Food Councils are a vital part of a community food system. They enable community members to have input into policy and initiatives that affect the local food system. Councils can also be the place to network community members who wish to engage with others passionate about the local food system. Councils can work in the nuts and bolts of the food system, such as launching a food hub, setting up a community garden or starting an urban farm project. Councils can also work in the human side of food by building consumer awareness, affecting policy, or launching a community effort around healthy eating. Food councils, or food policy councils, are a vital resource for local decision makers who wish to support a community food system. Because the Council is connected with multiple community groups, leadership can more easily ascertain the priorities of the community for local food.
Food Policy Councils
Food: it’s what’s for dinner, but it’s also a powerful economic influence, a public health concern, a social issue, and an important partaker in many of the other systems that run modern life. For each of these systems, the way food is grown, handled, distributed, and sold affects different stakeholders and impacts daily life in unique ways. Many of the laws and regulations pertaining to food are handled at a high political level, but even minute fluctuations in federal food policy trickle down into the smallest communities, affecting everything from homelessness to healthcare. Whether providing breakfast at elementary schools or banning carcinogenic meat additives, these laws are extremely important, but far removed. Individuals usually aren’t able to directly influence the politics surrounding food systems, but food policy councils provide a means through which community members can actively participate in communicating their needs and values. By definition, a Food Policy Council is a medium for collaboration among citizens and government officials with the goal of engaging individuals in advocacy to influence policy development towards ecologically sustainable, economically viable and socially just local food systems.
What is Food Policy?
The term “food policy” describes any set of governmental decisions or programs that influence the ways food is handled throughout the production process. This includes the growing, processing, distribution, sale, and disposal of food, as well as the laws and regulations designed for consumer and industrial protection. Food policies can be managed at a federal level, such as by the Food and Drug Administration or Tax and Trade Bureau, or on a local micro-level with regulations for farmers markets, for example. One example of a food policy is the approval of a “sin tax” on soft drink sales in Berkeley, California that commenced on January 1st, 2015. The ramifications of this levy, while representing a public health victory, undoubtedly proved challenging for the beverage industry, inconvenient for consumers, and most importantly, set a precedent for future policies of a similar nature.
Read this Purdue article on Food Policy Councils by Dr. Heather Eicher-Miller.
Read this article by Edible Michiana about Food Councils.
What does a food council do?
A food policy council itself consists of a group of people meeting together regularly. The individuals generally discuss current issues in the community regarding food, current needs and values, and set action-oriented goals that often involve community outreach and communication. Depending on the nature of the goals that the council develops, member activities can range from secretarial, to lobbying government officials for change. Below are a few examples of tasks a food policy council might oversee:
- Starting a breakfast or lunch program in a local school district
- Creating community gardens, gardener networks or food sharing initiatives
- Promoting or initiating emergency feeding programs such as soup kitchens or food banks
- Organizing farmers markets
- Launching food hubs
- Advocating for healthful eating as a means for combatting obesity or associated diseases
- Helping increase access to food in food desert areas in a variety of ways
- Encouraging nutrition education in schools and communities
- Supporting local food processors
The goals and projects of food policy councils vary according to the needs of the community as well as the resources available. Food policy councils may also either receive direct input from or collaborate with local non-profit organizations, schools, community centers, churches and other groups.
Benefits of a Food Council in your community
Food policy councils serve as a means through which individuals of different interests and expertise are able to connect with each other through a common purpose: reforming today’s food system and garnering a closer connection between government policymakers, food producers, and consumers. These groups create a network through which ideas can be mobilized, which would be otherwise impossible on an individual basis. A food policy council is a community-powered, needs/values based think tank in which individuals are connected with the resources necessary to materialize solutions to food-related issues in a community. The following are a few of the key benefits are resources made available through food policy councils:
- Collaboration with community leaders and experts in various agricultural fields
- Connection to government policymakers
- Lobbying manpower for soliciting change
- Access to support (social, economic, etc.) for idea implementation as necessary
- A medium for voicing needs, values and concerns
- An opportunity to discuss pressing issues and receive feedback about current initiatives, often directly from the source
Food Councils in Indiana
Mission: To increase and preserve access to sustainably produced, locally grown, healthful food for all residents in Monroe and surrounding counties.
Elkhart County Foodshed Initiative
Mission: A collaborative approach facilitating the development of a more sustainable food system that improves food quality and food security for all.
Evansville Area Food Council
Mission: To create a quality, equitable, and sustainable food system based on community agriculture that fosters the local economy and, through policy, advocates for low food security populations.
Fort Wayne Food Council
Mission is under development. Links to their meeting notes are above.
Indy Food Council
Mission: To improve access to healthy and local food across all ages and demographics; expand the market for local food, both supply and demand; increase the availability and effectiveness of community-based programming to improve healthy eating habits.
Johnson County Local Food Council
Mission: To implement a thriving local food system that ensures access to healthy, affordable food through Education, Outreach and Strategic Relationships.
Northwest Indiana Food Council
Mission: We’re a multi-stakeholder alliance that builds a just, sustainable, and thriving locally-oriented food system for all in Northwest Indiana through networking, education, advocacy, and projects.
Food Councils Nationally
Every other year, the John’s Hopkins Center for a Livable Future surveys food councils across the U.S. and creates a report. If you would like to learn more about trends, missions, food council work and other fantastic information, please check out their 2016 report online.
There are two excellent resources for food councils as you develop or continue the food system issues in your community. Mark Winne’s online resource, Doing Food Policy Councils Right, is an excellent read for anyone on your committee.
The Johns Hopkins, Center for a Livable Future Food Policy Networks Project has many resources online for you to learn about food policy councils. Webinars, readings, research and information are readily accessible in their resource database.
If your food council is seeking language and examples for municipal zoning for Urban Agriculture, see this guidebook from Iowa State.
Training and Professional Development
If you are an Extension or community development professional, Purdue Extension and Michigan State Extension have an online professional Development Course, Supporting Local Food Councils. See this video to learn more about this free course, or register online to see the course content. Take as much of the course as you need, but if you want to earn a Certificate of completion, be sure to take the quizzes and all the modules!