Posts Tagged: Food Systems
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.
Food policy councils are made up of representatives from many sectors in the food system, including farmers, distributors, retailers, food service operations, government agencies (like public health, county social services and county agriculture departments), and community organizations that work in the food system. Some FPCs also develop close partnerships with county-based UC Cooperative Extension to help facilitate their work.
FPCs support a variety of food and agriculture-related policies and programs, including healthy food access, land use planning, regional food procurement, food waste, food and economic development, local food processing, and regulations related to urban farming or community gardening, to name a few examples.
A brief history of food policy councils
FPCs emerged in the late 1980s as the sustainable agriculture and food/nutrition movements began to pay more attention to community food systems. Early FPCs were created through resolutions of local government bodies (Clancy et al 2008). At that time, they tended to be embedded within government, much like a planning commission or a social service commission. As the local food movement began to rapidly expand in the 2000s, many local activists and organizations began to create FPCs as a way to bring together a more diverse group of food system stakeholders. These newer generation FPCs were typically organized outside of government as a non-profit organization or community coalition. Studies of FPCs, including our own, find that they take very diverse organizational forms and tackle widely varying issues, which means that generalizations about their goals and outcomes are difficult to make. This may be quite appropriate however, given the enduring FPC goal of tailoring food policies to the specific characteristics of particular places.
A UC ANR research project is looking at how FPCs work
While FPCs are increasingly on the radar of those trying to promote food system change, we still don't have much recent documented evidence about the actual work of FPCs (though see Harper et al. 2009, Fox 2010 and Borron 2003). In response, a team of UC Cooperative Extension researchers (Clare Gupta, Julia Van Soelen Kim, Dave Campbell, Jennifer Sowerwine, Gail Feenstra, Shosha Capps and Kate Munden-Dixon) began a comparative study of 10 California food policy councils in 2016. We wanted to know this: what are the networks and relationships that FPCs are a part of? And how do these networks and relationships influence what a FPC is able to achieve? As UCCE researchers ourselves, we were especially interested in understanding the nature of relationships between FPCs and university researchers, including UC Cooperative Extension.
To answer these questions, we interviewed more than 60 FPC members from food policy councils across California. We asked them about the work they were doing within their councils, their relationships with other players in the local food system, and the way they find information relevant for their council's priorities. We also led focus groups with members exploring the same questions. In addition, we analyzed documents produced by and about FPCs. We also engaged in “participant observation” — researcher lingo for the process of engaging with groups and individuals as a way to learn first-hand about what they do. Lastly, we combined the stories we heard from our interviewees with numerical data from a survey of nearly all of California's known FPCs. We hoped by doing this to develop a better picture of FPCs' strategies for gathering relevant information, networking and creating impact.
Our Research Findings
A full report of our findings can be found on the UC SAREP website, but here we share some key takeaways and strategies for FPC success:
- Respondents see information sharing as the most valuable FPC activity. It encourages collaboration and shifts participant thinking towards a more holistic view of food policy work.
- Members who are “knowledge brokers,,” including Cooperative Extension advisors, are connected to many different knowledge sources and are able to draw on these different sources to provide data and information that match their council's needs.
- Real-life experiences are often as compelling with policy-makers as statistics. FPCs cite the value of integrating information from numbers (i.e. quantitative data) and stories (i.e. qualitative data).
- There is no one-size-fits-all approach to FPC membership. Some FPCs view food system change as a process that involves a broad and inclusive consortium of stakeholders. They try to bring stakeholders with diverse values together (i.e., a “big tent” approach). Other FPCs emphasize attracting allies who share core values and a commitment to advocacy on behalf of food systems change (i.e., a “small tent” approach).
- Small sub-groups within FPCs can achieve significant policy change. A targeted sub-group of the FPC (i.e. working group; task force, campaign) can work with key allies to push forward a particular policy priority—the entire council does not necessarily have to be entirely involved.
- Effective FPCs have strong leaders. These leaders have deep experience and connections in the community and a good feel for the nuances involved in effective political organizing.
Overall, we found that the work of FPCs at the local and state level is making a significant difference in our state, providing a meaningful way to pursue food systems policy and change. Our recent article in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development specifically highlights how local government and FPCs collaborate to shape food policies and programs in different local contexts. Stay tuned for more results from our work.
We would love to hear from you about whether our findings resonate in your own food policy council, or if you have ideas for next research steps.
Want to get involved in local food system policy-making? Join a food policy council! See reports by Food First or Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future's Food Policy Networks for additional information.
Clancy, K., Hammer, J., & Lippoldt, D. (2008). Food policy councils-past, present, and future. In Remaking the North American Food System: Strategies for Sustainability (pp. 121-143). University of Nebraska Press.
Borron, S.M. 2003. Food Policy Councils: Practice and Possibility. Congressional Hunger Center Hunger-Free Community Report.
Fox, C. 2010. Food Policy Councils: Innovations in Democratic Governance for a Sustainable and Equitable Food System. Los Angeles Food Policy Task Force unpublished report.
Harper, A., Shattuck, A., E. Holt-Gimenez, Alkon, A., and F. Lambrick. 2009. Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned. Food First: Institute for Food and Development Policy.
Some are surprised to learn that as recently as 1950, Los Angeles County was the No. 1 agricultural county in the United States, its farms producing an abundance of fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk, honey and much more. Today, Los Angeles residents tend to think of our county of 10 million residents in strictly urban terms, but the most current available statistics from the USDA Census of Agriculture (2007) showed 1,734 farms in L.A. County. Though ornamental plants are now our biggest crop, more than $31 million in vegetable crops came from Los Angeles County farms in 2011, according to the county’s most recent Crop and Livestock Report. The bulk of the vegetables we produce are root crops, which include onions, carrots and potatoes. Most commercial farming takes place in the high desert around Lancaster and Palmdale, and is seldom seen by most of the county’s population. A sprinkling of small urban farms is also cropping up around the county, as documented by UCLA urban planning students in their recent Cultivate Los Angeles study.
But the amount of food produced in Los Angeles County is just a tiny portion of what’s grown in our regional foodshed, defined as a 10-county region within a 200-mile radius of Los Angeles’ urban core. Our foodshed has some of the most productive farmland in the state, encompassing some 23,000 farms. Strawberries and lemons from Ventura County, lettuce and broccoli from Imperial, and milk and almonds from Kern are some of the highest-value farm products in California.
Yet much of what is produced is shipped to far away markets, and does not reach the plates of area residents. Lack of affordable fresh produce is a fact of life in many Los Angeles County neighborhoods, despite their proximity to agricultural bounty.
Looking at the overall foodshed helped the Council to conceptualize a key initiative, the Good Food Purchasing Program, which encourages institutions to buy from small- and medium-sized regional farms, along with meeting other purchasing goals that make healthy food accessible. The City of Los Angeles and LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) were the first two entities to sign on. The impact of LAUSD’s efforts in purchasing regional food were recently profiled in a Los Angeles Times article that highlighted how new local jobs have been created thanks to LAUSD’s buying power. This is one example of how thinking about food regionally, and working collaboratively across sectors, can help create a stronger food system. As the director of LAUSD’s Food Services said, "It's fresher food from farmers we know," when regional food is on the menu. And, it’s good for the local economy, too.
By Alec Rosenberg
Several themes emerged from the UC Global Food Systems Forum: Take a bottom-up approach. Focus on solutions. Pursue low-hanging fruit. Decrease food waste. Be practical. Be innovative. Involve education. But opinions differed on how to balance small- and large-scale farming, the role of genetically modified organisms, and what should be the most important area of focus.
More than 475 people attended the food forum in Ontario, Calif., which also reached a worldwide virtual audience. A live webcast received 1,500 unique viewers from 34 countries, while a steady stream of tweets at #Food2025 made the conversation a trending topic on Twitter. With more than 1 billion people going hungry every day and 1 billion people overweight, the conversation was timely.
"We must act now to improve the food and nutrition supply of people in poor countries and communities throughout the world," said keynote speaker Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.
The daylong forum, part of ANR's statewide conference, addressed the challenges faced by food producers, suppliers and consumers in a world of growing population, strains on natural systems, climate change, shifting geopolitics and other converging forces. The event convened some of the world's leading experts — farmers, researchers, policymakers, economists, environmentalists and others — with the New Yorker's Michael Specter moderating a global panel and author and journalist Mark Arax moderating a California panel. The speakers offered thoughtful insights and solutions.
"This is fundamental to our mission as a land-grant university," said UC ANR Vice President Barbara Allen-Diaz. "Our goal is to take these brilliant ideas and turn them into brilliant plans of action."
By capturing water from rainfall and reducing evaporation, farmers could boost yields, said panelist Garrison Sposito, a UC Berkeley professor of ecosystem sciences and environmental engineering. Panelist Komal Ahmad, a 2012 UC Berkeley graduate, launched Feeding Forward, a startup that uses technology to streamline food donation, decreasing hunger while reducing waste. Panelist Howard-Yana Shapiro, who called for "uncommon collaborations," has increased the sustainability of cocoa at candy maker Mars Inc., where he is chief agricultural officer along with being a senior fellow at UC Davis.
What's the best way to feed the planet? Keynote speaker Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute, called for a focus on natural systems. Organic farmer Paul Muller, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, advocated for a Jeffersonian perspective of stewardship and self-reliance.
Meanwhile, Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming and Processing, whose crops include almonds, pistachios and grapes, focuses on a larger scale. He noted that his farm supplies multinational corporations.
"We all serve different markets," Woolf said. "I think there's an opportunity for all of us to do well."
Issues of quantity and access
Increasing food productivity isn't enough, some speakers said.
"If you can't afford food, it doesn't really matter how much there is," said panelist Ron Herring, a Cornell University professor of government.
"We are trying to look for the silver bullet solutions instead of focusing on poverty," said panelist Anuradha Mittal, founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute.
A place to start is listening to the poorest people, speakers said.
"We need a Food Corps that's the equivalent of the Peace Corps," said panelist Sol Katz, a University of Pennsylvania professor of physical anthropology and an expert in health economics.
Panelist Maarten Chrispeels, a UC San Diego distinguished professor emeritus of biology, encouraged people to spend a month in a small village and learn about life there. Panelist Rebecca Peters, a UC Berkeley student, already has gotten a head start, spending three months in Bolivia as part of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. "We need to think about the perspective of the people we're trying to serve," Peters said.
Several speakers said universities and can play a key role in educating the public and conducting research. Farmers and other panelists pointed to the contributions UC has made to advance farm productivity and sustainability. Panelist Jonathan Shrier, acting special representative for global food security with the U.S. State Department, mentioned examples that included UC research to develop flood-tolerant rice.
"This type of conference is important because it gets everybody thinking out of the box," said panelist Grant Chaffin, a Blythe farmer.
James McWilliams, a historian at Texas State University, farmers' markets have grown from 400 in 1970 to over 4,000 in 2009. But can we feed the world on farmers' markets alone? Will they really lower our carbon footprint?
Glenda Humiston, California State Director of USDA Rural Development and panelist at the Global Food Systems Forum, said no.
"We can't feed the world with farmers' markets, and if we're going to try, then let's talk carbon footprint." Said Humiston, in last week's webcast.
According to a study conducted by researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand, it is not always more energy-efficient for consumers to purchase locally-grown food. Often times, eating locally grown products consumes much more energy than eating imported goods.
Additionally, according to an article by the New York Times, "It is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer."
What do you think? Can we feed the world solely on farmers' markets?
There's a big difference between the questions what is best for my family? and what kind of agriculture is best for the whole world?
According to Maarten Chrispeels, a plant physiologist and UC San Diego distinguished professor emeritus and Global Food Systems Forum panelist, it's very difficult to choose between organic and GM's. We're being bombarded with information, but how much of that is true? Do we even need to choose between the two?
Watch the video below to find out.
"If you're concerned about your health, there isn't any scientific basis to choose for or against organic, or for or against GM."
"If you're concerned about food, there is no scientific basis for choosing for or against GM or organic. If you're concerned about the environment, organic has some interesting practices that emphasize sustainability, but GM crops already lessen the impact of agriculture on the environment."
"The small picture: There is no scientific basis for championing or rejecting either GM or organic. But...you do need to eat more fruits and vegetables: 5 helpings of fruits and vegetables per day cuts the rates of many cancers by 50%"
"The big picture: GM or organic? is a false question. The moral issue for our world is: How do we abolish the food insecurity of 800 million humans? Organic agriculture with its lower yields cannot do this. We need all available and appropriate technologies and food production systems adapted to local ecologies."
What are your thoughts? Comment below.