COLUMBIA — Changing the food environment involves changing policy, but in Columbia there isn't a specific forum to discuss food-related issues at the community level.
“We’re talking about something that everybody needs every day,” said Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociologist with MU Extension who helps develop local food systems. “We need a place to coordinate things around food.”
Establishing food policies has been a growing trend in the past two decades. The first food policy council was established in the late 1980s; since then, dozens of councils have been formed across the country. These councils have helped push for policy changes such as:
- In Berkeley, Calif., a 2002 policy declares that highly populated areas need to have designated space for community gardens, and those gardens must maintain regular hours for the public.
- Since 2008, Sonoma County in California has had a 0.25 percent sales tax for preserving agricultural land and open space. The policy requires land for food production, and the open spaces provide land for physical activity, which lowers diabetes and heart disease.
- San Francisco put dietary restrictions on children’s meals that include toys.
- New York’s 2006 food labeling policy requires that food service establishments place calorie information on food items.
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The first food policy council formed in Tennessee in the late 1980s. Since then, the groups have grown sporadically across the country. Both Kansas City and St. Louis have set up food policy councils to help deal with issues such as the supply, quality, price, production, distribution and consumption of food.
PedNet Coalition, a nonprofit group in Columbia, received a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2008 to reduce childhood obesity through policy changes. Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods was formed in 2010 to identify ways to promote healthier living.
The group plans to explore ideas such as planting fruit trees on public lands, expanding public transportation and establishing a food policy council.
“If you look around, we don’t have a department of food,” Hendrickson said. “Where is the department of food at the city level? Where is the department of food at the state level or at the national level?”
Food policy councils connect those who care about food issues: grocers, farmers markets, farmers, those who serve at food pantries and even people who don’t necessarily know where their food will come from every night.
Former city councilman Karl Skala suspects the majority of the work will involve developing a framework and finding a middle ground between being part of the city government and being independent. He compared the potential power of a food policy council to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“It takes a long time to get that kind of thing established,” he said. “It takes a long time to kind of get the framework together for a successful, local food initiative program.”
Skala said Columbia’s food policy council would research food issues, address the City Council and recommend ordinances.
St. Louis began discussions about food policy councils about two years ago. Since then, Randy Wood of the Sappington Farmers' Market in St. Louis, along with food policy council steering committee members, have invited people to the council from the health department, food bank and the Missouri Grocers Association.
“We’re trying to get a cross representation of different areas that need to be at the table,” Wood said.
After extensive planning, the St. Louis council has 23 members and was planning to begin addressing food issues at its first meeting in 2011. The council hopes to create a policy that would allow for community gardens on public lands as well as address inconsistent health department requirements for farmers markets.
“One of the farmers markets had three different inspectors come . . . three different weeks in a row,” Wood said. “Each of them said three different things, telling the farmers to figure out what they need to do.”
The most successful councils have a solid legal reason to exist and a budget to help achieve their goals.
“If there’s a will, there’s a way to get stuff done,” Hendrickson said.