Framing urban food strategies

london food strategyDuring the first week of the course Food health and society, the students set on to analyse Urban Food Strategies, each of the six groups having their ‘own’ city. They received classes in what ‘policy’ is and had to apply the ‘what’s the problem’ approach by Carol Bacchi. The key idea is that policies are not neutral or objective but that how the problem is represented – what is brought to the fore and what is left out – is constructed in social context. It is therefore important to ask who’s problem is represented and how discourse has intended and unintended effects.

We had an interesting afternoon with student presentations trying to compare the various ways in which different cities such as Toronto, Bristol or London present problem and solution in their Urban Food Strategies. As has been noted in the agri-food movement literature, there is much more focus on food security in the United States and Canada than in Europe and the framing of the food strategy examples of the US and Canadian cities were very much focused on alleviating hunger and access to nutritious, or fresh, or healthy food to underserved neighbourhoods. The Toronto strategy says that Toronto is ‘poised to lead the way’ as the most experienced and long standing partnership between government and civil society around food and health. Which is clearly visible if one compares how many concrete actions at neighbourhood level by the dozens of community food organisations are supported by the strategy.

However, ‘food security’ is not always what it seems to be. This became clear when looking at the fifth ‘strategic objective’ of the London Food Strategy which is also on food security. However, a close read revealed a very different framing of the problem. The fifth objective said ‘to develop London’s food security’ which turned out to be focusing on London as a food system, not on problems of unequal access to food on individual or household level. Indeed, the objective relates to worry about ‘disruption of fuel supplies, human and animal diseases’(p35) and other emergencies that can cause the chain logistics to collapse. Also Looking at who needs to become active in London formed an interesting contrast with other examples; “In 2016, London’s residents, employees and visitors, together with public, private and voluntary sector organisations, will take responsibility for the health (…) resulting from the food choices that they make” (p11). The effect that this representation produces is that every Londoner is able to make the ‘right’ choices which is not likely we learned from the other cities’ focus on access and affordability.

2 thoughts on “Framing urban food strategies

  1. Petra, thanks for your reflections here – sounds like a great course! I think this question of framing of the urban food system ‘question’ or ‘problem’ (in other words: we understand some kind of a dysfunction, but what exactly that dysfunction comprises and how we ought to think about it is another story altogether) ought be the central one in agrifood studies. I’m glad to see that it’s getting its due at WUR!

    I want to respond by suggesting, however, that we might actually problematize your final point in any number of ways. When you say that ‘food security’ is not always what it seems to be and go on to criticize London’s food system focus rather than ‘on problems of unequal access to food on individual or household level’, you imply that London’s is an equivocal understanding of ‘food security’. But isn’t everything? Are we sure what ‘food security’ ‘really’ is? Just to name the obvious, some people might argue with the contention that food security is foremost about ‘equal access to food on an individual level’ and say that in fact it has more to do with whether a nation has the capacity to produce enough food for itself (and whether and how it manages to distribute that food is another matter altogether); whether a city-region’s producer-to-consumer chain is able to function well at an infrastructural-organizational level; whether the seed pool is sufficient and sufficiently diverse; or whether a population is sufficiently independent from ‘Big Food’. I’m not (at least at the moment) arguing for or against any of these perspectives (London’s included). I’m ‘just saying’ (so to speak) that I think we should use caution in accepting your last statement at face value. In other words, you seem to have criticized London’s interpretation of ‘food security’ as two-faced and misleading. I’d just like to draw out the question more fully. For example, is there any chance that London’s interpretation is ‘more right’ than New York’s? … And so on …

    Again, thanks for your post and for underlining for us this key issue of framing!

  2. Hi Leah, Thanks for your contribution. I was caught in my own framing when reading London’s use of ‘food security’. I usually think of the definition of food security with Sen’s entitlements in mind as the ACCESS TO issue following current definitions. Close reading of London’s use however, made me realise their definition is much closer to the 1974 Word Food Summit’s one: availability at all times of adequate [london] food supply. The question in class was the effect of such framing. The effect of focus on supply is that the access issue is rendered invisible. Indeed, if one looks at who should act, it is the London consumer who is responsible for their own food habits. Hence, one cannot find anything on low-income and poverty, emergency food or immigrant’s difficulties to access food, just to name a few options that could have been problematised in a food strategy. It is either not a factual problem in London, or, more likely, not considered a problem in this strategy.

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