So, what exactly are food policy councils?

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Food policy councils are developing at a very fast pace across the world. In the United States and Canada, the Food Policy Networks project, from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, carries out an annual survey of Councils to better understand who they are, what they do, and what they need.

Where do they come from?

In 2016, the survey included 324 food policy councils across the USA or Canada. The county level is the most common jurisdiction of food policy councils in the US, whereas the city/municipal level is most common in Canada. Less than 20 active Councils existed in the US and Canada prior to 2000. This shows a huge growth in the number of councils over the past few decades. According to Karen Bassarab and Raychel Santo, who carried out the most recent survey with Lily Sussman, this can be due to a number of factors. These include the local food movement in the USA, federal funding that was available in the period for local food issues, and also an increase in interest for local action to tackle global challenges.

In both countries, non-profit or grassroot coalitions are the most common organizational structures for food policy councils. They have varying degree of interaction with local governments. Only 2 out of 10 are directly housed in government. However, even when they are not hosted by government, Food Councils have close connection with it. For example, government employees can be members of the Council, or the Council can receive support from the local or state government, or government officials can even appoint members of the Councils. A quarter of Councils reserve some of their seats for government officials. Only 9% of Council stated that they did not have any connection to government. According to the researchers, some councils are keen to preserve their independence from local government, in order to protect themselves from political changes.

What do they do?

Activities of food councils typically include coordination of food actors, networking and information sharing activities. The researchers point out that this is a very important part of their activity, even if it does not get valued as it should by traditional evaluations that focus on quantitative data.

A last area of action is advocacy, or, in other words, putting food on the local or state government’s plate. 38% of councils state that they need to engage elected officials a great deal to carry out their mission. For instance, councils can campaign to ensure that civil servants within government are dedicated to food issues.

The three main areas of focus for food policy council work that come out of the survey are: healthy food access, economic development and food procurement. Planning and land use issues also feature high on their priority list. On the contrary, food labor and environmental issues are less commonly addressed topics. According to the researchers, over the years, as councils mature, the more settled ones start to tackle more difficult issues, beyond urban agriculture or food access, such as food waste or labor rights.

What do they need?

The Councils were also asked about what they need to carry out their work. This is particularly interesting for cities or grassroots organisations that want to set up or support a council.

The survey shows that after having grown fast, councils now need to reinforce their ability to impact community and policy development. Such networking and policy changing work takes time, researchers say, and bringing together all of the food stakeholders can be a victory in itself. Therefore, support should be consistent over the years.

Councils are also facing the organisational issues faced by any organisation that heavily relies on volunteering and in-kind donations. Only around 20% of them have at least one full-time paid employee.

When asked about what technical assistance they would need, councils ask for more assistance on policy training, communication (especially with elected officials) and fundraising. Indeed, a majority of them are still relatively small, with 64% having a budget of 10,000 dollars or less a year.

Providing such support will be key to sustaining the development of Food Policy Councils in the future and ensuring their impact on local food systems.

Source: Sussman, L., Bassarab, K. (2016), Food Policy Council Report 2016, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Food Policy Networks

Albane GASPARD – September 2017

NB: the author would like to thank Karen Bassarab and Raychel Santo for their inputs and comments.

Picture credits : Pixabay


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