An interview with Wayne Roberts, reflecting on the breakthrough paradigm, social media, and entrepreneurialism.
Your book is called Food for City Building. You argue that food is a critical lever for shaping many aspects of the city, including aspects of a city that aren’t usually seen to be much related to food – such as city transportation systems and urban economic development. What led you to that understanding, and why do you make the claim that this is a “breakthrough paradigm”?
The idea of Food for City Building came as a breakthrough to me, after about eight years as manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council. It struck me as a new way to frame and position food issues in local government. Framing and positioning are two advocacy skills I try to promote in the book, because, to borrow from the old saying about good questions, a controversy well-framed and well-positioned is a controversy half-won.
All of us in food movements share an enthusiasm for food itself, and value its intrinsic potential to help people and the environment in many ways. But most people, especially most people who exercise positions of power –in other words, the people we in food movements need to influence– don’t see food as having much significance beyond its ability to satisfy our nutritional needs and provide us with the immediate pleasures associated with eating. In other words, most people in government don’t see food as their main business or their particular problem. As long as most people think that way, we’re not going to get very far putting food high on the political agenda because most people see the issues of the pleasure and physical need for food as relatively narrow and private matters, not matters of broad public policy.
I taught myself to put my head in the space of someone running a university or prison, or working in a youth recreation program, or trying to support people who are elderly, or on low income, or who are new to the country. They all think food is a problem for someone else, or a job they can farm out to someone else. As long as food was in that silo, I believed we couldn’t move an overall, holistic, food agenda. I came to the see that our future success depended on our ability to convince such people that food can help them meet their goals as managers of universities or recreation or prison programs, not our goals as advocates of food security. In other words, I was simultaneously reframing food as an opportunity rather than a problem, and as an opportunity for people in many different departments. That new lens on food was a breakthrough in the way I was able to present myself.
When I started at the Toronto Food Policy Council (TFPC), I saw my job as convincing people in other City departments or other units of Toronto Public Health (my mother ship), as well as the general public, that they should support various projects of the TFPC –the parks department should help with community gardens, for example– because that was the right thing to do for the city’s food security.
After eight years of beating my head against that wall, I realized I had to “stop selling and start marketing,” as the marketing slogan goes. While working with a team on the Medical Officer of Health’s food strategy, I realized that food could be presented not as an added burden for overworked managers of outside departments, but as a lever to make their life easier. Gardens in parks could be presented as increasing public appreciation for diversity and inclusiveness in parks, improving public safety through additional users at dawn and dusk, and so on – all for a very modest expense.
That was the genesis of the Food for City Building idea. I translated the food security agenda into a checklist that made life easier for a wide variety of people who had a different city-building agenda, as distinct from a food security agenda.
Given that cities have no formal mandate to deal with food, I think that’s the most positive and persuasive case we can make for cities to take up food issues in a bold, comprehensive and far-reaching way. If we succeed, it will be a breakthrough that will have entire city administrations get behind a positive food agenda.
Aside from reframing food issues as issues for everyone who works for or cares about cities, this is also a way to reposition how food security and sustainable food policies are seen in terms of the public interest. Anyone who wants to learn from the overwhelming popularity of public healthcare and public schools should be able to see that their popularity is due to their record of serving everyone’s interest overall – not just the needs of one group of “other people”, be those people the poor, the elderly, immigrants or any other group we can name. I think change advocates have focused far too much on the food needs of a particular needy group and not enough on the public interest and public benefits of everyone having access to better food. The concept of food for city building tries to position food advocacy as advocacy for the whole city, the public benefit – just the way education, healthcare, fire fighting and other services are seen as universal issues of direct relevance to everyone. That shift, in my view, represents a breakthrough in advocacy, a breakaway from the discourse of neo-liberalism, which treats all groups asking for government support as pressure groups, and makes no distinction between groups pushing a private interest and those promoting the public interest. Food for City Building says we are working on projects that will benefit everyone, one way or the other. Food is multi-functional, and therefore good food policy serves multiple purposes.
For people working on food issues, this shift in framing, positioning and advocacy challenges the entire mindset created by the foundational term for today’s food system, a word invented in 1954: agribusiness. The word agribusiness asserts and assumes that food is part of one isolated business sector, not an essential part of a broad culture or part of meeting an essential set of health, social, environmental and economic needs. We need to break the stranglehold of that narrow understanding of food so that people can begin to imagine the enormous possibility of food to transform both personal lives and public institutions and all of the assets we share in common – from public safety to clean air and water.
I can’t help but see that you’re very active on social media. You moderate a Linked In user group called, surprise, Food for City Building. And you also have a Twitter feed, a blogsite and Facebook page promoting Food for City Building themes. I sometimes wonder whether you should do a book called Food for Social Media.
It’s true, I’m quite taken by the social media, and believe it’s a resource that people in the food movement aren’t using to full advantage. I published (posted???) my book as an e-book, and partnered with a graphics and communication firm called Hypenotic that does work for many food-oriented organizations in Toronto because I wanted to learn with them –and wanted them to learn with me– how food advocates can best make use of the social media.
Leaving aside the tricks of the social media trade –most important of which are the ways of participating in conversations rather than broadcasting messages– Hypenotic staff emphasized that a key element of social marketing is to contribute leadership, and one way to offer leadership is to set up a place where people can discuss new ideas around food. That was especially the inspiration behind our convening the Linked In group called Food for City Building.
It’s odd that I do so much on social media because I am a technical incompetent and a technophobe. The truth is that I have just memorized certain sequences of buttons to push, and don’t really understand how these sites work. What attracts me to social media is the notion of platform. The Occupy demonstrations had a huge impact on me because they galvanized public attention and put a whole new phrase out there — the notion of the 1 per cent, which still inspires a lot of public discussions. Many people criticized the Occupy people because they didn’t have a “platform,” a body of fixed ideas and answers. But the essence of what they offered was a platform – a place where people could discuss what the big problems were and how they could be addressed.
This should be an important part of the way organizations support the food discussion. I believe food organizers should present themselves as offering a platform, rather than a fixed body of answers. In my view, such a stance respects food for what it does best in the public realm; it invites people to take their own power, personally and collectively. I try to do my little bit to promote this presence by sponsoring social media sites, and count on others with more resources and more tech savvy to do the same.
Your subtitle says the book is A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists and Entrepreneurs. What’s with that, and why don’t sustainability advocates make the list?
I don’t want to read too much into the words of a sub-title that’s mainly trying to be a bit catchy. The Hypenotic people came up with field guide because they saw it as more open-ended, and more fun and campier than a manual. I liked it because I am trying to sensitize people to the policy environment of local government and give people a way to look for, identify and be wary of certain signs. That’s more important at this stage, when about 250 food policy councils are just getting underway, and still some distance from nailing down the specifics of particular policy gains.
I call out planners in the sub-title because they’re people who are expected to deal with the city and region as a whole, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. By highlighting planners, I am driving home my point that food is about that Big Picture agenda of cities and regions.
I call out Actionists because I want to bring attention to the fact that the food scene is producing a new species of activists – Actionists who take power and responsibility by actually implementing innovations. Since 1995 –when I wrote a book called Get a Life!– I’ve been arguing that people have to do “more demonstration projects and fewer demonstration protests”. At that time, I didn’t know that food was made for just such politics and social enterprise.
Last but not least, I call out Entrepreneurs because I want to present myself as innovation-friendly, not someone who wants to go back to the old ways of doing food. I also want to present myself as business friendly and economy-friendly, despite the fact that I’m very strongly opposed to business monopolies. To be more precise, I should say I am business friendly, innovation friendly, and economy-friendly because I identify monopoly –largely foreign monopoly– control of the food system as the major barrier to an improved food system.
I also want to stress that entrepreneurship –a beautiful phrase that refers to the act of being the in- between of people and forces being brought together– is as much a force in charities, non-profits and public policy as it is in business and social ventures. People who work on food policy must become policy entrepreneurs, working between and among all the people needed to develop robust food policy.
An essential element of the human relationship to food is entrepreneurial. We are not just passive consumers of either food or government services in the food area.
Entrepreneurialism comes with the territory of human food. Infants have to engage right from the first when they breastfeed. Babies and their moms equally have to learn how to breastfeed. Our entire biological relationship to food is entrepreneurial. We have big brains and other assets because we don’t have to devote most of our bodies to hardware and instinct, and have lots of space free for open-ended software. And because we are omnivores, we have to actively search for the makings of every meal, not just chew on grass or leaves all day. Entrepreneurial relationships to food are the essence of our biology. Likewise, a healthy society and economy and culture comes from relationships, being between, being entre-preneurial.
The major ingredients of sustainability –and I do believe food projects can make a decisive contribution to the sustainability process– come from food offerings of planning, pro-active economies and entrepreneurial and relationship-based ways of meeting our needs. Sustainability is the end point of doing food and other needs right. That’s why I see sustainability as the invisible word at the end of the title.