Food Policy Councils: FAQs

Key questions and answers about creating food policy councils, building a strong base and vision.

What is a “food policy”?
A food policy is any decision made by a government institution, public agency, or commercial enterprise which impacts the variety and cost of food available in a given area or influences opportunities for farmers and other food producers. Examples of food policies include: eligibility standards for participation in food assistance programs; food purchasing guidelines of institutional buyers; or land-use policies determining appropriate use of open space.

What is the difference between a food policy council and a food systems council?
A food policy council (FPC) is generally an official advisory body on food systems issues to a city, county, or state government. A food systems council (FSC), or food system network, is generally a coalition of grassroots groups and non-profit organizations addressing local, regional, or state food systems issues. However, while this is usually the key difference, many of these councils have aspects of both of these roles, and a council may not always fit perfectly into one category or the other. The primary goal of both kinds of council is to examine the operation of a local food system and provide ideas or recommendations for how it can be improved.

What goals are pursued by food policy and food systems councils?
Both kinds of council seek to understand and assess the operation of their local food system. Food policy councils make recommendations for government actions or policies to improve it. Food systems councils typically focus on educating the public, better coordinating non-profit efforts, and influencing government, commercial, and institutional practices and policies.

Why create a food policy or food systems council?
Both can address a variety of system-wide issues not normally examined or addressed by government, public agencies or institutions, or the private sector. They can bring to the table a broad array of interested voices, examine often-overlooked issues — such as the effectiveness of food assistance programs or the root causes of hunger — and develop a comprehensive approach to finding solutions. Councils are also often able to promote local economic development, identify and implement opportunities for small and non-traditional farmers, and work with consumers, local institutions, and others on developing effective strategies for improving the local food system.

What is unique about the process used by food policy councils?
By using a “food systems” approach, the process involves a much broader set of people and issues than just by focusing on one piece of the system — for instance, agriculture, hunger, or local sourcing of food. A food policy council often includes officials from a number of government departments responsible for policy decisions affecting the regional system, e.g. Department of Health — food inspection; Human Services — food assistance; and Education — school food purchasing. Experience shows that outside of a food policy council, these officials generally have little incentive or opportunity to talk with others in government to coordinate delivery of related programs.

What kind of questions do these councils ask?
Both food policy and food systems councils create an environment in which people are able to ask questions usually not asked. It is a powerful step towards change to have a broad base of stakeholders asking questions such as: How can local food purchases contribute to public health and economic development? What can this region do to purchase more local food? How can we create more community gardens, community supported agriculture, and farmers’ markets? What can we do to address the root causes of hunger?

How are food councils created and run?
Food policy and food systems councils are both the result of long-term community efforts to create a better local or state food system. Food policy councils are formally created through an official government action such as the passage of an ordinance or a law, or the issuance of an executive order or proclamation (see Policy & Advocacy). There are many different combinations of administration and financial support that may involve a government department or agency, a non-profit organization, and/or an educational institution. Food systems councils typically create their own by-laws which formalize strong local networks or alliances among various groups. One of the member groups may administer the FSC, with financial support coming from the members, grants, and/or foundation support.

Who typically serves on food policy and food systems councils?
Membership is determined by the officials or the member organizations responsible for forming it. The goal is to have broad representation of the issues and interests of stakeholders across the food system. Typical representatives might include farmers, consumers, anti-hunger food bank managers, labor representatives, members of the faith community, food processors, food wholesalers and distributors, food retailers and grocers, chefs and restaurant owners, officials from farm organizations, community gardeners, and academics involved in food policy and law, as well as government officials.

What are the strengths of each kind of council?
Food policy councils typically have official representatives from designated departments and agencies serving along with representatives from various community groups. Food systems councils generally include stakeholders from non-profits, educational, health, and hunger agencies, and sometimes the private sector. Experience has suggested that for both types of council, the project- and results-oriented culture of the private sector is best used in helping to design and carry out specific projects. The institutional- and process-oriented culture of officials, non-profits, educational, and health groups generally work better on the visioning, planning, and advocacy work of a council.

What are some of the keys to success?
Keys to success for food policy and food systems councils include: building a firm base; developing a vision; carefully assessing your local context; choosing priorities; ensuring adequate staff support; and periodic revitalization. These interact over time.

How does a council build a base and create a vision?
Building a firm base involves building a strong initial team to help create the council, developing a workable organizational structure, and then listening to and working with the new council members to make it their council as well as yours. Developing a vision can be an important part of creating your base. This can be done through visioning sessions and helps participants get beyond “stakeholder labels” to the actual people and values involved.

What is the process of local food assessment and prioritizing?
Carefully assessing the local food system and its context is essential. This can come before or after creation of a council and is an ongoing process. It should involve all the stakeholders – whether through tours, invited speakers from different sectors of the food system, or other means. Choosing priorities is one of the most difficult tasks. It involves assessing opportunities and challenges, strategies and planning, budgets and staff and volunteer responsibilities, as well as ongoing evaluation.

How does a council build staff support?
Ensuring adequate staff support is one of the key elements in the success of a council. The amount of time staff is to work on council matters needs to be specifically determined. Staff dedicated to the vision and goals of the council are also a huge asset. Periodic staff revitalization is often neglected. One form of this is an annual retreat, where the years activities can be evaluated and the coming years brainstormed. Having a written annual report as the basis for this also helps build an organizational history and memory. Another challenge to consciously think about and address is the potential burn out of leaders and staff.

What are the costs and logistics?
The financial resources to create and operate a council are minimal. State funding is rare, and council funding may instead come from outside grants. Councils may be administered by cooperating non-profits involved in food security and small farm issues. The largest “cost” is the hundreds of hours of volunteer time provided by Council members.

What are the outcomes?
For specific examples of food policy and food systems council outcomes, see Program Profiles and Policy & Advocacy.


This content is adapted from the Iowa Food Policy Council: Questions and Answers about Food Policy Councils, with input and additions from Dr. Ken Dahlberg, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Environmental Studies at Western Michigan University.

Updated 12/2014