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Once at odds, diverse groups come together in hopes of influencing national food policy

Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, at Eden grocery store in Montreal on Dec. 15, 2017.

Dario Ayala/The Globe and Mail

As an activist, Diana Bronson has been known to speak out against the influence of large corporations on food policy. The non-profit she runs, Food Secure Canada, fights for access to healthy food for the country's most vulnerable populations, and as such, she's outspoken about "food justice" and power imbalances within the food system.

But now, she's surprised herself with who she's been privately meeting with over the past few months: representatives of the country's largest farming and food companies, such as the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and Maple Leaf Foods.

Read also: Inside the big revamp of Canada's Food Guide

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And what's most surprising of all: they've found themselves agreeing on most issues.

The reason for their meetings? To discuss the federal government's plan to create a national food policy. Ottawa intends to launch its policy within the next six months, but details released so far have been vague. And the broad range of issues the government intends to tackle – everything from health and the environment, to food security and boosting agricultural exports – has sparked some skepticism.

So these representatives have been taking matters into their own hands.

Over the past few months, Ms. Bronson, Maple Leaf and a hodgepodge of others – from farmers and food companies to health groups and academics – have come together to draw up a proposal for the government.

In a letter sent to Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, they've asked to form a "national food council" that would advise and assist the government in its development and implementation of the new policy.

"What the government is going to come out with, it's going to be very high level – not a bunch of detailed regulations or anything like that. It's going to be somewhat aspirational," Ms. Bronson said. The council could help give the policy "teeth" and ensure it has an impact.

The irony – that she's now fighting to help the likes of Maple Leaf have more influence – is not lost on her. But it's just as important that voices like her group's are also heard. "Frankly, speaking on behalf of Food Secure Canada, we want to be in the room where those decisions are being made."

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Anxieties surrounding the food policy have only been exacerbated by sky-high expectations. Many groups, such asMs. Bronson's, have been calling for a national policy on food for decades.

Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph, put it bluntly. "We don't want [them] to mess it up," he said. To him and the others who have been involved in the private meetings, the stakes are too high. "I don't know if a federal government is going to be interested in this topic again. Who knows?"

The issue has made strange bedfellows out of the diverse range of groups involved in food. Signatories on the letter include the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which represents hundreds of thousands of farmers, health organizations such as the Dietitians of Canada, the Canadian Organic Trade Association, as well as Maple Leaf and Food Secure Canada.

"In my professional experience, I have never seen this diverse a community come together," Mr. Fraser said. But the experience that some of these particular groups have had in the past – trying, and failing, to create national policies on their own – has brought them to the table this time around.

"The business community have been suspicious of [the NGO attempts]. Similarly, the charities and philanthropic organizations have been suspicious of the business ones."

Now that government is on-board with creating a national policy, he said, "I think we've all sort of gotten tired of being suspicious and not being able to trust each other."

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Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett said he hopes the council could ensure the policy doesn't simply gather dust on a shelf. Instead, a council could allow for continued monitoring, as well as continued discussions among the groups.

"I think there's all of a sudden been an understanding that we really have to stop and listen to what people are saying before getting defensive," he said. "We may not always agree. That may not even be the goal – always agreeing. But I think part of the goal is to make sure there's a place for different groups to air their views."

The divisions have mimicked the government's own approach. The responsibility for food is currently split between multiple government departments and ministries, including Health Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

This "siloed" approach is one of the biggest issues the group hopes that a council could help to address.

They also cited the AAFC's "tight timeline" as another reason for a council, to ensure that stakeholders have continued input. The government only began public consultations earlier his year, and plans to launch the policy within the next six months.

"There's going to be a lot of work being done to move from policy to execution," said Lynda Kuhn, senior vice-president of corporate affairs at Maple Leaf. She was responsible for first approaching Ms. Bronson at a Food Secure Canada event several years ago – much to Ms. Bronson's surprise. Those early conversations were centred on food security, but in the past year have evolved into meetings on the policy.

"It's going to involve a lot of stakeholders," Ms. Kuhn said, "So the concept behind our group is that we do have to work together."

Maple Leaf's conversations with the likes of Mr. Fraser and Ms. Bronson also played a part in the company's $10-million investment last year to launch its Maple Leaf Centre for Action on Food Security.

"Canada, the world, is facing some pretty daunting challenges that are environmentally and socially based," Ms. Kuhn said. "Food is at the epicentre of many of those challenges, and we, as an industry, have to step up."

A spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said that the department is "carefully" assessing the group's proposal to create the national food policy council.

Still, the government's own standing committee on agriculture and agri-food recently recommended the creation of such an "advisory body."

"Developing and implementing a national food policy pose a significant challenge because food policy lies at the intersection of agriculture, health, trade, environmental, economic and other policy areas," a committee report released this month read. "Building buy-in, tailoring implementation to meet the needs of all Canadians, and allowing flexibility to adapt to emerging realities will be important considerations."

As the group awaits its decision, Ms. Bronson is optimistic they'll be told yes.

"The government claims it wants to be innovative in the way it approaches governance and so on," she said. In coming together and creating this coalition on their own, she said, they've already done much of the work for them. "We're handing to them on a silver platter a great idea."​

A new version of Canada's Food Guide will be released in 2018. Here's a look at some of the recommendations of the first wartime food rules and how it compares to the most recent guide issued in 2007.
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