I couldn't help but pay attention to the recent debate on Toronto Council to ban soft drink sales from municipal facilities with a bit of both amusement and dismay.
To be sure, the policy intentions are good. But replacing sugary soft drinks with sugary juices is going to do very little to combat obesity or improve public health in anyway whatsoever. The debate appeared to be driven more by idealistic positions than any real concern over what Torontonians are consuming or where it comes from.
Of bigger concern is the fact that such policies are brought forward without the context of a more comprehensive food policy that better connects the food choices we make with overall public health and environmental objectives.
Toronto already has a Food Charter in place that sets out the framework of some basic but ambitious rights that we should be working towards. The Food Charter notes that we should be championing the rights of all citizens to adequate amounts of safe and nutritious foods, encourage community gardens, protect local agricultural lands, advocate for adequate income so that people can make healthy food choices, and support nutrition programs and better diets.
It also notes that Toronto should adopt food purchasing practices that serve as a model of health, social and environmental responsibility.
So where is the comprehensive food policy to go along with the Food Charter? And how did we end up with a such a narrowly focused and ineffectual debate on soft drinks.
Toronto and other municipalities in the GTA need to think more broadly when it comes to developing food and related public health policies. Picking on soft drink companies or banning junk food sales is easy to do but really misses the mark.
Denying people access to unhealthy food choices is only effective if it is done alongside a real strategy to make healthy food choices a realistic and affordable option for most people. This involves real municipal action, not just continued and futile attempts at regulatory solutions. Replacing soft drinks with juices (most of which have as much if not more sugar) is a lost opportunity, as was the failure of the street food debate.
Where are the actions that actually relate to the laudable goals of the Food Charter? Allowing more community gardens in our parks has proved wildly successful wherever it has been implemented. What we also need is improved infrastructure in our parks to allow people to prepare, consume, sell and trade the foods grown in them.
The growth of farmer's markets is only inhibited by the shortage of farmers to supply them. As urban dwellers we need to do a better job at understanding why farmers are reluctant to take part and provide incentives and program that make it easier for them to participate. And when it comes to healthy food choices, we need to have comprehensive policies and not knee-jerk reactions.
I think it's great that Coke will not be available at the City Hall cafe. But so what? The City still allows a french-fry truck to park at the edge of the the children's play area in High Park and promote the most unhealthy of all fast foods to my kids while spewing carbon emissions. Sunnyside Park is littered with two fast-food kiosks, including a Pizza Pizza, that offer not one single healthy food choice (even McDonald's does better than that). The issue is complicated for sure. But if we are going to take action, let's do it properly and effectively.