Imagine sitting on the beach this summer, or lounging poolside at your favorite community center, cool sunglasses highlighting your pretty face and a cold kombucha accessorizing your newly manicured nails. Your head is nodding in a barely perceptible manner to the tunes from your headphones. You’re looking good and feeling good, but the only thing that’s missing is the right reading material. Well, nothing is more likely to catapult you into the outer reaches of hipness faster than From Partnerships to Policy: Promising Practices for New Food Policy Councils (Center for a Livable Future, 2022).
If Partnerships to Policy sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because this is the updated version of the hugely popular “bestseller” Doing Food Policy Councils Right (Community Food Security Coalition, 2012). As a co-author and contributor for both publications, I can say without a shred of objectivity that the new and improved 2022 edition is, like its predecessor, destined for greatness. Not only is it longer (100 pages, exactly) than the “old one,” it is chock full of 10 more years of “lessons learned” from the ever-expanding—both numbers and diversity—food policy council field. And the graphics, photographs, and overall design of this spiffy new pub are, thanks to CLF’s Artist in Residence, Mike Milli, simply to die for!
When we started cobbling together Doing Food Policy Councils Right in 2010 with a grant from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (God bless them!), there were slightly more than 100 food policy councils in the U.S. Most of them had only been in existence for a few short years, and many of those, while punching above their weight, were often hanging on by a thread. In other words, the data we were working with from which to prepare a “how-to” guide, was pretty skimpy. But the still embryonic practice of FPCs didn’t stop a surge of academic curiosity. At one point, based on the number of calls I was getting from graduate students, there were more attempts to “evaluate” FPCs than there were FPCs to evaluate.
Fortunately, the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future joined the fray shortly after the original manual hit the streets. They established the Food Policy Networks (FPN) project to put the power of research, networking, and continuous reflection at the disposal of the rapidly emerging FPC world. Success followed as the number of U.S. FPCs ballooned over 10 years to 300. From Partnerships to Policy is the product of that power and growth, the fuel for which comes from the CLF/FPN team led by Anne Palmer, and includes Karen Bassarab, Raychel Santo, Darriel Harris, and me. Along the way, numerous interns and graduate fellows also gathered and processed data that contributed to our growing knowledge of FPCs and has found its way into the new guide.
But all the scholarly diligence and resulting technical assistance in the world won’t be worth much if others don’t read about what’s been learned. To that end, much credit for both the former FPC bestseller and its recent offspring goes to their primary writer, Michael Burgan. Michael has written more than 300 books for young readers, including Shadow Catcher: How Edward S. Curtis Documented American Indian Dignity and Beauty, which won a gold medal in the California Reading Association Eureka Awards and was named a 2016 Carter G. Woodson Honor Book by the National Council for the Social Studies. He possesses the unique ability to turn thick academic prose, often so dense it will stop a .45 bullet on page 73, into remarkably readable and accessible language. All of us thinkers, doers, and would-be writers are grateful for his efforts.
Like the first guide, the new guide is written primarily for students, early-stage food systems and food policy practitioners, and those who may be joining a food policy council for the first time. But as food systems thinking has evolved, so has the complexity of food policy council work. The new guide reflects that complexity, and as such, will be useful to food system veterans as well as “rookies.” For instance, as the world has changed significantly over the past 10 years, so has the scope of issues that councils address. In addition to such “bread ‘n butter” topics as food security, food access, and farmland loss, today’s councils are just as likely to combat racial inequities in the food system, foster food system resilience, reduce food waste, and promote environmental sustainability. And even as the dust still settles from COVID-19, we are learning how dozens of FPCs played an out-sized role in ensuring that every community member was fed during the pandemic.
Take a look at the Nation’s oldest, continuously operating FPC and you’ll see what these shifts look like. Founded in 1982 as the Knoxville (Tenn.) Food Policy Council, it was renamed the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council since its geographic focus has expanded. The council’s early interests included public transportation and access to USDA nutrition assistance programs, but 40 years later, their commitment to addressing food insecurity is done through the lens of diversity. To that end, the council is building relationships with Latinx and refugee residents and is holding educational events on hunger in the LGBTQ+ community, to better understand how to address its diverse food needs. The council is also monitoring trends in food insecurity by creating an annual countywide report that maps food system work and tracks various datapoints.
While Knoxville may be a familiar story for old food policy council hands, the 2022 guide abounds with new cases from new places of both internal and external FPC strategies. You can read about how Philadelphia is “centering community voices” as a big part of their work to ensure equity in the development of local food policies, and how Salt Lake City established Resident Food Equity Advisors to include the lived experience of community members in their policy making activities. You’ll learn about the Palouse-Clearwater (Idaho) Food Coalition’s use of a virtual food summit to identify areas of resilience and weakness in their region’s food system that surfaced during the pandemic, and how the Greater Cincinnati Regional FPC brought more local food into their region’s schools by improving coordination and infrastructure.
One feature of the new guide that I find particularly useful is the glossary of terms. If there’s one thing about the food movement that has bedeviled me, it’s the way that terms like food security, access, and equity, among others, are bandied about with reckless disregard for precision and unanimity of meaning. Yes, the English language is constantly evolving, but co-opting terms and then assigning them an idiosyncratic meaning that suits one group’s agenda does a disservice to the larger movement. While we might argue over the exact definitions of such concepts as food system resilience, inclusion, and food sovereignty, at the end of the day we have to arrive at a common understanding of these terms if we have any hope of working together. This is especially important as new people come to the food policy council table. To that end, the glossary should be an enormously helpful addition to our eternal communication challenges.
On page 23 of From Partnerships to Policy, the question of why someone should start or engage with a food policy council is discussed. Many good reasons are offered such as pursuing individual and sectoral food system interests or pinpointing the community’s most pressing food needs. But the one that sparks the fire in my belly—that still compels me to act after all these years—is the promise that democracy makes: if you show up, work with others, and study the problem thoroughly, you can actually make change happen. As the 2022 guide states, “FPCs foster communication and civic action at the grassroots, and they give people a chance to shape, from the bottom up, the nature of a system that can seem distant and bewildering.”
Nothing instructs us on the fragility of democracy with more urgency than current events. We have learned the price of neglect, of what happens when we turn our heads away from the demagogues for even one minute. As with our nation, we still have a chance to make democracy work with our food system, but it will take daily practice and the kind of concerted muscle that only comes when many arms, legs, and minds pull together in the same direction. With this new and radically improved food policy council guide, the folks at the Center for a Livable Future have given us a map, a compass, and a kit generously overflowing with the tools we need to build an equitable, just, and sustainable food system.