Federal transformation of the U.S. food system is slow. For this reason, many communities are beginning to regain control of their foodscapes through food policy councils. These civic organizations are created and controlled by local populations, and they’re designed to fill the gaps in national food policies.
Food advocates have tried for years to facilitate changes to the industry from the top down, but they’ve met with minimal success. Now, rather than waiting for food policies to meander through Congress, communities are taking matters into their own hands through the power of local organization.
Although food policy councils are currently taking off across the United States, the movement first began in Toronto, Ontario, almost four decades ago. Concerned citizens formed councils in the 1980s to facilitate conversations about the direction the local food movement was heading, and to put practices in place to address its flaws. In the past decade alone, an estimated 250 food policy councils have been established across North America. While each food policy council is working toward a different end goal, all the councils are collectively linked by an agreement that the modern food system isn’t working. These councils have the flexibility to take responsibility for the health and safety of food grown, produced, and sold within their communities’ perimeters, with unprecedented precision.
Localized food policy councils also offer a unique framework to connect community members who might not otherwise interact with each other. Farmers, food distributors, grocery store owners, food justice activists, restaurateurs, food safety officials, and even sanitation department workers are often members of their local food policy councils. Bringing together a diverse blend of a local population makes it easier to draft policies that satisfy mutual goals, which aids the process of facilitating holistic change.
There’s no single framework for how a food policy council should look, as each organization reflects its own community and the challenges that it seeks to address. Close to one-third of councils aren’t government-affiliated, while others function within an established political system. This flexibility to adapt to the strengths and needs of a specific community is the primary power of a small-scale food policy council.
Strong local leadership, a commitment to finding bipartisan solutions, and dedicated professional staff form the basis of a successful food policy council. For these organizations to see tangible results, they need to narrowly define the issues at stake and their views of success. Too much time wasted in unproductive meetings, in contrast, will only lead to burnout — and fading support.
Community-wide change often requires starting slowly and building traction over time through a “trickle up” mentality. The process might be slow and cumbersome, but the results show promise for transforming the U.S. food network, one community at a time.
Visit Food Policy Networks for more information about food policy councils. You can look for nearby councils through the FPC Map, or search “how to establish a food policy council” under the Resource Database tab for a document that specifically details how to start your own food policy council.