From Local Food Actions to Systems Change: Experiments in Social Movement Governance through the National Food Policy in Canada

May 2019

By Charles Z. Levkoe and Amanda Wilson

Over the past decade place-based alternative food initiatives have had a range of successes in their aims to promote healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems. More recently, these initiatives have become part of diverse networks that connect a range of actors across sectors, scales and places. Many of these movements in Canada have adopted a vision and goal of food sovereignty that aims to put control of food systems in the hands of communities and to change the dominant power structures of food systems, based on the experiences of farmers, fisherfolk and Indigenous peoples. Despite a growing interest in food networks, little attention has been given to how these movements engage with governments to scale-up experiences and learnings from local projects to impact related policy while also maintaining goals of social, ecological and economic justice.

In our chapter, “Policy Engagement as Prefiguration: Experiments in Food Policy Governance through the National Food Policy Dialogue in Canada”, in Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governancewe explore the efforts of social movement organizations to promote empowerment and food systems transformation through engagement in government-led policy making processes. We ask how social movements can advance food policy, while also modeling alternative food futures through processes of policy engagement. We pay particular attention to the ways that different aims of organizations coexist, teasing out the tensions, possibilities and the overall complexity of their interactions.

To illustrate these opportunities, we draw on a case study that examines the engagement of a diversity of social movement organizations in the development of a Food Policy for Canada between May and September 2017. Initiated by the Federal Government, the Food Policy for Canada consultation period included the participation of a wide range of different stakeholders to establish a national vision for the health, environmental, social, and economic goals related to food. Both in response, and alongside this policy consultation process, Food Secure Canada (FSC), a pan-Canadian food movement alliance, led a series of activities involving more than 70 member and partnering organizations in an attempt to model participatory food governance and strengthen the capacity of Canadian food movements.

Representatives of food movement organizations pose with then Minister of Agriculture and Agrifoods Lawrence MacAulay following the Ottawa Food Summit June 2017
Representatives of food movement organizations pose with then Minister of Agriculture and Agrifoods Lawrence MacAulay following the Ottawa Food Summit June 2017

We draw on the concept of prefiguration (i.e. putting into practice the desired future in the present) to explore how food movement organizations negotiate and maneuver within the complex terrain of government-led policy building, simultaneously being grounded in current realities while working to create alternative food futures. Using this perspective, the end goal is not whether policy was affected, but a focus on the processes of collective action. Our research uses primary document analysis, participant observation and reflects on our personal experiences being involved in this work.

We argue that social movement networks have an ability to prefigure collaborative processes of engagement to advance policy change while strengthening social relationships, deepening their knowledge and advancing collective strategies for change. Our findings show that, while FSC and its partners attempted to prefigure grassroots, democratic processes that embedded social and ecological justice into policy, this process was at times complicated by limited resources, conflicting ideals and power dynamics at play. Despite efforts to the contrary, these kinds of activities risk limiting a more radical and visionary politics by pressuring social movement actors to prioritize language and approaches that fit within pre-existing government frameworks and are most easily translated into policy. However, participants were under no illusions that a government-led food policy making process would be transformed into a tool to achieve food sovereignty, rather they saw the policy-building process as a strategic opportunity to address both short and long-term challenges in Canada’s food system.


Charles Z. Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Food Systems in the Department of Health Sciences at Lakehead University. Charles’ community-engaged research uses a food systems lens to explore connections between social justice, ecological regeneration, regional economies, and democratic engagement.


Amanda Wilson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Innovation at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada. Her research is focused on food movements and alternative food networks, cooperatives, and collective organizing, and questions related to prefiguration and enacting a politics of possibility.




Levkoe C.Z., and Wilson, A. (2019). Policy Engagement as Prefiguration: Experiments in Food Policy Governance through the National Food Policy Dialogue in Canada. In: Andrée, P. Clark, J.K., Levkoe, C.Z., Lowitt, K. (Eds.). Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance. Routledge, Series on Food, Society and Environment. DOI:

The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from the open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.

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