Where's the sanctioned or self-appointed body ready to represent the interests of building a robust and resilient regional food system? Food policy councils, now in place in a number of communities across the country, are an attempt to redress this common (and somewhat bizzare) oversight. Think of these groups as the big tent for food system issues at the local or regional scale.
"Food Democracy" at the grassroots level-- this is it! Food policy councils have been around since the 1970s, but they are currently more popular than ever. At their most basic, food policy councils are ideally composed of representatives from every sector of the food system, as well as food security advocates, educators, health professionals, natural resource conservationists, and others. Food policy councils generally focus on creative solutions to maintaining vibrant food systems, with an eye on food access and security, nutrition, social justice, economic development, and environmental degradation. In other words, food policy councils have both a reactive and a proactive role: identify the challenges and propose innovation.
Food policy councils can be formed at the local, county, state, or regional level. They can be appointed by a government body or simply convened and desiganted as an independent body that will serve the needs of the community without governmental oversight, although governmental interaction and influence may be primary goals. The authors of the highly informative 2009 report Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned by the nonprofit group Food First catergorize the typical functions of such councils as follows:
- to provide a forum for bringing forward food issues
- To enhance coordination among different parts of the food system
- To review and guide policy
- To create or support important programs and services geared to local communities
Implementing a food policy council at the municipal, regional, or state level can be challenging. I recenly spoke to a colleague working on developing a food policy in a highly diverse metropolitan area suffering from extreme issues tied to poverty, obesity, and a long history of racial biases. The development of that food policy council at the city level was under way, but at a snail's pace. When I asked what the problem seemed to be, the response was that the members-- even though they were elected and represented a variety of perspectives from within the regional food system-- said that they did not feel as if they sfficiently understood the components or the functioning of a food system. Another challenge was that the metropolitan area was highly fractured due to the intricacy of the internal politiacal boundaries and the ensuing difficulty in finding the authority or consensus.
Several themes should be emerging regarding the relationship between local food advocacy and policy. The first is that resource assesment is the initial stage in moving a community forward, whether the focus is on a town or a region; only then can the necessary creativity come take root in a way that safey bridges reality with potential. The second theme is that "buisness as usual" has created a highly centralized, unhealthy food system and is not the ticket home. Food policy councila and the ideas that spin out from them can comprise various componens of the community-owned vehicle: the brakes, the steering wheel, and the engine.
Without a strong food policy council, Elkhart County would have never recieved the grant from Purdue Extension to rebuild their foodshed. Overall, a huge local food advocacy is needed to rebuild the foodshed- there has to be motivaton to improve and want to become a more sustainble society.
The Goshen Farmer's Market slogan is "Eat local. Be happy." Evidentially, this organization already has a strong advocacy for eating local. Additionaly, their strong leadership with food policy has allowed them to become this successful with rebuilding the foodshed.