2010–2012: Emergence of the food profile discourse
The first signs of a food discourse emerging within Ede municipality date back to 2010, with that year’s municipal elections marking a clear starting point. For the first time, confessionalist (Christian) parties received a minority of the 39 council seats in Ede, and several new aldermen entered the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. They argued that the municipality needed a future vision to foster its development. This idea was new, as Ede had no tradition of developing overarching future visions. Policy makers from the departments of Strategy & Research and City Marketing subsequently consulted citizens, NGO’s, and entrepreneurs. These actors proposed a broad variety of ideas to improve Ede, but the board of Mayor and Aldermen were missing one overarching focus. One of the new aldermen proposed ‘food’ as the overarching focus, arguing it was both characteristic for the agri-food knowledge-intensive FoodValley region, and something every citizen could relate to. The other members of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen agreed and together they formulated the following aim: food as the focus theme to better position, and create a distinctive profile for Ede, by developing the FoodValley region into the agri-food center of Europe. When policy makers from the Strategy & Research and the City Marketing departments also found this idea a good addition to the vision, it became the core of the first food-related discourse. We label it the food profile discourse. The use of the English term food, instead of the Dutch term voedsel, was characteristic for this discourse, representing the international economic orientation. As this discourse emerged in a rather top-down way, support for it remained limited to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and policy makers from the Strategy & Research and the City Marketing departments. Consequently, though the involved actors might have occupied powerful positions, they did not succeed in conveying their ideas at this stage.
2012: The first food discourse being institutionalized in a key policy document
Following the emergence of the food profile discourse, 2012 witnessed a first institutionalization phase, when the discourse was formalized in a new municipal vision document ‘Vision 2025: Ede choses food’ (Gemeente Ede 2012). This document was officially adopted by the city council and therefore gained a politically binding status. The main ambition of the vision was broad: to become an agri-food top region with a distinctive profile by 2025, particularly focusing on the relationship between food and health, as well as the economic opportunities resulting from fostering the food sector (Gemeente Ede 2012). Shortly after, Ede won the bid to develop the World Food Centre (WFC), an interactive exposition center about agri-food, which the Board of Mayor and Aldermen used to further legitimize and advocate the food profile discourse. A clear example of the food profile discourse can be found in the ‘Vision 2025: Ede choses food’:
In 2025, FoodValley is the agri-food center of Europe. A top sector in a top region. A new economic engine for Ede. Together with Wageningen UR and many other partners we play our part. FoodValley gives Ede a unique profile within the Netherlands (Gemeente Ede 2012, 7).
At this stage, the food profile discourse was institutionalized mainly among the same departments that had been involved in shaping it. Institutionalization therefore remained limited to the beliefs of the Board and civil servants in the involved departments, while no new norms, rules or organizational innovations were adopted.
2012–2014: A critical response and a discourse shift
Soon after the vision document was adopted, the discourse opened up again, as critics, both within the administration and in the city council, argued the food profile discourse remained too abstract. A discussion emerged on the concrete goals the food vision’s ambition would translate into, and on how to operationalize these. This discussion was mainly held within two parallel groups. A newly formed municipal food workgroup was led by the city marketeer and consisted of policy makers from predominantly three strategic departments: Strategy & Research, Economic Affairs, and Communication. The second group consisted of the highest municipal managers. A variety of potential food goals were proposed, but, at its core, the discussion was about two diverging normative ideas: fostering a stronger, more innovative agri-food business sector on the one hand, versus stimulating healthy and sustainable food and short food chains on the other. A third, more cognitive idea found wide resonance among all involved actors and connected them: food as a promising tool for better connecting a wide range of siloed policy efforts.
To add focus and concretize Ede’s food ambition, actors involved in the discussion increasingly called for a specific municipal food strategy. In 2013, an intern (this paper’s lead author) and consultants from Wageningen University and Research were therefore asked to develop a strategy. They introduced the new idea of a food strategy as a holistic approach for improving the food system in and around a city, a theoretical concept originating from food policy sciences (Cretella 2016). Food system stakeholders and citizens were consulted and introduced a wide range of food related ideas. In 2014, cultural, culinary and local food ideas gained ground in this food strategy discussion, as Ede became Dutch ‘capital of taste’ that year, which led to a range of events on local food and food culture.
The food strategy process also revealed that becoming the agri-food center of Europe meant something different to actors in each municipal department, when they were consulted to synthesize the proposed ideas into main policy goals. The Economic Affairs department advocated the idea of facilitating the agri-food sector to boost the economy, the Social Affairs department advocated the idea of educating citizens with a small budget on healthy nutrition and of food education for children, and the Spatial Development department advocated the idea of more urban agriculture in neighborhoods. As the process coordinators wanted a widely supported strategy, all ideas were ‘piled up’ and no trade-offs were made. Dynamics between the departments were therefore friendly and without power struggles, with a wait-and-see mentality among actors towards this new concept of a food strategy.
The proposed ideas were so manifold and normatively varied, that involved actors agreed to synthesize ideas into the main idea of food as one crosscutting issue with a wide scope, touching upon both economic and social issues, that should be governed through an integrated approach. We call this the integrated food policy discourse. It comprised a wide spectrum of policy ideas, ranging from stimulating school gardens, to facilitating knowledge exchange between agri-food businesses, as the Ede food vision document shows:
Enhancing the economic strength of Ede: competitiveness with other cities and regions and attractiveness for companies and knowledge institutions, students, visitors (business and touristic) and (future) inhabitants.
Enhancing the social strength of Ede: enhancing meeting and connecting, strengthening the bond between city and countryside and facilitating and stimulating awareness around healthy and sustainable food (Gemeente Ede 2015, 12).
Compared to the food profile discourse, the integrated food policy discourse was less abstract, but much broader in terms of substantive scope.
2014–2015: A second and more comprehensive institutionalization phase
Following the emergence of the integrated food policy discourse, a second, and more comprehensive food institutionalization phase can be distinguished between 2014 and 2015. Upon elections in 2014, the political coalition changed. The new coalition found the food strategy important and wanted to take thorough steps to implement it. Five organizational innovations were therefore introduced: i) the position of food alderman; ii) the adoption of a politically binding food strategy; iii) the allocation of a food budget; iv) a food strategy implementation program; and v) eventually also a food team.
The position of food alderman was a direct outcome of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s 2014 portfolio negotiations, in which the Board unanimously designated food as a distinctive portfolio issue. The policy issue of ‘food’ was assigned to a newly elected alderman, which resulted in ‘food’ receiving a responsible elected official and a stable spot on the municipal agenda. This made Ede the first municipality in the Netherlands with a ‘food alderman’. The food strategy ‘Visie Food!’ was adopted by the city council in 2015, as the final product of the development process that had started in 2013. This made it one of the few food strategies in the Netherlands with a politically binding status (Sibbing et al. 2019). The food strategy reflected the broadness of the integrated food policy discourse: goals were manifold (19 goals) and differed greatly in topic and abstractness. The council also assigned a budget of several million euros to implement the food strategy over the course of 5 years. This budget was drawn from a newly created investment fund, thereby exempting the municipality from – potentially hard – negotiations about reallocating existing budgets, as the (sizable) budget did not have to be drawn from regular municipal finances. The food budget was designated to develop an implementation program for the food strategy and implement it between 2016 and 2019. The first annual food program was developed in 2015, further concretizing the strategy with sub goals and targets. The program was developed and managed by the food team, which consisted of a newly hired food program manager, a project assistant and the former intern, who was now hired as a food policy maker. The food team provided the food strategy and program with executive capacity and expertise.
Through these five governance innovations, the integrated food policy discourse gained an institutional place in the municipal organization.
2015–2016: Internal criticism on the new food discourse
In 2015 the food discourse opened up again when the food team started implementing the food program they had developed. The team sought collaboration with other municipal departments, such as the Spatial Planning department and the district social workers team. In the broad integrated food policy discourse, civil servants from several departments identified particular food governance ideas they could relate to, and adopted these in their own policy domains. However, the integrated food policy discourse also encountered resistance among many civil servants that were requested to contribute to implementing the food program. These new actors exercised their power over ideas and voiced three critical ideas: i) the food strategy is unclear, unfocused, and consists of a range of ‘piled up’ ideas, rather than a concerted whole; ii) ‘food’ is no pressing policy concern, but rather an elitist city marketing concern, dealing with issues like food festivals and the World Food Centre; iii) ‘food’ is not a municipal, but rather a national or EU responsibility.
In several ways these ideas led to civil servants not feeling ownership over issues and perceiving them as the responsibility of the food team. Primarily, as civil servants perceived the strategy to be unclear and non-urgent, they also found it unclear how food governance ideas linked to their own policy domain. This unclarity was intensified, as the actors advocating the discourse increasingly emphasized the holistic character of the food strategy over its substantial aims. As a result, it was unclear to civil servants what their role were to be in addressing food challenges and what this would imply for their own work duties and routines, resulting in a lack of ownership. This feeling was further strengthened as they felt the food team was imposing on them to address food challenges, instead of involving them in the process and providing them with the assistance and tools to tackle challenges autonomously. In most departments civil servants therefore did not support the integrated food policy discourse and did not adopt food governance ideas.
2016–2017: A discourse shift leading to the third institutionalization phase
In response to the criticism on the food strategy, the food team –meanwhile consisting of seven members– organized a discussion on the main municipal ambition regarding ‘food’ among its members and one of the top managers. This discussion led to a discourse shift, that subsequently resulted in a crucial institutionalization phase in 2017. In the discussion, the team reflected on ‘the higher purpose’ of the food strategy and explicitly agreed that improving the food system, not improving the municipality’s profile, were to be its primary goal. As a result, a new food discourse emerged, stressing the achievement of a healthy and sustainable food system for everyone in Ede, by adopting a food system’s approach. We call this the food system discourse. This discourse, initially supported by a relatively small group of actors (the food team) was subsequently institutionalized widely across the municipality through two successive steps. First, the food team formalized it in a food strategy 2.0, in which they synthesized the initial 19 food strategy goals into six concrete and concise sub goals: healthy people, healthy food environment, sustainable food consumption, short food chains, a robust agri-food sector and the use of a food system’s governance approach (Gemeente Ede 2017). This strategy was clear, as food ideas were more elaborate and explicit, including sub goals, targets and indicators. The sub goal healthy food environment for instance, was formulated as follows:
In Ede, we are creating a healthy food environment that helps people make healthy diet choices as much as possible. We focus on ensuring a healthy food supply in public facilities, food teaching at every primary school and a public space that stimulates healthy behavior. Specific examples of this include ensuring healthy food in the hospital or the sports canteen, installing water fountains at school and organizing lessons on how to tend a vegetable patch, and providing edible greenery and urban agriculture in the district (Gemeente Ede 2017).
Subsequently, civil servants in more departments, such as Public Affairs, Real Estate Management, and Rural Affairs, gradually started addressing food governance ideas in speeches, policies, and informal narratives. An attractive factsheet of the new food strategy played a key role, as it served to communicate issues and goals clearly and in this way facilitated civil servants in adopting food governance ideas. Hence, through the more elaborate and specific food system discourse, food governance ideas were being further institutionalized in Ede.
2017–2019: Focus on the continuity of integrated food policy
From 2017 onwards, awareness grew that although integrated food policy had been institutionalized to a considerable extent across the political top and key policy departments, this idea remained vulnerable to possible deinstitutionalization in the future. Organizational innovations had been in place for several years now, and food policy was gaining ground within the municipality. The continuity of these organizational innovations remained delicate though, as the investment fund (covering the resources of the food budget) was to end after 2019 and, consequently, the food budget and personnel capacity had to be reduced. As a result, in 2018 and 2019, the highest municipal managers and the food team continuously discussed how to continue municipal food policy in the future and how to prevent it from losing ground again on the municipal agenda. They introduced two ideas to prevent this from happening, that became prominent in the broader discourse. First, food was to be embedded as a crosscutting policy issue throughout the entire municipal organization, through further adoption by the existing departments. Second, Ede was to retain its acquired position as integrated food policy frontrunner, by continuing to innovate and create societal impact, and through addressing more politically contested issues, such as the protein transition, entailing a shift from meat- to plant-based diets. In 2019, the dominating food system discourse therefore shifted slightly again, focusing more on the continuity of integrated food policy in the future.