Imagine having nearly $2 million to spend over 3 years on the development and improvement of food policy councils in the United States. Mix in some capacity building assistance, a template for bringing together local food system stakeholders to write a food plan for your city or state, a national networking conference, and voila! Not only would you be able to finally pay that part-time intern something, you might even become a credible force for real policy change. But while you’re waiting for the big foundations or USDA to make this fantasy come true, you might as well take a little sojourn in the United Kingdom where its fast becoming reality.
Due to the kindness of globe-trotting British professors and Fulbright scholars, I had a recent opportunity to check up on the UK community food movement. A lecture at the University of Cardiff (Wales), some time with the Cardiff food policy council, and a full-day workshop in Newcastle (northeast England) put me in touch with over 100 local food program and policy activists from across the country. And from London to Edinburgh, and Brighton to Plymouth, it became clear to me that the Brits are keen on food policy councils.
The British Soil Association, the nation’s organic certifying agency as well as a favourite charity of Prince Charles, is leading the charge for local food democracy. With almost $2 million from a national foundation, the Association developed its Sustainable Food Cities program which is spear-headed by self-described food anarchist Tom Andrews. Though perhaps a bit bombastic by US standards, Andrews is riding the British rails to support about 30 cities that either have or want to develop food charters, food action plans, and local food councils. Almost everyone is receiving a little help, but the grand prize will be $115,000 going to each of 6 cities who will be required to secure an additional $75,000 match from their local government authorities. In a way, this “forced” private and public partnership is one of the defining differences between US and UK food policy councils.
The formerly gritty coal port of Newcastle is a case in point. Jamie Sadler’s not-for-profit organization, Food Nation, has forged a strong working relationship with the city’s health director, Dawn Scott, to write a food charter (the scheduled launch date is July 17) and organize a food policy council. Food Nation and its 15 staff members work on a variety of community tasks, especially improving the quality of school food, which, in its pre-Jamie Oliver days, was pretty appalling. Sadler said, “I had my hands slapped a few times by the local authorities for calling the food quality into question.” but then decided that collaboration with city officials was more likely to secure improvements.
Dawn Scott was a big reason Sadler had a change in heart. “She’s fantastic to work with,” was his comment, and after I heard her speak at the Newcastle conference I could see what he means. She’s not afraid to ruffle some feathers by making it clear how scandalized she is by her city’s 25 percent child obesity rate. (Apparently, speaking your mind is something that academics in the UK also do. During a brief conference presentation, Newcastle University’s Director of the Social Networking Institute told the audience how gross the wealth disparities were in the UK — a gap that makes the US “one percent” look like a bunch of slum dwellers).
Productive private/public partnerships are also percolating in Cardiff, Wales, another “old city” where new urbanism has dethroned king coal. Steve Garrett, a local food activist is working closely with Eryl Powell of the city’s health department. Steve is refreshingly edgy and street smart; Eryl is thoroughly professional and committed. Along with a dozen or so members of their food policy council they have passed a food charter and are now negotiating with city government on how to implement its goals. Like start up food policy councils everywhere, however, they are struggling to do a lot with almost no staff, wanting to do more outreach to build and diversify their constituency base, and agonizing a bit over how to communicate their message. But one senses that enormous capacity resides within a marriage of equals, one where a third party, the University of Cardiff, is willing to commit resources as well.
The food charter template handed down to dozens of local UK communities by the Soil Association might also be considered a bit of an anomaly in the US. While emerging US food policy councils are always looking for good models from elsewhere, they tend to be a bunch of independent cats not easily subject to herding. After reviewing food charters for Durham, Newcastle, Plymouth, and Cardiff, I was surprised how uniform they were. They all have five major priorities (no more, no less) that roughly fall into the following categories: healthy food for all, local food economy, environmental sustainability, resilient communities, and fairness in the food chain The charters then go on to state ten goals (no more, no less) that include statements like “ensure people have access to affordable, healthy and sustainable food,” “encourage…practices so public and private sector bodies can procure and provide healthy, sustainable food to promote local economic prosperity,” and “work together to tackle and eradicate food poverty.”
While each charter’s language varies slightly, and some emphasize certain goals over others, e.g. more about local food, less about food poverty, they do have a remarkable cookie cutter feel to them. I guess the arguments go both ways: too lock-step in nature  does not allow each place to assert its own identity, or, conversely, greater recognition and common branding will lead to greater national impact, to say nothing of simply being more efficient. But as a “Born in the USA” kind of guy, I tend to like the way our local communities put their own brand (as in unique to each ranch) on their place’s needs and strategies. But then again, life would be a little easier if one size could fit all, and if the wheel didn’t have to be reinvented each week.
In the meantime, Brighton’s Food Partners’ 16 staff people are not only running food programs, but working with government to change the city’s food policies. The Food Plymouth organization (the same city from whence our Pilgrims set sail, later to be saved from starvation by Massachusetts’s generous Indian tribes) has mapped out an ambitious three-year food plan to not only remake their food system, but strengthen their local economy around food. The City of London’s diverse 40-member Food Board oversees the implementation of the Mayor”s Food Strategy: Healthy and Sustainable Food for London published in 2006. And the Scots, carving out their own road to independence, have the Edinburgh Community Food organization under the leadership of Iain Stewart, undertaking healthy food initiatives, emphasizing locally sourced food, and bringing as many community voices into the discussion as they can.
It doesn’t have to be said that the US food movement, especially that portion working on local policy, has a lot to learn from the UK. And though our forms of government and governance, to say nothing of issues and styles, are different, they have much to learn from us. A “hands across the pond” learning and sharing experience would not only reinforce the notion that we do indeed share a common language, but that we could strengthen our respective food movements at the same time.