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.

Previous posts in the series:

Searching for Fit? Institution Building and Local Action for Food System Change in Dunedin, New Zealand

May 2019

 By Philippa Mackay and Sean Connelly

Food system change is complex and multifaceted. From the global to the local, concerns about health, the environment, social justice and economic development reflect diverse priorities for food system change.  While this diversity provides multiple opportunities to draw on a range of expertise and resources, it also highlights the critical role of governance in navigating competing priorities and resolving tensions. Food governance is about processes and structures of power and control around decision-making. Decisions made will influence the allocation of resources, prioritization of values, and the approaches that are taken to achieve particular outcomes. The chapter “Searching for Fit? Institution Building and Local Action for Food System Change” in, Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governance, discusses the evolving process of local food governance. In doing so, we highlight an example of how diverse stakeholders are involved in shaping priorities and processes of food system change.

The case study in this chapter is set in the small city of Dunedin, located on the South Island of New Zealand (NZ). In Dunedin, two co-evolving food system networks (one derived from civil society, the other from local government) have emerged. Concerns about the food system has resulted in multiple food initiatives to address environmental issues, food poverty, and community building. These responses have brought diverse efforts together in a systemic way.  

Timeline of activities leading to the development of Our Food Network Dunedin and Good Food Dunedin.

Our Food Network Dunedin (OFN) is a self-described grassroots organisation dedicated to stimulating the production, distribution, and consumption of local food, and in that way, contribute to building a resilience and prosperous community. The local government network, Good Food Dunedin (GFD) was initiated following the successful lobbying by OFN and others, to create a part-time position within the Dunedin City Council (DCC) dedicated to addressing issues of food resilience . The council-led food network became a formal platform to bring together diverse stakeholder who share a vision of transforming Dunedin into a thriving and sustainable food city.

The emergence of these two food networks reflect different perspectives and illustrate the challenge of attempting to collectively frame issues and advocate for solutions. For example, GFD focused on framing the problem and solutions of food through an economic and resilience lens, as this was the only way Council involvement could be justified. OFN was concerned about this overly economic focus since their primary motivation and core values are rooted in local food as a driver for bringing people and groups together to enhance local food production and consumption. Compromises were necessary by both network groups to determine the way that food system issues were framed, and various initiative supported in response. Additionally, other food system actors held the perception that these networks offered limited room to discuss food values outside of local or resilient food systems, such as food-related social justice issues. Despite these differences, local food governance has been legitimized both within local government and in the broader community as a result of the process to formally introduce alternative food initiatives into the Council’s agenda.

Food system governance in Dunedin has evolved from what was once a relatively small collection of diverse food initiatives to a more formalized network of food system actors that have firmly placed food on the public agenda through the formation of GFD. Civil society and local government relationships have been reshaped, and the creation of the formal platform for decision-making has led to positive relationships that have increased access to resources and empowered local communities to make decisions on food system change. The potential of linking these efforts to broader social movements in the city, or to reflect other framings of food system problems, such as social justice or providing for cultural food system practises, has not yet materialized. It is clear however, that the process and newly formed structures of power that have been institutionalised in local governance mechanisms, are now set up to address complex and multi-faceted food system issues more formally into the future.

Chapter Contributors

Philippa Mackay is an Environmental Consultant who works on strategic and community development projects.  Her passion lies with the implementation of sustainable practice more generally, but she has a keen interest in sustainable food system change.  She completed her Master of Planning in the Department of Geography at the University of Otago.


Sean Connelly is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Otago. He teaches courses on environmental management and his research interests are in the broad area of sustainable communities, with particular focus on alternative food systems and rural and regional development.


Chapter Citation

Mackay, P., & Connelly, S. (2019). Searching for fit? Institution building and local action for food system change in Dunedin, New Zealand. In P. Andrée, J. K. Clark, C. Z. Levkoe, & K. Lowitt (Eds.), Civil Society and Social Movements in Food Systems Governance(63-80). London: Routledge. 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.

Previous posts in the series:

Sustain ON tries to engage politicians with varying success

December 2018

By Harrison Runtz

This past summer I had the privilege of working with Sustain Ontario, a non-governmental organization that works on connecting the needs/policy asks of different stakeholders in Ontario’s food networks. Sustain Ontario’s main goal is to transform our provincial food systems into more sustainable, community-oriented forms. My work was specifically related to the provincial iteration of their VoteONFood campaign. VoteONFood is an election-based effort to inform politicians on crucial areas of policy that are needed to address food systems issues. While my work focused on the provincial level, the campaign is currently targeting prospective municipal politicians. This initiative, which attempts to spread awareness of issues brought forth by experts working in these fields as producers, academics, scientists, and others, highlighted the intensely difficult task of breaking down partisanship and spreading best practices. While the issues of knowledge mobilization are many, I’ll outline two challenges that seemed particularly pertinent to the work in which I was involved. Continue reading “Sustain ON tries to engage politicians with varying success”

Exploring Community Stories About “Fish as Food”

August 2018

Written by Kristen Lowitt

In May 2018, members of the FLEdGE Northwestern Ontario Research Node hosted a “fish as food” roundtable session at the Community Conservation and Livelihoods Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The session featured community stories on “fish as food” from the Northwest Territories to Nova Scotia. Collectively, the stories illustrate the importance of not seeing fisheries solely as an assortment of fish harvesters or fish stocks, but as part of larger food systems that provide for community sustenance, cultures, and economies. Co-organized by Kristen Lowitt and Charles Levkoe, the session builds on their ongoing FLEdGE research exploring the links between sustainable fisheries and food systems in the Lake Superior region of Northwestern Ontario. Continue reading “Exploring Community Stories About “Fish as Food””

Food systems are critical to urban resilience

By Patricia Ballamingie
July 15, 2018

Thanks to the international networking of FLEdGE PI Alison Blay-Palmer, FLEdGE researchers and partners were invited to present a panel on Building resilient food systems: Policy across multiple scales at the ICLEI World Congress 2018, held in Montreal, June 20-22.

Since ICLEI’s inception, urban resilience and sustainability have largely been framed in terms of climate change mitigation and adaption. But as food system scholars and practitioners know, food serves as a portal to those and so many other related socio-economic and environmental issues. And cities play a crucial role in achieving food security, optimizing health and advancing environmental sustainability. Food production and food access programs target predominantly urban populations; urban, peri-urban, and rural areas remain closely interrelated; and the municipal level proves the most effective and efficient for many food policies and programs to occur. Continue reading “Food systems are critical to urban resilience”

Report on the Fifth Annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum

July 2018

EAT Stockholm Food Fora have been held every year since 2014. As a “science-based global platform for food system transformation,” the EAT initiative partners with a range of foundations, academic institutions, organizations and companies. The underlying principle is that everybody on earth has the right to healthy diets within planetary boundaries.

For the first time, the 2018 forum, “Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone,” was co-hosted by EAT and the Swedish Ministry of International Development Cooperation and Climate Change and gathered more 600 participants from science, politics, business and civil society from over 50 countries. Continue reading “Report on the Fifth Annual EAT Stockholm Food Forum”