Paula Bryk food charter A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo: Stuart Bulmer

FOOD CHARTERS are gathering momentum in Canada as a strategy for reconnecting producers and consumers, and for promoting healthier eating habits and agricultural practices. A charter’s overarching goal is to engage community members and stakeholder organizations to collectively define the core characteristics of a just and sustainable local food system. 

Paula Bryk is a researcher, a member of the Canadian Organic Growers, a volunteer with the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable, and one of the key contributors to the Waterloo Region Food Charter (WRFC), which was adopted in April 2013. About a dozen other municipalities in Ontario have recently endorsed or are developing charters, adding to those in Saskatoon (since 2002), Vancouver (2007) and a few US cities. 

While the logistics of creating any charter depend on the region and its people, Bryk offers some fresh advice from producing the WRFC.

A\J: What was the biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?

Paula Bryk: The biggest challenge was incorporating all of the feedback. This was time consuming and sometimes difficult to agree upon. A food charter is meant to be a visioning document representing all aspects of a food system and it has to stand the test of time. We were careful to keep the language of the charter fairly general and use a non-prescriptive approach.

Another challenge was spreading the word to as many community members as possible. For this, we set up an internet-based response survey (with open-ended questions) and sent it out to the roundtable’s extensive network, members’ own personal networks, key food-system stakeholders and community groups.

A\J: How did you keep all stakeholders happy?

PB: Communication is the key. Everyone involved in creating this has a vested interest in the outcome.  If changes aren’t made or if a compromised change is made, then it’s important to explain why or have a contact person who can do so. People tend to be understanding when they realize that a food charter is meant to represent a wide range of disparate stakeholders.

A\J: Did you collaborate with other communities?

PB: Early on in the process we sought advice from communities with existing food charters. The biggest lesson is the importance of community consultation. In researching the process of developing a food charter, we heard this advice from many other working groups. Community consultation from a wide variety of community members is essential because even a representative group of knowledgeable food-system stakeholders can miss things.  The importance of community consultation was highlighted in our own experience as input from community members helped hone the language, brought forth new ideas and perspectives, and let us know that we were on the right track.

As for language, the first Waterloo Region Food Charter draft was developed from the Waterloo Region Food System Roundtables’ priorities, which originally came about through a workshop held several years ago, which incorporated the input of about 170 people.  Our team studied food charters from communities across Canada before beginning the process of drafting a food charter.  There are many great food charters out there!  We borrowed ideas from a number of charters, such as the language used in the Guelph-Wellington food charter (“Because we believe/value…, We support…”) and the comprehensive approach to preserving environmental integrity outlined in the Thunder-Bay food charter. 

We also have a lesson to share with other cities.  It’s important to get political buy-in early on in the food charter development process. In order to get the Charter endorsed by Regional Council, we needed a "champion" on Council (in our case Sean Strickland), with whom we consulted at the earliest stages of drafting the charter to get his input on wording that would work for Council. His support was advantageous as he ended up getting other councillors on board in advance so that the charter was endorsed unanimously. 

A\J: How is this charter different from others in South Western Ontario?

PB: Many other communities share the vision expressed in our charter. This means there are many similarities between our charter and the charters of other Southwestern Ontario communities, although the language and emphasis will vary depending on an individual community’s needs. As with most of the recently developed food charters, whose communities had the advantage of learning from the forward-thinking communities which pioneered food charters, we tried to keep ours as comprehensive as possible to reflective the needs of a wide variety of stakeholders in our food system.  We hope this will allow the charter to be a useful document for many years to come.

A\J: What changes will there be in restaurants and grocery stores?

PB: A food charter is a values-based document meant to outline a common vision for a community’s food system. It does not list action steps to achieving this vision – that’s left up to individuals and groups within the community. That said, we hope the presence of a food charter will support the production, processing and purchasing of local and ecologically sustainable foods and thus the availability of such foods to Region of Waterloo residents in a variety of venues including food stores, restaurants, workplaces, public institutions, and perhaps even fresh produce becoming available at convenience stores, or mobile food trucks providing residents with healthy prepared foods.

A\J: What’s the plan for 2013?

PB: As the charter is still very new (April 2013), this first year will be about raising awareness among community members – letting people know the region has a food charter and how it may be of benefit to them.  Success for this year will be measured by community groups spreading the word about the charter – and that’s already happening!

A\J: What impacts will it have during the next five or 10 years?

PB: A food charter is a visioning document. We hope that it will pave the way for a regional food system strategy. Our regional food charter can help bring food to the forefront, catalyze conversations about food, underscore the conversations that are already taking place, and get people thinking about the food system in all aspects of their lives.  We hope that community members will be able to use the charter to advocate for the type of food system they want, and we hope this document will emphasize the importance of considering the regional food system at a policy and planning level, which could result in policies being developed that would support a viable, just and sustainable food system.  For example, the Region of Waterloo has much agricultural food production, but few processing opportunities. For this region to develop a truly viable food system, building up the food-processing infrastructure is essential. 

A\J: How does the charter meet the multiculturalism and diversity of the population?

PB: To represent our multicultural population we included the language “ensuring the widespread availability of, and access to, locally produced and culturally appropriate food”. We also included the line “supporting the expansion of food grown or raised in urban areas” which can benefit multicultural populations, since growing one’s own food in community gardens may be the best way to access fresh, ripe, culturally appropriate produce. We were pleased to have our food charter endorsed by the KW Multicultural Centre.

To include the student population, the lines “ensuring the availability of healthy, affordable food choices in workplaces and public institutions” and “encouraging public institutions to buy local and environmentally sustainable food” are particularly important as many educational institutions have cafeterias. Additionally, students of all ages (young children to adults) would benefit from “educating ourselves and others about the food system”, as this may inspire teachers to bring food related topics into classrooms. Student populations (along with others) would also benefit from the inclusion of “ensuring walkable access to venues that sell healthy foods”. 

A\J: How can locals help?

PB: The most important step an individual can take is to connect to their local food system and spread the word about the food charter.  Learn about where your food comes from, how to grow it, how to prepare foods from scratch and teach others what you know. The ability to prepare foods from scratch is essential to participating in a truly fair and sustainable food system. 

Spreading awareness about the food charter is also a key. As more people learn about the food charter, more possibilities arise for engaging people in the food system, for collaborative action and for creating links between policy and community action. 

Since the food charter provides a platform for discussion, collaboration and action, I think it’s ideal for locals to ask themselves ‘What can I do to apply the principles of the food charter?’ There are many creative solutions out there and many people who can think of and implement them. Locals can brainstorm ideas, talk to their neighbours, figure out what skills people have, what resources are available and go from there – start somewhere and keep going. We all eat, so we’re all in this together!

Read the Waterloo Region Food Charter.

Semini is a graduate of the Environment and Resource Studies program at the University of Waterloo and a former A\J editorial intern.

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