In a growing number of communities, food policy councils (also called “food system alliances”) have emerged to address gaps in local policies that focus on food. Most communities have transportation, housing or land use policies, but food policies are frequently missing. Food policy councils (FPCs) are an important way to bring community members together with local government to promote the social, economic and environmental health of local and regional food systems. According to a Food First report, “Food Policy Councils act as both forums for food issues and platforms for coordinated action.”
A team of UC ANR researchers including Clare Gupta, a Public Policy Specialist at UC Davis, and Julia Van Soelen Kim, a UCCE Food Systems Advisor in the San Francisco North Bay, explored how food policy councils in California engage with research institutions. They also assessed how FPCs use research-based information and knowledge to inform their work, and how research and policy are informed by one another. The following is a conversation with Clare and Julia about their work.
What did you learn about involvement in food policy councils (FPCs)?
Julia: It runs the gamut.
But people are exhausted by national politics. They are finding local politics empowering: they can make change. They are happy to be with motivated and positive people to make change.
There is an ebb and flow with FPCs; established ones may be losing membership, but new ones are being formed.
What about inclusion?
Clare: We found that in most councils we looked at, there is a notable absence of food service and farm workers. Not all councils see representation from all segments of the food sector. This is something FPCs are struggling with.
Julia: I agree with Clare. Organizations are striving to be inclusive of a range of food stakeholders, but often people who have paid time to be at the table are there…these might be people working in the public or non-profit sector, who are often well-educated, white, and female. Farmers and food service workers are not generally paid to be there. Some FPCs have creative ways to bring their voices to table and get their input.
Any next steps for this project?
Clare: We have written a report summarizing our findings in what we hope is an accessible voice, not academic speak. We also have an academic-oriented paper on FPCs and local government connections in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development. We are hoping to publish another peer-reviewed paper. Our UC ANR Research to Policy program team holds an annual event, and at this year’s gathering, we hosted a workshop about how Cooperative Extension can more effectively engage with community groups. We need to find ways to offer support and help while remaining as objective as we can be.
Julia: There are many parallels between FPCs and other groups that Cooperative Extension engages with – nutrition committees and coalitions, watershed management groups, etc. FPCs are one form of grassroots engagement. But our findings are applicable to a broader field of grassroots coalitions. As for me, I will continue to work with the five FPCs in my region, sharing emerging best practices across those Councils.
What does the future hold for FPCs?
Julia: This is hard to answer. Certainly, there is a huge opportunity for food policy at the local level. This ranges across the state, from urban to rural areas. But there are times when policies can go only so far without federal policies changing. But FPCs offer a great opportunity at the local level to build robust food systems with robust supportive policies. We are still in the process of scaling local to state to federal level policies.
Clare: I am not sure there is a single way to characterize FPCs. They take different forms, serve a range of functions, and their lifespan varies.
With so much variation and diversity, they are a hard model to define and pinpoint. But this may be their strength: that they can be adapted to the local context in which they work. Los Angeles is much different from Napa, for reasons based on local context and conditions. Yet still – we can learn from one another. There is not one single prescriptive form to take for success.
Julia – There is so much work going on that does not have to do with policy – it is valuable but perhaps intangible. We need to be better at identifying these more intangible things. But they include the ability of FPCs to offer a venue for diverse stakeholders to come together, learn together, and to develop policies and programs together. FPCs are really about relationship building. We have to understand and embrace the nuances and complexities – it is not just about policy wins, but the soft strengths of building relationships, supporting dialog, and learning across the food system.