by Liia Koiv-Haus, Associate ASLA
Food policy councils (FPCs), fresh food alliances, food and farm networks, food coalitions—there are dozens of types of food-related groups that shape food policy nationwide. Most have one thing in common: they are diverse groups of stakeholders with goals related to improving food access and nutrition. Because food policy is such a complex, interdisciplinary field, oftentimes one sector or one level of government alone cannot tackle issues like hunger, obesity, and food safety. It takes a concerted effort by federal, state, and local governments, businesses, nonprofits, and passionate community members to keep our food system running smoothly and adapting to changes like a pandemic.
The biggest federal piece of food legislation is the farm bill, which has its origins in the Great Depression era. New machinery during WWI had boosted food production drastically. American farmers initially benefited by simply exporting their surpluses to Europe, but by the late 1920s, Europe had recovered its production and US farmers were still overproducing. The federal government stepped in and began to pay landowners directly with checks to reduce output.
The federal government provided similar relief a few years ago when tariffs on exports caused farmers to overproduce (China stopped buying commodities like soybeans). Then, in the early months of the 2020 pandemic, large amounts of food were being thrown out again, but this time neither due to overproduction nor lack of demand. Instead, food was being discarded because farmers were unable to sell their output due to the closing of restaurants, schools, and hotels (New York Times). The established supply chains were too rigid and could not adapt quickly enough to increased demand at grocery stores and food pantries. With two rounds of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program as well as the more recent December 2020 relief package, government payments to farmers added up to nearly $46.5 billion in 2020 (including farm bill subsidies).
While this money provided immediate relief to farmers, it didn’t magically revive or restructure our food system. That happened as the result of the community-based response from business owners, nonprofits, local governments, and other players. The federal government’s authority is limited to regulating food that travels in interstate commerce; states and municipalities have more authority regulating restaurants, food retail establishments, and other food businesses. Local governments and health agencies shaped their own regulations to adapt the food service industry to the pandemic: temporary patio permits, sidewalks extended into vehicular lanes, to-go alcohol containers, etc.
One reason a municipality has a large say in its food system is direct control over land use. Zoning controls land use in a city, so building local food infrastructure depends on whether zoning regulations permit it. Updating zoning codes to permit fruit trees, cottage foods (food prepared in an unlicensed kitchen), beekeeping, home gardens, raising livestock and chickens, or waiving height restrictions for greenhouses can help shape a more localized food system that is more resilient to a pandemic. Community gardens, farmers’ markets, commissary kitchens (kitchens that can be rented out), and food trucks are all uses that are being incorporated into more zoning codes. In 2013, Detroit updated its zoning code to permit urban gardens by right in all residential and business districts. More cities have followed suit in recent years. Many have moved past updating permitted uses in their codes and are creating full-on zones or conservation areas for agriculture.
Since most cities do not have a single food agency, food policy councils fill in the gaps by serving as an all-encompassing food agency, bringing various stakeholders to the table who otherwise might not interact regularly. FPCs help shape public policy around food, which includes statutes, ordinances, regulations, budgets, trade agreements, executive orders, and resolutions. Most councils try to have representatives from as many food sectors as possible: suppliers for farms, the farms themselves, manufacturers of farm products, wholesale and distribution of those products, food services, food pantries, and, more recently, composting and recycling.
What role do local and regional FPCs have in shaping legislation? Since food issues are complicated, the most successful FPCs focus on a narrow range of issues. The Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council only creates one to two mayoral advisories per year, but puts a lot of energy into those advisories. Most councils base their goals on a food assessment that reveals assets and gaps in their specific food system. For example, a city might find that grocery stores are inaccessible to residents due to geography, so they prioritize policy advocacy around improving transportation to these grocery stores or removing zoning obstacles to building a grocery store near residential areas.
The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, which provides training and technical assistance for FPCs, conducted an FPC census in 2018 and found that there are more than 300 councils in the US. 85% are less than 10 years old and about 75% are at the county, city, or regional level. The state with the most FPCs is California, which makes sense because that’s where most of the nation’s produce is grown. Councils can exist as part of government or independently from government. About 70% of FPCs have government employees participating directly in the council, reducing the need to find funding or volunteers. Most councils have community members and public health representatives, while only a few have elected officials as members. The benefit to having elected officials on a council? Communities can skip a lot of the red tape involved in calling representatives, meeting with policymakers, and commenting on draft legislation and get local policy implemented more quickly. Having elected officials on FPCs is more common in smaller cities.
One major goal of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is building resources on how FPCs can be established, complete with case studies and guides. There is no such thing as stealing ideas when it comes to food policy councils—the more best practices that are shared, the stronger our national food system will become.
Liia Koiv-Haus, Associate ASLA, is GIS Specialist/Planner II for the City of Sheridan, Colorado. She also serves as an officer for ASLA’s Landscape—Land Use Planning Professional Practice Network (PPN).