Breaking Through the Asphalt: Food Policy Councils

05/25/2011 03:10 pm ET
  • Eric Holt Gimenez Executive Director, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

The cold spells in the U.S. and in Europe signal higher food prices again. This is bad news for the billion hungry people on the planet... and for the billion that suffer from obesity and diet-related diseases. That's because a good many of the "stuffed" are also "starved", in the sense that they are poor and cannot afford healthy food. They must survive on cheap, fast food and the foodlike substances shoveled out by the agrifoods industry. While diet-related diseases cost the U.S. health care system billions each year, the true cost of this "cheap" food, to personal, family, community and national welfare--and to the environment--is incalculable.

The foundational asphalt for the global food system, amply described and decried by food analysts like Raj Patel, Michael Pollan, Tom Phillipot, and many others, is the U.S. Farm Bill. It's passage every 5 years or so is ferociously lobbied by the biggest and baddest global monopolies on the planet (ADM, Monsanto, Cargill, etc.) Eliminating the industrial pork from this reified hunk of law is harder than pulling the transfat out of chicken nuggets. As such--barring a national food revolt--the Farm Bill will set the rules for our food systems for some time to come.

For this reason, family farm organizations, foodies and food justice activists seeking to change the way our food is grown, processed, distributed and consumed, tend to work from the ground up and the inside out, rather than from the top down and outside in. They have their work cut out for them.

Abroad and at home, the food crisis marches on. The USDA recently reported over 49 million people in the U.S. are now "food insecure." Use of food stamps is growing rapidly, and food banks are unable to tend to the record numbers of people--many from working families --who can't make ends meet. Communities around the country are faced with the pressing issues of hunger at a time when city, county and state budgets are deeply in the red, and when the food industry itself is in recession.

What is to be done until the food revolution comes? Plenty.

A recent publication from Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy describes a promising and growing response to the political and economic impasse of our nation's food systems: Food Policy Councils.

"As the food and financial crises bring fresh urgency to concerns over hunger, food access, public health, labor and economic development - citizens and governments are beginning to connect these issues back to the food system as a whole. Councils are springing up across North America to "connect the dots" between the growing number of neighborhood food initiatives and communities forging policies for just, healthy food systems."

Food Policy Councils, at the city, county and state level, inject a healthy dose of democracy in our local food systems by bringing citizens, non-profits, local business and government together. Councils have helped city and state transportation departments deter urban sprawl into local farmland and helped school districts purchase food from local farmers.

According food policy expert CFSC Food Policy Council Project Director Mark Winne, "Local governments are the testing grounds for innovative policy ideas. What state and local governments do, and don't do, has a profound effect on health and hunger. While many government departments, businesses, and advocates touch on these issues, Food Policy Councils can build platforms for coordinated action."

Some councils have sought to turn the local food system into an engine for local economic development by providing incentives for establishing healthy food outlets and food processing facilities in underserved communities. Others have encouraged health departments to promote healthier eating through menu labeling and community-wide education programs. Social service agencies have been supported in an effort to distribute nutrition benefits such as food stamps to needy households.

Though they have been around for nearly thirty years, the transformative potential of Food Policy Councils is just now being recognized. This has as much to do with the spreading food crisis as it does with the steady growth of the nation's food movements. As the report makes clear:

"What people refer to as "the food movement" is actually a collection of social movements: food justice, fair food, fair trade, organic food, slow food, food security, public health, food sovereignty, family farms... and local folks just trying to make things better... Food Policy Councils have a unique quality within this wide array of activists, advocates and practitioners: they create democratic spaces for convergence in diversity. The power of informed, democratic convergence--especially when linked to the specific places where people live, work and eat--has an additional, emergent quality: it can change the way we--and others--think."

New thinking is precisely what is needed to break through the asphalt of our failing food system.