Multi-Sectoral Perspectives on Regional Food Policy, Planning and Access to Food: A Case Study of Waterloo Region
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There is increasing interest in linking food system policies and land use planning practices to healthier diets and healthier communities. Little is known about the process of regional food system policy making or the impact of planning and policy decisions in shaping community food environments, including healthy retail opportunities. The Region of Waterloo’s (ROW) Regional Official Plan (ROP) was adopted in 2009 and includes a progressive commitment to support the regional food system through actions to facilitate access to healthy, local food. The policies point to the multiple health, environmental, and local economic benefits of a strong and diverse regional food system and include efforts to: protect the Region’s agricultural land; permit a full range of agriculture- and farm-related uses on agricultural land (to support farmer viability); provide a mix of uses, including food destinations, within close proximity to each other; permit temporary farmers’ markets; and support community and rooftop gardens. The purpose of this research was to examine Waterloo Region’s policy and planning environment as a case study for ‘what works’ with respect to potential points of intersection for improving public health goals and addressing other community priorities. This was achieved by obtaining multi-sectoral perspectives on the ROP’s regional food policies, current food system planning practices at the local level, and access to food. The objectives of this research were: (1) to examine the process of food system policy making in Waterloo Region through multi-sectoral perspectives and to identify the key contextual factors, facilitators and barriers at the individual-, organizational- and system-levels; (2) to identify current planning policies and practices that affect the location, promotion and establishment of healthy retail outlets; (3) to describe the role and motivation of new and existing regional food system participants, including the Region’s Public Health (PH) and Planning (RP) Departments and other key food system stakeholders, in contributing to food system change; and (4) to develop a conceptual framework to illustrate the process of food system policy making and features of food system change at the regional level. In-depth, semi-structured interviews (n=47) were conducted with regional decision makers (n=15); regional and local staff experts in public health and planning (n = 16); and regional food system stakeholders (n=16). Food system stakeholders included local food producers, retailers and distributors, and representatives from other levels of government and community interest groups. Participants were recruited primarily through expert and snowball sampling and a Project Advisory Committee (PAC) was established with academic experts and representatives from PH and RP to help guide early stages of recruitment and research. Two interview guides were used and adapted from earlier tobacco policy work in the Region. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim and constructivist grounded theory methods were used to code and identify emerging themes from the data. Key overarching themes and sub-themes related to food system policy making and food system change included: “strategic positioning” and its underlying sub-themes of “aligned agendas”; “issue framing” and “visioning” which emerged as important ways to influence and affect policy and environmental change. The significance of “local and historical context”, “partnerships”, “multi-sectoral participation” and “knowledge transfer” also contributed to an improved understanding of food system change in Waterloo Region. “Legitimacy” was noted to be a concern in the absence of an appropriate mandate to address food system issues however by engaging in “partnerships”, one’s ability to participate ‘legitimately’ in food system change improved. An important finding was that “food access” had different meanings to participants and may reflect the various lenses through which local food system concerns are viewed. A number of key facilitators of food system policy making were identified and included: food system champions; politically astute leaders; a common issue frame; a collaborative partnership between PH and RP; external partnerships with the community; and food- and agriculture policy networks. Several key barriers to food system policy making included: new areas of practice for PH and RP staff; limited capacity to act without committed partners; inter-jurisdictional relations and tensions with municipal planners; and dominant ‘cheap food’ values. Local-level barriers affecting healthy retail access related to gaps in regional food system coordination and legislative planning support and pointed to an important disconnect between the Region’s vision for the regional food system and the current planning realities at the municipal level. Early signs of policy and environmental change to improve access to healthy food can be seen as evidence of PH’s commitment, groundwork and capacity building efforts over the past decade and their strategic alignment with other regional priorities and partners. These findings can be used to support ongoing community planning considerations in Waterloo Region and to inform similar food policy and planning initiatives in other jurisdictions. A G.E.N.E.R.A.T.E. Change Model was developed as an 8-Step guide for multi-sectoral collaboration and policy and environmental change at the regional level. Steps include: (1) ‘grounding the work’ (groundwork); (2) engaging multi-sectoral stakeholders; (3) negotiating positions and partnerships (establishing legitimacy); (4) exchanging knowledge (ideas and policy options); (5) recognizing points of intersection for policy and environmental change options; (6) aligning agendas, establishing a common issue frame, and setting a vision for change; (7) transferring expert knowledge to decision makers; and (8) evaluating policy and environmental change. At a time when there is mounting interest and consideration of possible food policy strategies at federal, provincial and regional-levels in Canada, findings from this research serve as an important example of how multiple cross-sectoral benefits can be achieved through coordinated and collaborative action.