Food designated an essential municipal service
Although cities often have supermarket retention strategies, they typically do not aggressively promote retail locations in underserved areas, nor do they necessarily plan public transit to facilitate access to stores and alternative food projects. Rural municipalities and First Nations also suffer from insufficient access to quality retail. The efficiency proposals begin the process of shifting how municipalities engage with the supermarket industry, but more needs to be done to ensure that neighbourboods have access to quality food at an affordable price.
Provincial planning acts identify what the provinces consider the priorities of municipal planning. In either the Act itself or in associated regulations and policy statements, essential functions of municipalities are identified and specific guidances provided on the creation of viable and effective communities. No province or territory identifies food under these instruments as an essential municipal service.
In 1996, the Toronto Food Policy Council proposed that the Ontario Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act state that food stores or mandated alternative food provisioning programs be required for every neighbourhood, One Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) decision from the early 90s designated supermarkets as an essential municipal service. "For many - such as the elderly, single parents, the poor, or those in one-car families - proximity to a shopping facility is not simply a question of convenience... When a shopping facility closes, it can be distressing for many who rely on that nearby store... When battles over market share result in the large scale closure of community grocery stores within walking distance of, say, an elderly couple's apartment...then what benefit has competition been to them? Multiply this by hundreds and perhaps thousands of people affected by such closures and it becomes clear that there is an important public interest that warrants protection. It has therefore become an accepted practice to protect a certain level of service offered by commercial facilities and to ensure a convenient distribution of facilities throughout the existing community as well as the community that is being planned and developed" (Ontario Municipal Board Review, 1993).
In Ontario the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) does have entries related to other core municipal functions, such as housing and energy supply. To make clear for municipalities that they have the authority to intervene more assertively in the food system, a new section, based on the section on Energy Supply, should be added to the PPS:
Planning authorities should provide for a diverse mix of food retail and other alternative food access opportunities for residents that assures an affordable, healthy diet can be readily acquired in each neighbourhood, with the objective of minimizing the amount of time spent traveling to obtain food, including strategies for active transportation and public transit planning.
In other provinces, there are different processes and guidances in place. In BC, these changes likely fit best under their local government guidance for sustainability and resilience or Community Plans. In Saskatchewan, the Statements of Provincial Interests Regulations are the most likely instrument. In Quebec, metropolitan jurisdictions are required to elaborate and develop action plans for a strategic vision for cultural, economic, environmental and social development in their territory. The province could provide guidance on how these jurisdictions must assure food security within those territories. In New Brunswick, under the Community Planning Act, the province can develop Statements of Provincial Interest, which regional and local authorities must take into account.
If provincial policy statements are amended to this effect, then municipalities will likely have to strengthen or add food related elements to their official plans to bring the provincial changes into effect. For example, the Official Plan for the City of Toronto (Chapter 3, section 3.5.3 on the Future of Retailing) says that a strong and diverse retail sector will be promoted by, “[e]ncouraging stores selling fresh food in areas currently lacking pedestrian access to fresh food". Similarly, other provisions of the Official Plan acknowledge the need to assure sufficient commercial food retail for neighbourhood needs, and to promote food security for residents. There are some limited references to the need for gardens and mobile food vendors. All this is important but does not convey the "essential" nature of food for neighbourhoods. The language of the Official Plan would need to shift from "encouraging" and "promoting" to requiring and implementing.
Making food access an essential municipal service also has implications for neighbourhood planning. New developments receive a particular level of scrutiny regarding power, fire, water, sewage, and public school siting. Food access would need to be considered comparably in the planning and site assessment process. There may also be zoning and transit planning implications as discussed elsewhere.
In many downtown neighbourhoods, an extensive network of small grocery stores already exists that can be strengthened, rather than bringing in a large supermarket chain. There are many new small format operations that target certain kinds of neighbourhoods, some even owned by the big chains (Fitzpatrick, 2011). The American Planning Association (2007) policy guide suggests that planners can “assemble and implement business enhancement incentives to encourage partnership between existing stores and local nonprofits that encourage store owners to offer healthful food on the one hand, and educate the community to adopt healthy diets on the other”.
Most corner stores do not currently provide many healthful options, consequently, there is a movement to convert them to healthy food stores. For example, the City of Toronto has identified 2000 corner stories for potential conversion. Related to this, the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) Zone, a 2014 zoning category, permits a broad range of non-residential uses in and around residential apartment towers, including the many buildings common in Toronto’s “food deserts” (Toronto Food Strategy, 2013). Five hundred potential sites have been identified for RAC zoning. Some First Nations communities have also proposed or are implementing healthy store programs to address deficiencies of available market foods (cf. Levi, 2020).
The layout of mainstream supermarkets must also be altered since there is evidence that stores place confectionary and snack foods high in sugar, salt and fat in very desirable locations to encourage sales (cf. OPIRG, 1990; Vogel et al., 2021). But placing healthy foods in desirable locations will also enhance sales (Vogel et al., 2021). Beginning in April 2022, as part of their program to improve the population's healthy body weights, the British government is imposing rules on food retailers that will prohibit retailer ‘buy one get one free’ or related offers on unhealthy products, and promotions will no longer be permitted in key locations, such as at checkouts, store entrances, end of aisle displays and their online equivalents. Based on standard nutrient profiles, the rules will be applied to soft drinks, cakes, chocolate confectionery, sugar confectionery, ice cream, pastries, puddings, sweet biscuits, breakfast cereals, yoghurts, milk-based drinks with added sugar, juice-based drinks with added sugar, pizza, ready meals, breaded and battered products, savoury snacks, chips, and similar potato products. The most viable way to do this in Canada is likely through municipal retail licensing rules. Most municipalities have a municipal code that can include very detailed licensing requirements for many types of businesses (see for example the Toronto Municipal Code). Although food retailers are not typically subject to such detailed requirements, municipalities have the authority to do so when concerned about specific issues, and enforcement can be provided by municipal inspectors that already visit retail outlets for food safety and environmental performance requirements. To ensure consistent treatment, the provinces should direct municipalities to amend their Codes and provide guidance on suitable language.
The combination of provincial and municipal actions in these ways will make it more difficult for developers to successfully appeal planning decisions before tribunals (if they exist in the province in question) or to Ministries of Municipal Affairs. It also sets the stage for some of the other proposals below.
Create a Market City (adapted from Quierolo, 2020)
The Project for Public Spaces has set out the principles of a Market City. They:
- include a wide variety of types of markets as part of one market system.
- have diverse partners who can collaborate to achieve common policy objectives.
- measure the value of their markets and understand how they function.
- have strong distribution networks and facilities that prioritize healthy, locally and regionally produced food and other goods,serving diverse customers from all over a region, making markets attractive and accessible to all.
- regularly invest in their market facilities and building the skills of market management.
- help existing market vendors and new entrepreneurs from different cultural backgrounds start and grow their businesses in markets.
- recognize that their markets are also public spaces that welcome
A common aspirational goal for a Market City (eg., Barcelona) is to create the networks and public infrastructure to assure that no resident has to travel (walking, biking, taking public transit, or driving a vehicle) more than 15 minutes to access fresh, nutritious, affordable, locally produced and culturally-appropriate food. Some Official Plans, such as Toronto's (section 2.2.1), name the need for vibrant and diverse restaurants and food markets in the downtown, which partly creates a mandate for a Market City.
Key municipal actions to help make this happen:
- Create a Market City organization comprised of City officials and the sector, formalizing the Task Force created under Efficiency and refocusing its activities on building a Market City.
- Host an annual Market City conference that brings together Public Market actors, city staff, funders, and academics
- Build new semi-permanent, flexible, and multi-use infrastructure in parks and civic facilities that support outdoor programming, including public markets
- Use public and private partnerships to make use of underutilized public buildings to increase the number of public markets, especially in underserved neighbourhoods.
- Broker relationships between developers interested in including public markets
in their developments and not-for-profit and civic-society organizations
delivering markets (see also the discussion in Efficiency about Community Benefits).
- Include public markets in the municipal Facilities Plans, Neighbourhoods Strategies, Emergency Plan, and Climate Change Action Plan.
- If wholesale markets exist within the municipality or the region, facilitate integration of wholesale and retail markets
- Create permanent street signage that profiles Public Markets
Agrihoods and new models of residential design (adapted from Watson, 2020)
Agrihoods are master-planned communities designed around core activities relating to food or agriculture that often look to create more sustainable lifestyles for residents while facilitating a sustainable food system. As they are somewhat a new concept (though arguably a new manifestation of how many towns and cities historically emerged), the qualifying parameters of agrihoods are not yet fixed. Catering often to millennials, they have cropped up across the United States over the past three decades, in part an alternative to golf course communities, and now total about 200 of various shapes, sizes and designs. There are only a few emerging in Canada at the moment. Millennials are twice as likely as boomers to prioritize healthy eating and physical activity (Gardow, 2017) and they are a driving force behind the local food movement (Loundenback, 2017; Kumar, Smith, 2018). It is part of a shift in the housing market that supports environmentally sustainable developments (Loudenback, 2017). Although agrihoods appeal to most generations of home buyers, the target markets seem to vary depending on the community. Some focus on low-income residents or retirees, but likely most target affluent populations that can afford luxury homes with plenty of space. They help to fill a desire exhibited by Millennials, Generation X, Boomers, and retirees to connect more closely with their communities, with nature, and with their food supply (Birkby, 2016), although the extent to which current developments support sustainable food systems appears to be highly variable.
Agrihoods are often an alternative to existing land-uses. Some are infill developments, repurposing commercial land within an urban boundary. Many are developed on existing but depleted or abandoned agricultural land and aim to rejuvenate the more promising agricultural lands while repurposing the "least productive" for housing. Some are developed over brownfields, or previously contaminated sites as these spaces are characteristically large areas of open land ideal for a farm once contamination is properly addressed. Whether existing suburban neighbourhoods can be "retrofitted" to become agrihoods is an open question (see some relevant discussion in Redesign). Agrihoods often include a central working farm, which usually specializes in livestock, orchards, vineyards, or row crops. Many of the farms are long standing family farms that have been integrated into the development. These farmers are typically keen to gain close spatial access to a (somewhat) captive market. In some of the larger agrihoods, those with thousands of homes and hundreds to thousands of acres of land, farm space can be used as an agricultural incubator that provides access to farmland, equipment, and training for aspiring farmers and agriculturalists. In situations where the farm is not an existing farm, they display various models of farm management, with responsibility falling to either the residents, hired farmers, farmers leasing the space, or a combination of residential and professional management (Birkby, 2016).
Some agrihoods are built on small swaths of wetlands, forested areas, or other natural landforms as a strategy to protect these natural environments (Guion, 2017). They represent something of a compromise: some natural land will experience development in order for a percentage of land to be granted protection from development Watson, 2016). As understood by Guion (2017), “if development will happen anyway, why not try to direct its course?”. Especially in the early stages of agrihood evolution in Canada, it will be important for municipalities to push development proposals in this direction, otherwise it is likely that developers will continue to push traditional suburban models.
Agrihoods foster a sense of community, allow for food security, provide various sustainability impacts, offer employment or space to local farmers, educate community members on farming and sustainability, encourage healthy lifestyles, impede urban sprawl and create significant profits for developers that potentially extend onto residents (Hauser, 2019). However, there are some shortcomings. Specific circumstances must exist in order for the agrihood to be successful. Given the aggressive rate of agricultural land loss in North America, finding areas with arable land, open natural space, and room for residential development can be a challenge, and these factors must be carefully considered for protection of agricultural land (see Goal 5, Protecting Farmland). Resident access to all these amenities can burden them with additional costs, making the agrihood lifestyle unattainable for some markets. Additionally, the properties typically found in agrihoods are large, making housing prices and property taxes much higher than the average American home (Hauser, 2019). These financial barriers tend to exclude lower-income residents and create a homogenized constituency of community residents. Many agrihoods are developed in rural settings, so it’s possible that essential services such as plumbing, electrical, and roadways may not be adequate to serve the influx of residents. The rural character of the area may be at risk with added development. Governments have often prioritized rural character preservation through legislation and planning practices (Ryan, 2006; Sandberg, et al., 2013), and agrihoods may compromise these efforts.
To be consistent with the themes of this site, the framework offered by Hauser (2019), and the Short Food Supply Chain concept articulated under Solutions - New Concepts, are suitable for identifying, among the many existing models, the types of agrihoods that could be appropriate. Because changes are difficult later, of particular importance, requiring significant planning and foresight in the design, are:
- Conserving local land and preventing urban sprawl. Agrihoods with compact residential form on only 30% of the land in the community and the rest in farming and natural areas are model types. Land trusts and covenants could be tools to assure such conservation (see Goal 3, Reducing Corporate Concentration, Substitution, Land).
- Fostering a sense of community with the way the spaces and amenities are organized, including the market spaces, and also organizing food-related community events.
- Inclusion, with diverse ethnicities and/or socioeconomic standing. Most current models appear to struggle with this because of the focus on expansive lots and houses and the absence of a diverse array of denser, more affordable housing forms. Because of housing market dynamics, this reality suggests that municipalities will need to intervene in the approvals process to force developers to create affordable housing options.
- A diverse array of food production and acquisition opportunities - private and community (including rooftop) gardens, operating farm(s) with a range of products, box schemes, farmers' markets, farm-to-school, food buying clubs, SME processors, restaurants serving food from the farm - with community support for local farmer(s) and restauranteurs. Food prices should reflect the socio-economic diversity of the community. How much of the community's needs are met with this very localized distribution system is hard to determine since it is very much based on the production realities of the location and the population density. It might be feasible, with the right pricing and distribution, to meet 50% of the community vegetable requirements, especially if the farms and gardens have season extension capacity, with lower levels for meat, dairy, fruit and grains. With a diverse array of food, prices and acquisition channels, and commitment to local food culture, as part of housing purchase/rental agreements, it would also be feasible to require annual minimal food purchase requirements by dollar value to assure the survival of food enterprises in the community, with the option of exemptions or subsidies (as many alternative food projects already provide) for low-income residents.
- Food system internship programmes for youth living in the community. These are designed to enhance food literacy skills.
Setting out the criteria for an agrihood is important to prevent greenwashing (and foodwashing) which many developers in the US have been accused of (Birkby, 2016). Watson (2020) describes in detail two cases - Serenbe in Georgia and Prairie Crossing in Illinois - that have many of these features.
Obviously, this model is a challenge to the current approach in Canada to rural and suburban residential developments. In the early 90s, the Ontario government commissioned designs for a new community to occupy much of the land expropriated by the federal government for a new airport in North Pickering. The three designs selected for the last phase of the competition all had food dimensions, with one in particular likely qualifying as what we now understand to be an agri-hood. However, a change of government ensured the proposals never went any further. Advocates in the area continue to press decision makers to retain the land for food production (see Land over Landings). Almost 30 years later, it appears that only a handful of agrihood developments are underway in BC and Ontario (cf. Drayton Ridge ON, Delta BC, Creekside Mills, BC). It requires new guidances and approval templates for municipal and regional planners, and service providers. Regional planners in Canada need a best practices manual equivalent to what has been produced in the US (cf. Norris et al., 2018), with modifications to address the problems identified by Watson (2020). In the long term, as a strategy to protect farmland (see Goal 5), provinces may have to require that many rural and suburban developments be agrihoods.
Change the rules regarding charitable status under the Income Tax Act
As discussed, many community food projects survive on a mix of market and non-market revenue. Federal and provincial charitable status rules, however, have not kept up with this mixed revenue approach. Nor have they adjusted their conception of "charitable work". Under charitable purposes, federal rules allow for relief of poverty but as it related to food, that is confined to charitable food bank work. That community food work has developmental and agency components that address poverty and many other food system problems does not fit with this archaic interpretation. Even worse, the courts have ruled, based on existing law, that preventing poverty is not considered a charitable purpose.
The federal rules say this about business activity:
A charitable organization or public foundation established for exclusively charitable purposes may engage in related business activities that accomplish or promote those purposes. The fact that a business activity produces income for the charity does not make it a related business activity. The term related business means a business that is either:
- linked and subordinate to the charity's charitable purpose(s) (for example, a hospital parking lot)
- unrelated to the charity's purpose(s) but run substantially (90%) by volunteers (for example, weekly bingos)
The Income Tax Act allows charitable organizations and public foundations to conduct business activities under specific conditions. Provinces, territories, and municipalities may impose other requirements and restrictions. Charities should contact the relevant provincial, territorial, and municipal government departments before engaging in any business activities.
Organizational gymnastics are often required to avoid running afoul of the rules, with many organizations having to sustain too separate structures, one with charitable status that receives non-market funding, and the other carrying out the operations that generate market revenue.
So what we have is largely an artifact of 19th century Poor Laws from England. The court cases that define poverty relief purposes date from the first half of the 20th century (see the federal guidance on drafting charitable purposes). A significant inconsistency also emerges between federal and provincial poverty reduction strategies (see Goal 1, Income Security, Substitution), which rely substantially on community organizations for partnerships, and the charitable rules that limit how many of these same organizations can behave.
Changes are required to the Income Tax Act to bring conceptions of charitable work into the 21st century. The related problem is that federal and provincial rules on these issues are not completely aligned and they must all be changed in the same way to create some coherence across the country.
Targeted subsidies and price controls
Many of the changes proposed at the Efficiency and Substitution stages will create a more diversified food landscape, but market dynamics will not always ensure that food pricing is appropriate to a neighbourhood's demographics. Changes to the Income Security architecture and approach to Economic Development (see Goal 1, Income Security and Economic Development) will at this stage also be improving incomes which will improve food security. However, there may be pockets within urban and rural areas that remain underserved, and only targeted subsidies for facility and program development will address the need. An expanded Local Food Infrastructure program (see Efficiency) is a possible mechanism for providing these targeted supports. There may also be cases where existing stores and projects price food unaffordably for significant numbers of residents. Consumer price supports and controls are contested by many conventional economists as excessively market distorting. There is also a parallel debate about the mechanisms to employ, and Western governments have not been keen to use this approach (although other countries have, e.g., India and Egypt). However, no economic studies have been carried out with the parameters proposed on this site. The instruments that could be used for such purposes are discussed in more detail under Goal 2, Demand - Supply Coordination, and Goal 3, Integrating food into health care. Alternatively, a provincial legislature could introduce specific legislation for this purpose if it involved a localized area of the province. Ontario introduced Bill 236, An Act in respect of food and delivery fees in November 2020 to cap food delivery charges from restaurants in regions of the province in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This legislative initiative was part of the province's effort to support small businesses and small business employment. It suggests that suitable instruments can be constructed to control food prices. Consumer subsidies need not be direct, as many community projects have effectively reduced prices by using government funding and private donors to assure access to affordable food. However, the sustainability of such a model without significant and continuous government support is a key obstacle to their long-term viability which must be addressed at this stage in the design of such initiatives.