Leaving home at 4:00 a.m. to catch an early flight, the car’s thermometer read 8 degrees above zero. After a treacherous drive down an icy I-25 to Albuquerque, I boarded my plane and was airborne before even a hint of dawn had flickered across the Sandia Mountains. A few hours and a couple of hard bumps later, I touched down at Miami International Airport amidst swaying palm trees and a balmy 80 degrees. Being the intrepid trainer that I am, willing to go anywhere to serve anyone, I had selflessly volunteered for this mission to assist Florida’s food policy councils.
Amazing things happen when grant-making foundations show interest in an emerging trend. As we used to say in New Jersey, “money talks, nobody walks.” That’s not a mercenary statement of course, just an acknowledgement that a community’s hard work, in this case the struggle to form food policy councils in several Florida cities, is being recognized in the philanthropic marketplace. In the state’s sometimes swampy heat, non-profit groups, municipalities, and foundations are meeting up and down the Florida peninsula to forge partnerships for more just, sustainable and equitable local food systems.
Under the auspices of the Florida Partnership for Healthy People, Healthy Places and the South Florida Health Foundation, local groups are receiving training and technical assistance to enhance existing food policy council initiatives or to start new ones. At my Miami workshop there were representatives from the City of Miami, Dade County, West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Del Ray Beach. Earlier efforts to establish a Miami/Dade food policy council had floundered over the usual issues of leadership, turf, lack of focus and money. So by placing an emphasis on organizational development – giving particular attention to leadership, membership, and vision – participants saw that community organizing fundamentals and coalition building must precede the development of bold new policy initiatives.
Moving north to Orlando, the Disney World capitol of the world, our workshop was held at the recently opened East End Market. Not only does it have nothing to do with Mickey Mouse, East End is a lovely neighborhood market and cultural food hub inspired by Central Florida’s local farmers and food artisans. In the Market’s own words, it “strives to cultivate an appreciation for our true sustenance, a better understanding of our food system, and a dynamic local economy.” It also has a great community meeting space.
The workshop drew numerous urban gardeners, a food bank director, county health staff, and Florida State University Extension workers from around Orlando as well as from Sarasota, three hours to the west. Since Orlando’s food policy council is relatively well developed, I devoted more time to reviewing food policy options. Using a simple rating system based on such factors as economic and political feasibility, long term impact on equity, and ease of communication to the public and policymakers, participants were asked to choose from a list of possible food policy interventions.
After much robust debate, it was interesting to note their outcomes. While folks expressed sympathy for more aggressive strategies like labeling genetically engineered food products and banning trans-fats, they rallied around “doable” interventions with more immediate impacts such as promoting local food procurement for public schools and revamping zoning codes to invigorate urban food production. Not surprising perhaps since Orlando earned some dubious national attention when the city fined a homeowner for growing vegetables in his front yard. Subsequently, the light of reason cast its glow on local policy makers who quickly changed the “regs” to allow up to 80 percent of one’s front yard to be used for food production.
Jacksonville, located on Florida’s northeastern coast, was the site of the final workshop. Led by the indefatigable Cecil Williams, Duval County’s food policy council, working in cooperation with the very committed Duval County Health department, has been addressing food access problems such as those posed by the city’s several neighborhood food deserts. Though we focused equally on organizational development and food policies, workshop participants who were not already food policy council members enriched the discussion and networking opportunities. The food policy council took full advantage of these so-called interlopers by drafting them into service.
As we are seeing across the country, the emergence of local food policy councils is giving rise to statewide policy networks that in turn create potential for more statewide policy impact. Such is the case in Florida where a state food policy council, currently under the direction of Robert Kluson, may get a much needed boost from the energy generated by local policy action. And from what I can tell, the foundations are watching these developments with interest.
Clutching a carton of Florida citrus, I headed for the Jacksonville airport in the nick of time – the city’s nighttime temperatures were plunging to an entirely unacceptable 33 degrees just as northern New Mexico’s daytime temps were soaring to the same number. Hope to be invited back again real soon.