Food Policy Councils: Lessons learned

Alethea Harper, Alison Alkon, Annie Shattuck, Eric Holt-Giménez and Frances Lambrick | 12.01.2009

2009, Development Report No. 21

Executive Summary

As the food and financial crises bring fresh urgency to concerns over hunger, food access, public health, labor and economic development—citizens and governments are beginning to connect these issues back to the food system as a whole. Councils are springing up across North America to “connect the dots” between the growing number of neighborhood food initiatives and communities forging policies for just, healthy food systems.

Food Policy Councils act as both forums for food issues and platforms for coordinated action. The first Food Policy Council started in 1982 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Since then Food Policy Councils have been established at state, local and regional levels across the county. Some have remarkable success stories. Others have failed, disbanded, or spun-off into other service and non-profit organizations.

What lessons can be taken from North America’s three-decade experiment in formulating local food policy? Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned is an assessment based on an extensive literature review and testimony from 48 individual interviews with the people most involved in Food Policy Councils.

Local and State Food Policies

Local and state governments are the testing ground for innovative policy ideas that often become part of the national norm. They are also the places where we as citizens and well-informed organizations can have the most influence. Food Policy consists of the actions and in-actions by government that influence the supply, quality, price, production, distribution, and consumption of food. What government doesn’t do, whether by design or neglect, is as much a policy as a specific action like a city regulation that prescribes the location of farmers markets or a state statute that protects farmland.

The central aim of most Food Policy Councils is to identify and propose innovative solutions to improve local or state food systems, spurring local economic development and making food systems more environmentally sustainable and socially just.

Instead of one single place where one might address the wide range of “seed to table” items that make up our food system, food work is spread across numerous governmental departments and functions. City and state transportation departments, for instance, can promote or deter sprawl, which affects farmland, and make it less difficult for people who depend on public transportation to reach a supermarket. Local school districts can purchase food from local farmers, restrict access by students to vending machines that dispense unhealthy food, and increase food education to promote healthy eating behaviors. Economic development officials can provide incentives to developers to locate supermarkets in underserved areas, assist with the establishment of food processing facilities and other infrastructure, or more generally account for the contribution that food and farming make to their local or state economies. Health departments can promote healthier eating through menu labeling or community-wide education programs, and social service agencies can distribute nutrition benefits such as food stamps to needy households. But these and other governmental institutions are not typically linked to each other around a common food system vision or set of goals any more than they are linked to the private sector. While his kind of “silo-ing” can lead to numerous dysfunctions, it also offers enormous opportunities to pursue coordinated and comprehensive food policies once an effort is made to connect the “silos.”

Why Food Policy Councils?

For decades, the failings of our food system have been seen as isolated problems, to be dealt with by a fragmented array of government and non-governmental agencies at the state and local level. Until Food Policy Councils, these failings were largely being treated separately. Food Policy Councils began as a way to address the food system as a whole, often bringing the weight of local, county or state government behind grassroots initiatives. Food Policy Councils work across sectors, engaging with government policy and programs, grassroots/non-profit projects, local businesses and food workers. Instead of many advocates working on the isolated symptoms of a failing food system, Food Policy Councils attempt to establish platforms for coordinated action at the local level. In fact, most of the councils we spoke with were created at the behest of community organizations that identified policy barriers to their work, and pushed for a Food Policy Council to create a context to better facilitate their activities.

What is a Food Policy Council?

A Food Policy Council (FPC) consists of a group of representatives and stakeholders from many sectors of the food system. Ideally, the councils include participants representing all five sectors of the food system (production, consumption, processing, distribution and waste recycling). They often include anti-hunger and food justice advocates, educators, nonprofit organizations, concerned citizens, government officials, farmers, grocers, chefs, workers, food processors and food distributors. Food Policy Councils create an opportunity for discussion and strategy development among these various interests, and create an arena for studying the food system as a whole. Because they are often initiated by government actors, through executive orders, public acts or joint resolutions, Food Policy Councils tend to enjoy a formal relationship with local, city or state officials.

The central aim of most Food Policy Councils is to identify and propose innovative solutions to improve local or state food systems, spurring local economic development and making food systems more environmentally sustainable and socially just. To this end, FPCs often engage in food system research and make policy recommendations, and can even be charged with writing food policy. Because no U.S. cities or states have agencies devoted explicitly to food (and since there is no federal “Department of Food”), FPCs can improve coordination between government agencies whose policies influence the food system. FPCs can also give voice to the concerns of various stakeholders and serve as public forums for the discussion of key food system issues. In this capacity, they help to ensure that food policy is democratic and reflects the diverse needs and perspectives of the food system’s various constituents. They can also help to build relationships between government, non-profit and private sector organizations. Additionally, Food Policy Councils often play an active role in educating policy makers and the public about the food system.