Food policy councils are emerging as a resource that brings together food activists, community members, urban planners, and local, municipal and state governments as partners in creating local food initiatives.
As communities continue to reclaim and rebuild the fabric of local and regional food systems, food policy councils are growing as a new kind of collaborative institution to move food system change from disparate ideas to coordinated action. Local food initiatives will build the deepest and broadest momentum for food system change when food activists, parents, and urban planners build public support and partner with local, municipal, and state governments. In this way, food policy councils are a important tool to gather voices, identify priorities and inform policies that keep local decision-making at the forefront of food systems.
What Is A Food Policy Council?
A food policy council (FPC) brings together stakeholders from diverse food-related areas to examine how the food system is working and propose ways to improve it. A FPC may be an official advisory body on food systems issues to a city, county, or state government, or it may be a grassroots network focused on educating the public, coordinating non-profit efforts, and influencing government, commercial, and institutional practices and policies on food systems. Such a grassroots network is sometimes referred to as a food systems council (FSC). The task for both of these models is to help the community to explore its own food system, assess community needs and priorities, and build the necessary partnerships, projects, and policy change to bring those solutions to life.
Photo: Oakland Food Policy Council
Food policy councils respond to a simple question. If food is a basic human need – on par with water, housing, and health services – why don´t state and local governments have a Department of Food?
Inequities in food access based on race and wealth have been growing for decades in the U.S. as people lose access to land and the ability to grow or even shop for food in their own neighborhoods. Yet governments do not plan for food security as they do for other basic needs such as waste disposal and transportation. The lack of coordination among government departments and private organizations leads to fragmented or even counterproductive efforts, making it even more difficult to develop lasting solutions to food system problems.
A national body that is charged with all these intersections of food access, sustainability, equity? That may be in the future. What we see in practice today is that localized collaborations have gained big strides for a more just, fair, sustainable food system. We are, after all, talking about a chain of relationships that has often come to represent an artificial distance rather than direct local producers, businesses and consumers. This is where food policy councils thrive. In their own lived environment, embedded in their own barriers, priorities and solutions.
The beginning and evolution of food policy councils
The first food policy council was founded in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982, to address some of these issues. Councils began to form around North America, including in St. Paul, Kansas City, Charlotte, and Philadelphia. These initial efforts gave visibility to the idea and encouraged others – as in Hartford, Austin, Los Angeles, Syracuse, Portland (OR), Toronto and many other cities. In areas where governments showed no great interest in creating a food policy council, communities began to establish local and regional food systems councils in the late 1990s to coordinate local efforts and put pressure on government agencies to keep these priorities on the table.
The movement has now become popular enough that there are emerging food policy councils in most states in the U.S. State FPCs have been established in Connecticut, Iowa, Utah, New Mexico, and North Carolina, among others and one has recently been mandated in New York. There are also a number of emerging state-level food systems councils, including in California, Oregon, Oklahoma, Michigan, Maine, and Colorado.
Challenges and achievements
Still, no U.S. city, state, or county has a Department of Food, and food issues continue to be embedded throughout various local, state, and federal government agencies. A food policy council at the city or county level doesn’t yet meet the vision of a Department of Food – its resources and power are usually quite limited. State food policy councils are still in their formative stages, and some have come and gone due to shifts in political and budgetary support. However, because of their ability to bring together diverse organizations and interests to develop win-win solutions, food policy councils are crucial to designing and proposing creative solutions to food system issues.
A food policy/food system council brings together new coalitions and creates an effective space for positive joint efforts. It can include anti-hunger advocates, community leaders, government representatives, farmers, grocers and food distributors, cooperative extension agents, and concerned citizens. A FPC performs a variety of tasks, from researching food production, food access, and health issues, to designing and implementing projects and policies to address those issues. The council will often conduct a community food assessment in order to better understand the region’s needs and resources. Through public meetings and annual reports, it also educates local officials, businesses, and the public about the food system.
What are some of the achievements of food policy and food system councils? In various towns and counties, they include:
- Changing city zoning laws to allow food production in urban areas
- Creating a State Food Security Task Force
- Expanding bus service to bring transit-dependent, low-income residents directly to affordable food stores
- Developing guidelines for school nutrition programs
- Promoting direct marketing opportunities such as institutional purchasing
- Establishing land use protections for Farmers’ Markets
- Developing state-wide marketing initiatives to promote locally grown foods
For more examples, see What a Food Policy Council Can Do.
A tool for collaborative, democratic food systems
There are a number of new frontiers to explore and bring into food policy and food systems work. These could include, for instance, connecting obesity-reduction campaigns to school feeding programs. There is great potential in local sourcing of fruits and vegetables – starting with community gardens and extending to urban and peri-urban farms. It’s important that local and state planners are educated about the economic and environmental importance of local food systems, which typically make up some twenty percent of local economic activity. All this must be done in the larger context of developing local alternatives to unsustainable long-distance food and agricultural systems.
Food policy councils provide a crucial forum to encourage more creative and lasting solutions to food system issues. Based on their ability to bring together diverse organizations and interests to address challenges and community needs, food policy councils can have significant influence even with modest resources. Across the country, FPCs and FSCs have been a voice for the critical role of food issues in public policy, both at the municipal and state level. Food policy councils put sustainable, fair food on the radar of local and state governments – to ensure that families can put healthy food on the table every day.