Board considers starting food policy council in Columbia

Sunday, December 18, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Illalyn Irwin isn't sure whether local government or organizations will come together to tackle public policy about food.

"That may not be where we're headed," the chair of the Board of Health said. "We don't know yet, honestly."


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Even so, members of the Board of Health, which is part of the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department, plan to meet with potential stakeholders during the next few months to talk about the food system in mid-Missouri and have enlisted the help of experts from MU Extension to learn more about forming a council.

Nationwide, food policy councils have made policy changes regarding zoning and land use, food procurement and food quality. As the local Board of Health explores the possibility of a food policy council, it provides an opportunity to learn about food policy councils and what steps need to be taken to start one.

What food policy councils do

There are about 150 city and state food policy councils across the nation, said Mark Winne, food policy council program director for the Community Food Security Coalition. The councils are designed to connect government and public policy to food projects.

"Food gets put on the public agenda," Winne said. "When it's successful, it will make sure every aspect of your food system gets considered by the public sector."

Practically speaking, Winne said, food policy often affects:

  • Zoning laws — Changing laws makes it easier to start community gardens or farmers markets or other food businesses.
  • Food procurement — Policy changes help ensure that money the government has to buy food for prisons, schools and hospitals goes toward local food.
  • Food quality and access— Whether it's nutrition or food sources, these policy changes look at the healthiness of food at public institutions and aim to limit unhealthy food.
  • Land use — When food policy councils look into land use, they're focusing on long-term plans for developing land and using it for farming or ranching.

Beyond informing policy, food policy councils also encourage dialogue, said MU professor of rural sociology Mary Hendrickson, who helped form councils in Kansas City and St. Louis.    

"Food is something that cuts across a lot of sectors," she said. "To have a place to discuss it is really pretty critical."

Columbia considers forming a council

Columbia is still in the early stages of talking about creating a food policy council, and there's no guarantee it's going to happen.

The board is trying to identify leaders who are involved with food across the county and asking them what, if any, problems they see on the local food front. Irwin said it's premature to name these individuals because they haven't agreed to participate yet.

The board plans to invite these people to its January meeting, Irwin said. At that meeting, they'll talk about how to get the public involved, said Stephen Jeanetta, MU Extension community development process state specialist, who is helping the Board of Health work toward a food policy council. 

The first step of forming a council is to get the stakeholders in the same room and talk about the values they have in common, Jeanetta said. While the people might already know each other, they don't necessarily know one another in the context of a food policy council.

"You don't really focus as much on action items until you have a pretty good idea what your overall goals should look like," Jeanetta said. "There's always a lot of different ways to get from point A to point B."

The process serves to reduce resistance.

"Where it tends to get contentious is when you talk about exactly what we're going to do and how we're going to do it," Jeanetta said. "And if you can put that off until after you've really kind of articulated the big picture, it tends to reduce the tension in the room because people are more likely to trust each other."

Aside from coming up with a vision, starting a food policy council also takes research, but Hendrickson said it's sort of a "chicken and egg story." Research about food systems points out why a food policy council is necessary, but it usually takes a council to mobilize that research.

It's unclear if Columbia will form a city or county food policy council, let alone if it will be run through local government or by independent stakeholders, but Hendrickson said she expects something to come out of the conversations the board of health is having.

"We'll get somewhere," she said. "I'm sure of it. I just can't predict what it's going to be yet."   

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Ray Shapiro December 19, 2011 | 1:54 p.m.

Soylent Green is people!

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