Case 14: The Toronto food policy council: Twenty years of citizen leadership for a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system

Citizen Engagement in Health Casebook

Catherine L.Mah, Scientist, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and Member, Toronto Food Policy Council
Lauren Baker, Coordinator, Toronto Food Policy Council


In 2011, the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC) celebrated 20 years of citizen leadership in municipal food policy.1 The TFPC is a useful mature case study and model of citizen engagement in cross-sectoral collaboration for improved population health. Food policy councils are known worldwide as an innovative way to engage citizens in policy making related to the food system, including issues of agricultural production, public health, economic development, community wellbeing, social justice, and environmental sustainability. Over 100 food policy councils, established to identify opportunities for improving the food system, are documented across North America.2 Despite food councils being so widespread, however, we have only begun to evaluate their impact, deliberative processes, and capacity from a health perspective.3

Why citizen engagement?

Food policy councils were founded in the North American context about three decades ago, but their applicability and popularity has since spread worldwide. They generally operate at the sub-national (local, regional, or province/state) level and include citizen members from diverse perspectives across the food system, from "grow it" (production) to "throw it" (waste management).

Food policy councils have embodied and promoted ideas about the benefits of participatory democracy, namely that citizens can play a meaningful role in policy deliberation on large and complex issues, even when much of the expertise, power, and authority in food systems are all concentrated in higher levels of government and the private sector.

Unlike other broad forms of citizen participation, such as one-time consultation processes, consensus conferences, and other ad-hoc juries or task groups, food policy councils have often sought to establish a long-term role in advising decision makers on food issues and advocating for food system reform. That said, the form and functions of food policy councils vary. For example, some are formally embedded in government structures, while others operate outside government.



The TFPC was the first food policy council in Canada. Founded in 1991, the establishment of the TFPC was largely based upon the idea that food and health are intimately intertwined. The gestation of the TFPC began during the 1960s and carried on through the mid 1980s; the impetus to form a food policy council for Toronto was drawn from the Healthy Cities movement (also related to the launch of the Health in All Policies movement), the 1976 UN Convention on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, and the 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion.4 The founding of the TFPC was influenced by public health advocates such as Trevor Hancock, inspired by key food system thinkers including Tim Lang (at the time with the London Food Commission), and initiated with political support from individuals such as Jack Layton, who was a Toronto city councillor and the Chair of the Toronto Board of Health at the time.

The early work of the TFPC was focused on issues of food security, social justice, and hunger. For example, the TFPC was influential in identifying key food and health issues requiring program and policy attention. In the early 1990s, the TFPC was instrumental in creating FoodShare's Good Food Box program to deliver healthy and affordable local food across Toronto. Through the work of the Food and Hunger Action Committee and a related series of policy papers, municipal grants became available for implementing community food projects. In 2001, as a result of this policy work, the Toronto Food Charter was endorsed by City Council. The TFPC currently works on policy initiatives beyond the municipal jurisdiction, and it undertook considerable research and advocacy related to preventing the use of rBGH in the Canadian dairy industry.

Current structure and role

The TFPC, which operates as a subcommittee of the Toronto Board of Health, is staffed by a full-time coordinator who is an employee of Toronto Public Health. At any one time, the TFPC includes up to 30 members, including city councillors and citizen volunteers drawn from diverse organizational and community backgrounds. These members embody a broad array of thinking about food and health. Current members, for example, come from academia, farming, foodservices and hospitality, dietetics, health promotion, food retail, and marketing, as well as various community, advocacy, and youth organizations. Members apply to participate in the TFPC, with new members approved by the Board of Health once a year. TFPC members are charged with bringing their experience and strategic perspective on food policy issues, and they do not represent their organization or sector.

Outcomes and impact

While the TFPC has no formal legislative authority and a modest budget, it has nonetheless had a major influence on food policy in Toronto and beyond, playing a key role in food issue identification, community animation, and advocacy. It is a resource for Toronto City Council when food issues are brought to City committees and council meetings, and it is the community reference group for the new Toronto Public Health-led Toronto Food Strategy. The TFPC also has enabled the formation of the provincial food advocacy network Sustain Ontario, supported the establishment of the world's first Youth Food Policy Council, and been instrumental in serving as a platform for dialogue (including bimonthly public meetings) between diverse food system stakeholders.

Lessons learned

Reflecting on the foundations and future of the TFPC, key lessons along two themes emerge.

First, the TFPC has been a successful and tangible expression of what is often referred to as "the convening power of food." While the TFPC has had to continually reflect upon its membership to ensure that it has remained appropriate, strategic, and able to provide input on an array of current and emerging policy concerns, the TFPC has nonetheless demonstrated a consistent capacity for bringing people together across sectors, disciplines, and even political stripes to work on food issues in common. To be relevant, the TFPC has to continue to evolve as a resource to its members — fulfilling networking and professional development needs, as well as facilitating the discussion of issues (including by experts) that are relevant to practitioners and advocates working on food issues.

Second, while the TFPC does not have access to specific municipal policy levers, it has been instrumental in working with communities, policymakers, and city councillors to identify opportunities where policy change is needed and to provide advice. As a policy platform, the TFPC facilitates the expression of community interests, but it cannot directly institutionalize them. Its liaison role, therefore, is one that needs to be supported and cultivated. The TFPC must also continue to balance its deliberations on a broad and growing range of potential food system issues with the strategic identification of specific opportunities for action.


Footnote 1

Toronto Public Health, Toronto Food Policy Council (2011) (retrieved July 12, 2011); and Toronto Board of Health, Minutes: Item HL4.3 from Toronto Food Policy Council 2010-2011 Report and Membership Update (retrieved July 12, 2011).


Footnote 2

Community Food Security Coalition, North American Food Policy Council Webpage (retrieved October 31, 2011).


Footnote 3

See Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (US), Food Policy Councils (2010) (retrieved June 28, 2011); Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (US), Food Policy Councils Make Healthier Places (2010) (retrieved June 28, 2011); and Harper, A., Shattuck, A., Holt-Gimenez, E., Alkon, A., and Lambrick, F., Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned (Oakland, CA: Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 2009).


Footnote 4

Blay-Palmer, Alison, "The Canadian Pioneer: The Genesis of Urban Food Policy in Toronto, International Planning Studies 14.4 (2010): 401-16.


Date modified: