Putting food on the Municipal plate

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As Winnipeg’s municipal election kicks into gear over the coming weeks, our local news will be filled with debates over issues ranging from rapid transit to public safety. One issue that should be talked about, but likely will not be, is the issue of food.

Cities across North America and around the world have begun to realize that by advancing progressive food policies they can create jobs, enable citizens to live healthy lives, contribute to a dynamic cultural mosaic and create sustainable environments. Winnipeg can too, by implementing similar policies, benefit from the growing excitement around local and sustainable food, build on the diverse food traditions of our city and develop new collaborations with communities to address the needs that they are identifying. Here are a few examples of specific steps that our city council could take.

Agriculture is a significant part of Manitoba’s economy. Indeed, using conservative estimates, one in eight jobs in Winnipeg are directly related to food or agriculture. Other municipalities in Canada have recognized the potential to use their food purchasing power to support farmers near their community. After all, these farmers make their purchases in town, thus contributing to the economy. For example, Markham, Ontario has a local food procurement policy which states that a percentage of the food that it purchases must be certified by Local Food Plus, an organization in Ontario that certifies products as locally and sustainably produced. So one option for candidates to think about in Winnipeg is establishing a food procurement policy to support Manitoban farmers.

Many Winnipeggers participate in community gardening. There are community gardens in all neighbourhoods of the city, and they especially provide opportunities for those without yards to grow some of their own food. Yet there are often challenges with these gardens. Since gardens are often situated on private land, or are subject to redevelopment even when located on public land, gardeners can be concerned about the long-term stability of their garden. Why invest time and effort in a place that will be shortly converted to other uses? Other regulations limit the potential to fully take advantage of community gardening in the city.

Montreal has over 8,000 community garden plots — many of which are protected using zoning regulation — and provides horticultural support to these gardeners, necessary equipment and water.

Community gardens have been shown to not only beautify neighbourhoods, grow food and increase neighbourhood pride, but even to reduce crime. A dynamic community garden strategy would enable Winnipeg to expand and protect our community garden program and enshrine gardens as a vital component in all parts of our city.

There are countless other options to move food forward in Winnipeg, including everything from edible landscaping to enabling farmers’ markets to promoting culinary tourism. But one step that the city could take to address all of these issues is to develop a food policy council. A food policy council includes members from the community and the government, providing a forum to share expertise, enable grassroots participation in decision making, and develop collaboration between community and government. Vancouver and Toronto both have food policy councils, councils that actively advise those cities on policies they can implement to positively change their food systems. By creating a food policy council in Winnipeg, our city can ensure that we continue to develop creative, innovative policies that address community-identified needs and enable us to fully benefit from opportunities.

When you go to cast your vote on Oct. 27, there will be likely be lots of questions on your mind. This year make food one of those questions. Together, we can get food on the municipal plate.