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Food policy overview

31-May-2010 [341]

• Sharing food in public space, by Anna Bekerman

Sharing Food in Public Space: Stories, Obstacles, A Policy Overview and Two Simple Suggestions


Anyone who is curious about the different ways that food finds its way into public space, and their many positive social consequences, can see for themselves by visiting a number of places and experiencing it for themselves. They can go to one of Toronto’s many farmers’ markets; make pizza at one of the city’s wood-burning bake ovens; attend a community event in their neighbourhood park, where local cooks serve up fresh treats; or invite a few friends and family to join them for a potluck picnic in the park.

All of these activities happen each year around Toronto. Those who take part in these activities, and have faced some of the obstacles listed below, can smile, knowing that despite roadblocks, good things are happening. Those people hoping to start up a new project involving food in public space can take heart from the precedent set by the following examples:

Farmers’ markets like the Dufferin Grove Organic Market, Riverdale Park, Trinity-Bellwoods, Sorauren, Withrow, East Lynn, Birchcliff, Stonegate, among others. Community events like harvest festivals, summer bazaars, temporary bake oven events, community campfires and potlucks.

Community gardens that bring food into public space not only by growing it there, but by bringing people together to talk about food, sample new tastes, and share ideas and recipes.

Family or neighbourhood barbeques, campfires and potlucks, whose delicious smells often attract curious passersby.


Provincial Regulations: Public health units, such as Toronto Public Health, promote healthy community initiatives such as farmers’ markets, and are responsible for ensuring that food served to the public is safe to eat. They carry out this second task by applying provincial food safety regulations.

The Ministry of Health and Long Term Care provides the food safety legislation that all public health units across the province are required to follow. The Health Protection and Promotion Act (the HPPA) outlines, among other things, the responsibilities of both health inspectors and people who plan to serve food to the public. The following is a summary of the most relevant sections of the HPPA (for the act, see Section 10 The medical officer of health’s duty to inspect food and food premises.
Section 13 The medical officer of health’s power to issue an order if there is a health hazard.
Section 16 Persons intending to begin a food operation must notify their medical officer of health
. Section 17 prohibition on sale of food unfit for human consumption
Section 18 The sale of unpasteurized milk or milk products is prohibited.
Section 19 The medical officer of health has the power to seize and/or destroy food that is deemed unfit for consumption.
Section 41 The public health inspector holds the right of entry and conducting examinations, investigations, and tests.

Under the HPPA, Regulation 562 sets out the requirements for a food premises. In 2006, an amendment was made to Regulation 562, exempting farmers’ markets and community events such as potlucks and bake sales from the Regulation, under certain circumstances. The reasoning behind the exemptions was to support both kinds of events by giving them some freedom from rules that had been written with permanent food establishments like restaurants and grocery stores in mind. In place of these rules, the ministry planned to provide more education around food safety. The exemptions read exactly as follows (for the entire regulation, see

Section 2.  (1)  This Regulation applies to all food premises except, (c) food premises owned, operated or leased by religious organizations, service clubs and fraternal organizations where the religious organization, service club or fraternal organization,

(i) prepares and serves meals for special events, and

(ii) conducts bake sales; and

(d) farmers’ market food vendors. R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 562, s. 2 (1); O. Reg. 308/06, s. 2 (1).

(3)  The exemption provided for in clause (1) (c) is subject to the conditions set out in paragraphs 1 and 2 if a religious organization, service club or fraternal organization mentioned in that clause prepares and serves meals for a special event to which the general public is invited, and hazardous food that originates from a food premise that is not inspected under this Regulation is included in such a meal:

1. Patrons attending the special event shall be notified in writing as to whether or not the food premise has been inspected in accordance with this Regulation. The notice shall be posted in a conspicuous place at the entrance to the food premise at which the special event meal is held.

2. The operator must keep a list of all persons who donate hazardous food for the special event meal and must provide a copy of that list to a public health inspector on request. The list must contain each donor’s name, address and telephone number in full. O. Reg. 308/06, s. 2 (2). In other words, as long as a public health inspector finds that over 50% of a market’s vendors are farmers, the inspector can a)carry out their powers as listed in the HPPA (above) and b)educate the food vendors on safe food handling procedures. For community events, an inspector will a) check to see if the event meets the exemption criteria, b)educate the food vendors on proper food handling techniques, and c)use their powers provided under the HPPA as necessary. Aside from enforcing the provincial laws, Toronto Public Health (TPH) provides other materials for food event organizers:

1. Temporary Food Establishment Package: This package is given to organizers of special events who have applied for a special event permit from the City’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation department (see below). It outlines some basic food safety rules around food temperatures, hand-washing, food handling surfaces, and equipment. The application also requires the event organizer to list the source, kitchen facilities used, and storage and serving plan for each dish that will be served at the event.

2. Food handler certification: This program provides training in food safety. TPH has found that there are less infringements of health regulations by people who hold this certificate. Food handler training became a by-law in 2006, at which point TPH began phasing in enforcement of the by-law, moving from highest- to lowest-risk eating and drinking establishments. At the time of writing, food handler certification was not required for food vendors at special events or farmers’ markets.

The City of Toronto has several other by-laws and internal policies that might apply to an event held in public space where food will be served. [Quick description of how by-laws are made/changed] To search the city’s by-laws, visit By-law 608 talks about what people can and cannot do in city parks. According to the by-law, the following activities require a permit: picnics with over 25 people, campfires or barbeques (except in designated areas), the sale of food or drink (or anything else), and special events.

[By-law on vending]

The Department of Parks, Forestry and Recreation has internal policies that say what people are allowed to do on PF&R property (i.e. parks, community centres, etc.). Some policies set out the procedure to follow (for example, if someone wants to start a community garden).are policies of this type for community gardens and campfires. [insert description of how policies are created] PF&R Customer Service issues permits for special events, picnics, campfires, etc. To get a permit, one needs to fill out an application form and meet the approval of the relevant city officials (eg. the local parks supervisor).

City councillors are involved in what happens in the city’s public space in (at least) three ways: First, councillors participate in by-law changes. Second, councillors may sit on committees that deal with issues around public space (eg. the Parks and Environment Committee, or the Recreation Committee), in which councillors may ask city staff to report or act on a given topic, and the public may make deputations. Third, a councillor may be approached by a community group or individual about plans to hold an event in their ward, to which the councillor may or may not give their support.


Lack of clarity around regulations

Many community food organizers we spoke with did not know how they should get permission for a project, what kind of projects were possible, or where to look for more information.

After finding the relevant policies, regulations, and forms, they found some parts were vague. For example, the Ministry’s regulations do not give clear definitions of potentially hazardous and non-hazardous foods. Event organizers will have trouble following the exemption rules without knowing for certain what foods fall into each category. The lack of clarity in regulations can also open the door to multiple interpretations of what they mean. Each food organizer is then left to contend with their local officials’ interpretation of the policy.

Event organizers also found that different sets of rules seemed to contradict each other. For example, the TPH’s Temporary Food Establishment Package does not explain the exemptions to Reg.562. A food event organizer will receive a copy of the application if they apply for a special event permit with the city, but they won’t necessarily hear about the exemptions. Even if their group could meet the exemption, they wouldn’t know, and this could limit what food they would serve, where it would be prepared, etc. Contrarily, some public health units in Ontario, like Lambton county, explain the exemption rules in their special event package.

The need for supportive regulations, policies and procedures.

Rules are unworkable when they are not created with adequate consultation. For example, a draft farmers’ market policy was developed involving very limited consultation with farmers’ market stakeholders. The draft escaped becoming official policy when a network of neighbourhood farmers’ markets insisted that the policy would not reflect how farmers’ markets actually ran in communities across the city.

The absence of policy can also become a barrier. For example, the Stonegate Community Health Centre in Etobicoke has been waiting for a city policy on bake ovens to be created for two years. Meanwhile, there are currently five bake ovens in Toronto city parks, proving that successful projects can emerge from a willingness to try things out, with or without a clear policy framework.

Veto power

During the course of our research, we have heard several examples where the city officials’ and city councillors’ opposition to community food initiatives has stopped them from happening, or caused complications. For example, regardless of the existence of local support, Good Food markets and community gardens have been refused permits because the local councillor has not been supportive.


Since public space belongs to all of us, the rules that govern it need to be functional, and to encourage people to use these common areas. Sharing food in public space is one of the best ways to enliven a place and the communities connected to it. That’s why we propose that government decision-makers: Create new rules (and review existing ones) in collaboration with community partners who have experience with the particularities of running successful community food events.

Adopt an open attitude that promotes innovation and experimentation at the community level, rather than quashing it.