowledge with other gardeners; retirees who grew zucchinis to donate to the local women’s shelter; and people escaping abusive home situations by spending time in their garden plots that were towering with tomato plants.

I also saw the importance of community gardens at a mental health support clinic in London where people shared stories of being ostracized from the community—both in terms of social reactions to their different expressions and the very apparent isolation of the clinic, which was located in a semi industrialized area of London inaccessible to many. Individuals expressed their experiences of being further ostracized through charitable food services—being given endless supplies of dried pasta is not likely to make one feel nourished. This food bank practice is part of “celebrat[ing] disingenuous attempts at inclusion while refusing to expand the notion of appropriate support and healing [especially] for non-white people.”[16]

Spaces where community gatherings occur indicate how certain knowledge is valued, how community knowledge is generated and shared, and local law and policy should develop from that gathering. Instead of municipalities holding “consultation” in government owned institutions, local law and policy conversations should be in community spaces physically more integral to the issues those gatherings are about, and those spaces might generate a more transformative way of envisioning law and policy. Some of those spaces for food law and policy could be community gardens. Community gardening is also frequently cited as a way of addressing so called food deserts, which continue to be a problem in Sandwich Town and Ford City in Windsor, despite city mapping in 2014 that highlighted these issues.[17]

Community gardens can be spaces that recognize experiences of marginalized people, and they can be institutions that survive political turnover or change. I think those spaces should be the spaces where we think about what it means to grow, process, and share local food instead of top down spaces where not all communities are represented.

Ongoing “shared social connections” are crucial to the viability of scaling up food projects that aim to maintain ties to local food systems.[18] These interactions create lasting relationships that can define local food policy. It seems more appropriate for those conversations to be in spaces communities use for local food growing and sharing, instead of government institutions that are inaccessible to many communities.

While local governments “govern persons—individuals and groups—directly, … more often than not persons are governed indirectly through rules about physical form, about buildings, property, activities, temporality, and uses.”[19] Who are the people? Where do they use city space, and how do they use it? Continual questioning should guide the planning process.

This post was intended to present a simple idea—that for planning practices regarding food law and policy to be meaningful to the communities that they purport to relate with, the planning might be better engaged in food spaces used by those communities.

[1] Ann Hui, “Federal Budget 2019: Details Released on Long-Awaited National Food Policy”, Globe and Mail (20 March 2019), online: Globe and Mail <>; Government of Canada, “What We Heard: Consultations on a Food Policy for Canada” (2018), online (pdf): <>; House of Commons, “A Food Policy for Canada: Report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food”, 42nd Parl 1st Sess (Ottawa: Government of Canada, December 2017) (Pat Finnegan), online (pdf): <>.

[2] SO 2001, c 25. See also City of Toronto Act, SO 2006, c 11, Sched A; Ontario Municipal Knowledge Network, “Best Practices in Local Food: A Guide for Municipalities” (2014), online (pdf): <>; Natural Resources Canada, “Chapter 2: Climate Change Adaptation And Municipal Decision Making”, online: Government of Canada <>.

[3] “2014 Provincial Policy Statement: Under the Planning Act” (Toronto: Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, 2014), online (pdf): <> at 4, 7, 15, 20, 30.

[4] Ibid at 20.

[5] I have noted up the relevant sections as well as searching online for discussion of those relevant sections; those searches have returned no promising results that suggest municipalities are using their powers to create bylaws that target issues of climate change or food policy.

[6] Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015) at 99.

[7] Ibid at 461.

[8] I chose Windsor because it is where I was residing when I wrote the paper; it is an interesting municipality to consider in this context because it is a border city and is also surrounded by much agricultural land.

[9] I consider the notion of “sustainability” to indicate a broader conception of a community’s right to define its food systems, which is part of food sovereignty. There are interconnections between the definitions that signify ties to land and responsibility toward others and the land. See e.g. Amanda Cobb, “Understanding Tribal Sovereignty: Definitions, Conceptualizations, and Interpretations” (2005) 46:3 American Studies 115; La Via Campesina, “Food Sovereignty” (15 January 2003), online: <> (La Via Campesina shaped the idea of food sovereignty to advance the voices and rights of peasant workers, defining it as a community right to define its own diet and therefore shape the food system); Heidi Kiiwatinepinesiik Stark, “Nenabozho’s Smart Berries: Thinking Tribal Sovereignty and Accountability” [2013]:2 Michigan State L Rev 339 (Stark questions the term’s usefulness and reflects on shifting away from societies that are rights based toward responsibility societies). If policy is to be conceived through more local definitions of sovereignty, there might be greater potential to reclaim food sovereignty rights in more localized areas.

[10] Maxine Burkett, “Duty and Breach in an Era of Uncertainty: Local Government Liability for Failure to Adapt to Climate Change” (2013) 20:3 Geo Mason L Rev 775 at 783 [footnotes omitted].

[11]  Robert Buchan, Denise S Cloutierb & Avi Friedman, “Transformative Incrementalism: Planning for Transformative Change in Local Food Systems” (2018) Progress in Planning at 3.

[12] Thank you to Rebecca Shearon for the generous and insightful help in mapping the food initiatives in Windsor. See e.g. Glennon Sweeney et al, “The State of Food Mapping: Academic Literature Since 2008 and Review of Online GIS-based Food Mapping Resources” (2015) 31:2 J Planning Literature 123.

[13] See e.g. “Mundraub Map”, online: <>; Lauren O’Neil, “Interactive Fruit Tree Map Highlights Free Food in Toronto”, BlogTO (August 2018), online: BlogTO <>; Laura Siciliano-Rosen, “Infographic: Regional Food Maps of Europe”, Eat Your World (14 September 2017), online: Eat Your World <>.

[14] Some of the data was already existing and others I generated.

[15] For the City’s initiative regarding community gardens, see “Community Gardens on Municipal Property”, City of Windsor, online (pdf): <>.

[16]  Sonia Meerai, Idil Abdillahi & Jennifer Poole, “An Introduction to Anti-Black Sanism” (2016) 5:3 Intersectionalities 18 at 24.

[17] See e.g. Jay D Gatrell, Neil Reid & Paula Ross, “Local Food Systems, Deserts, and Maps: The spatial Dynamics and Policy Implications of Food Geography” (2011) 31:4 Applied Geography 1195.

[18] Jenifer Buckley et al, “Social Relationships and Farm-to-Institution Initiatives: Complexity and Scale in Local Food Systems” (2013) 8:4 J Hunger & Environmental Nutrition 837 at 399.

[19] Mariana Valverde, “The Ethic of Diversity: Local Law and the Negotiation of Urban Norms” (2008) 33:4 L & Social Inquiry 895 at 898.

One thought on “Space for community conversation in municipal food planning”

  1. Thanks for sharing this paper Terra. Important topic and work.
    I appreciate seeing the map-as I’m a visual person. It seems they have quite a few community gardens in Windsor. I’d like to see how London is doing in this regard.
    I agree that there should be a way to share better food with those in need rather than all canned and packaged food.
    Providing better support systems and community involvement.

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