Food Policy Leadership at the Local Level

Local leadership on food – or lack of it

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 7th July, 2012

A few weeks ago the City of Melbourne endorsed its inaugural Food Policy, following two rounds of extensive community consultation that took place from October 2011 to April 2012.

Motivated by concerns of individual and community health and well-being, social inclusion and environmental sustainability, this policy is a landmark initiative at the local government level in Australia. It marks another stage in the embrace by growing numbers of councils of food as core business.

Local governments such as the Cities of Melbourne, Maribyrnong, Darebin, Yarra and Port Phillip are now the trendsetters in progressive and integrated policy development on food in Australia. For them, gone are the days when all councils dealt with were ‘roads, rates and rubbish’.

The City of Melbourne’s Food Policy starts from the recognition that there are key drivers – a changing climate, and growing constraints on the availability of key resources (oil, land and water) – which, combined with increasing demand for food with a growing population, ‘mean that we can no longer take our food supply for granted’.

city of melb logo

Contrast this acknowledgement of the facts of basic physical reality, with the comfortable assumption underpinning the Federal Government’s development of the country’s first National Food Plan: ‘Australia is food secure’.  Why? Simply because, in gross volumes, we export three-fifths of what we produce. But we don’t produce enough fruit and veg for a healthy diet for the whole population, so already we have a food import-dependency.

Like other pioneering local governments in this area, the City of Melbourne’s Food Policy recognises the multifunctionality of food and agriculture; and not simply as a set of numbers on a trade balance sheet. The policy identifies the many groups – low income households, older adults, people with a disability, refugees and migrants, and the homeless – who struggle each day to eat well. It recognises that these disadvantaged groups will likely face further ‘food stress’ if, as expected, climate change and resource constraints cause food prices to rise.

The aim of the policy is ambitious: ‘to improve people’s health and well-being by promoting a food system that is secure, healthy, sustainable, thriving and socially inclusive’. The Council recognises that achieving this goal is the work of everyone, and identifies its own role in five areas: education and community development; leadership and advocacy; building and strengthening partnerships; regulation and infrastructure management; and research.

The City of Melbourne is now starting work on an Action Plan to implement the policy. It will be interesting to see what it comes up with; and I will be following this closely.

Coffs Harbour has had, as some people know, a Local Food Alliance (LFA) for the past four years. In 2009, the LFA released a draft Local Food Futures Framework, intended to guide inform and guide council and community action in this field over the coming years. This Framework identified many of the same drivers of change, and vulnerabilities in the regional food system, as the City of Melbourne’s Food Policy. Its vision was of ‘the Coffs Coast region as a showcase sustinable local food economy that supports and sustains healthy, connected, strong and resilient communities, who activiely care for each other and their environment.’

It set out a ‘road map’ for action, and identified a number of strategic priorities. Many education and awareness-raising actions at a grass-roots level have been carried out by the community gardening groups affiliated with the LFA in Coffs and Bellingen.

What’s lacking, however, has been a strong strategic commitment to the LFA and the Food Futures Framework from the elected officials and upper echelons in Coffs Council. Unlike the City of Melbourne, Coffs Council has no Food Policy, despite all the groundwork – and the paperwork – being laid some years ago by the LFA. Unlike the City of Melbourne, Coffs Council has not assumed any leadership or advocacy role in this area, preferring to devolve those responsibilities to time-poor community volunteers. This lack of commitment is disappointing, to say the least; and we’d hope for more strategic vision and leadership in this vital area from the new Council.