Other regions form food policy councils

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

COLUMBIA — As the Board of Health thinks about starting a food policy council, here are some examples of how other communities formed and used their councils.

Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition

Chickens can now make their homes in most Kansas City neighborhoods, thanks to the Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition.

Before the group stepped in, it was tough for residents with smaller plots of land to legally own chickens because the chickens had to be 100 feet from any structure.

"One hundred feet is a pretty big setback," Beth Low, director of the coalition, said. 

The policy was changed, however, to allow people with average-sized yards to apply for clearance to raise chickens, provided their neighbors don't mind. 

Giving people the freedom to have chickens is one example of policy change made by the coalition.

The purpose of the nonprofit group, which serves nine counties in two states, is to promote a food system that's environmentally and economically sustainable, Low said. While it took several years to jump-start the coalition, the group has been able to enact tangible policy changes. 

The impetus for the coalition was a 2007 conference about the re-authorization of the federal Farm Bill. Health advocates, health care professionals, urban agriculture proponents and food service workers all came to express their interest, Low said. After that, quarterly meetings were held to talk about the food system from varying perspectives, and in 2009, the city held another forum. The decision to create a food policy coalition stemmed from that event. 

"It seemed to be a hot-button in Kansas City in a positive way," said Gretchen Kunkel, president of KC Healthy Kids, whose organization helped start the coalition and still funds it. "I kept getting phone calls to say, 'I'd like to join this.'"

The coalition has two ongoing initiatives: getting institutions to purchase local food and increasing access to fresh, affordable food. 

One way the coalition has tried to meet these objectives is by changing the bag limits for Kansas City public transportation. Now, bus riders can carry more than two shopping bags onto the bus, which allows them to use public transit to do their grocery shopping, Low said.

Other changes include allowing on-site produce sales for home gardeners and giving farmers a license to offer samples of their crops at markets.

Low said food policy coalitions, such as the one in Kansas City, are important because there's not a national department for food, but there are national departments, like the Department of Transportation, that make decisions affecting food. 

"A food policy council is one of the most efficient ways of creating focus on our food system without having to create an entire department," she said. "I think that's a really important role."

St. Louis Regional Food Policy Council

The food policy council in St. Louis, though officially formed, is still in the beginning stages of deciding how to staff itself, chair Randy Wood said.

"Ethnically and politically, there's always going to be a continual challenge of keeping some balance," he said.  

The St. Louis Regional Food Policy Council officially formed in September 2010 after determining there was broad interest among community members. Wood saidthe council is looking forward to what it hopes to accomplish in St. Louis.

The early stages of the council began a year prior, when community members with a hand in local food systems — such as grocery store owners, academics and health department officials — met to talk about what they were working on, said Kara Lubischer, an MU Extension community development specialist.

The group held a summit in March 2010 to gauge public support and educate people about food systems. More than 200 people attended the summit, and they were able to sign up if they were interested in being a part of the conversation about a St. Louis food policy council. When the council formed, any person from the community who was interested could join one of the council's work groups, Lubischer said.

Wood said because membership was extended to people who signed up, not all academic and political interests were represented. There might be a rotating system so the council can be kept at 20 people but a few can be swapped out every so often, he said.

Aside from staffing, Wood said he’s unsure what the structure of the council will be — whether it will be run as a nonprofit organization or through a governmental body. The choice will depend on the best way to garner funding and whether members of the council want to lobby, he said.

The St. Louis council is also trying to define its identity so community members know what its purpose is. Wood said the council has talked about making the policy changes he classifies as "low-hanging fruit" so the council can show people what it is based on its accomplishments.

Although it's still in the process of setting its agenda, Wood said the council has identified three project areas: giving producers access to land for selling their food, looking at public health as it relates to farmers markets and figuring out how schools can have access to healthy foods.

Bloomington Food Policy Council

The idea for a food policy council in Bloomington, Ind., started with a grant.

Stephanie Solomon, who works for the city's largest food pantry and garden program, was involved with other organizations that were requesting money to build local food security. Through the process, Solomon said they realized they needed to network to help Bloomington.  

"Because we're a college town, we have all these really fabulous nonprofit organizations that are filling all these different roles, but there was no good space for communication across organizations or an organization that was totally focused on the larger food system," Solomon said.

Although Bloomington's grassroots food policy council formed about a year ago, its primary goals are to continue establishing a presence in the community and start working toward getting healthy food into schools, Solomon said.

In its beginning stages, the council was mostly made up of people from the local growers guild, agricultural advocacy groups, the parks and recreation department and other government bodies. After sending a few members to train with Mark Winne, a food policy council expert, and holding a general interest meeting, the council formed task forces.

So far, the task forces have focused on applying for 501(c)(3) status and assessing how much food is grown locally. Members of the council have also held workshops to educate the community about food systems.

As far as policy change goes, Solomon said members of the council seem most excited about the prospect of getting healthy, locally grown food into schools.

"I find if you're talking to people about the health of children, it's an easy way to open the conversation," she said.

As far as community level change, however, Solomon said it's too early to see the effects of the food policy council.

"I think that in terms of larger scale change, that's probably going to take a longer time to get ourselves well organized," she said.

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