Food Policy Councils in the U.S.

by Anna Speck

A food policy council, which can be either government-commissioned or a grassroots effort, is defined by as an “organized group of stakeholders from various sectors that works to address food systems issues and needs at the local (city/municipality or county), state, regional or tribal nations levels though policy. The council may be sanctioned by a government body, or it may exist independently of government.” Having an official, comprehensive food policy council is beneficial for communities across the United States. These councils provide a structure for local research, interventions, and policy recommendations for improving people’s access to nutritious, healthy, and culturally appropriate food, decreasing diet-related chronic diseases, and alleviating food insecurity. 

Food policy councils have proven to be effective for changing the way food systems operate, focusing on sustainability, improving the local economy, increasing services, and strengthening a sense of community in underserved areas.

The Knoxville-Knox County, TN Food Policy Council is one such organization. Commissioned by the Knoxville City Council, it came into effect on July 1, 1982, and has four people in charge of organizing the quarterly meetings, with many others working to create change in the county. The main work of the Council is researching and producing reports and resources to help citizens in underserved areas access healthy food options and allow the city council to determine what types of policy change would be most effective. It is important to note that this council creates recommendations through the lens of eliminating systemic racism and redlining, which have created many ongoing problems in the local food system, especially in the once-thriving Black community of East Knoxville. Their Food Insecurity in Knoxville’s Public Housing Community: Engaging Residents as Co-Creators of Change (2022) report and the Food Pantry Best Practices: Centering Client-Choice, Dignity, and Equity (2022) report highlight the individual- and community-centered tactics they are using to ensure that as many people as possible are engaged and on board with the council’s plans for change.

This type of community-centered work is common in food policy councils across the country. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC) provides a great example of the work these councils can do to improve the state of the local food system. Their work impacts food insecurity, small businesses, and local producers, and results in reports that determine where needs are not being met by current policy. 

The LAFPC’s programs to expand CalFresh (The California-specific version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are multifaceted and work in concert with their other programs. For example, their Farm Fresh LA program – targeted toward small businesses – connects farmers to corner stores in underserved neighborhoods while also providing a nutrition incentive program that allows people who make a $5 CalFresh purchase to receive a free produce bundle valued at $20. This type of program hits all aspects of sustainability. Socially, it is improving fresh, healthy food access for CalFresh users and ensures that small businesses can continue to operate. By helping to localize the food system, it is reducing transportation emissions and giving consumers more of a choice about where their food is coming from. By doing those things, Farm Fresh LA helps small businesses succeed and helps people who would otherwise be unable to access fresh, nutritious food.

Other actions commonly taken by food policy councils include unifying the work done by non-profits in their cities and states. Having a central council where government agencies, community-based organizations (CBOs), and non-profits can collaborate eliminates duplication of effort and allows for the  efficient allocation of funds. This is especially evident in Massachusetts, which has both a state-wide food-system collaborative and local food policy councils throughout the state, all of which come together monthly to determine what actions have been taken locally and what else can be done through either local or state-wide legislation. 

The MA Local Food Action Plan lays out goals to localize the food system and make it more resilient, sustainable, and accessible to previously under-served areas in Massachusetts. It has also led to more local community food assessments, which are the result of surveys about residents’ views on the food environment, and their food shopping behaviors; and/or food action plans. The state-wide collaborative provides resources for towns and cities to create a local food policy council if they do not already have one, information about advancing their councils once they have been established, and information about recent legislation and workshops for building advocacy skills. The work being done at the local level in concert with the food system collaborative is an example of a structure that could be adopted by more states and/or counties to support and unify local initiatives.

Local food policy councils typically work with local CBOs and non-profits to achieve local goals while also influencing local policy.  The creation of Food Action Plans, like the one for Massachusetts and the Denver Food Vision and Action Plan for the city of Denver, CO, create clear and concise goals for food policy and system changes, identify needs, and create initial plans for change as a result of community food assessments. The action plans allow other working groups and nonprofits to distribute the work that needs to be done in such a way that there is minimal overlap. This means that funds can be allocated fairly and efficiently to facilitate each goal. 

The Rhode Island Food Policy Council outlines this concept well: they have both regional organizations that can provide local assistance and partnerships that are working with them  to achieve their goals. For example, the core partners in their Food, Climate & Environment Work Group include organizations like the American Farmland Trust, the Brown University Institute for Environment and Society, and the City of Providence Sustainability Office, while the Food Business and Economy Work Group has partners including the RI Small Business Development Center and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

New York City’s organizational structure for food policy currently includes the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy, the Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture, a collective of non-profit organizations, community-based organizations (CBOs), other food-system stakeholders known as the NYC Food Policy Alliance, and the NYC Regional Food Working Group (sanctioned by the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy). The NYC Parks Greenthumb is also working to increase the number and improve the quality of community gardens throughout the city. Each of these organizations is doing important work to combat food insecurity and diet-related chronic diseases, and food policy in general has come a long way in the past twenty years. However, without  a central council, it can be challenging for community members to understand exactly where there is a need in the food system, and efforts may be duplicated, which can also create a waste of limited resources. 

Since the establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy (MOFP) by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2006 with Benjamin Thomases as the director, food policy in NYC has changed significantly. Bloomberg made food policy and sustainable food systems a priority throughout his mayoral run, starting in 2003 with his extension of the SNAP recertification period for seniors, and in launching a four-month fruits and vegetables prescription pilot program in 2013. In September 2019, Kate Mackenzie was appointed executive director, by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who introduced the first 10-year Food Policy Plan, “Food Forward NYC,” whose goal was to create a more “racially and economically equitable, sustainable and healthy food system for all New Yorkers that addresses the profound social, economic, health, and environmental challenges currently facing [the] city.” This plan is similar to the action plans created by food policy councils in other cities in that it outlines areas of need and sets forth a comprehensive plan for achieving a more equitable and sustainable food system.

The Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture (MOUA), newly established in September of 2022 by Mayor Eric Adams, is an effort to increase local access to and production of fresh food, and to strengthen climate resiliency for NYC’s food system. The work of the MOUA would be valuable to a NYC food policy council because it addresses improving the resilience of the food system through increasing local production of food. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the city’s food system was severely impacted. Access decreased as costs increased, overtaxing food banks and other emergency food resources. More local agriculture would create a bigger buffer for future emergencies, and improve climate resiliency. Per the Mayor’s Office of Urban Agriculture: Cultivating Urban Agriculture in New York City 2023 Report, ground and rooftop gardens are mitigators for stormwater and would help prevent flooding as severe weather becomes more prevalent. Additionally, they provide banks for carbon sequestration, an important tool for reducing carbon and greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

A food policy council would not make the current mayoral offices obsolete. Specific working groups are common in the organizational structure of food policy councils and would be especially necessary in New York City because of its large population and wide variety of needs. The Office of Food Policy might become more specialized, but its work up to this point has been incredibly valuable and would contribute significantly to decisions made by a food policy council. If anything, the work being done by these offices would be even more valuable with the establishment of a food policy council, because they would be able to continue the work they have already been doing and gain more clarity on how to collaborate most effectively and efficiently with nonprofits and other city agencies. Providing a central structure for organizing and advocacy would spur more action and help draw government attention to more specific areas of need while also helping neighborhoods in the city to conduct their own community food assessments and have a voice in determining local priorities for policy change.

Edited on 3/6/24 at 9:20am to correct Food Policy Networks’ link and food policy council definition.

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