Community leaders are shaping local policy through food policy councils

Root causes of health

August, 25, 2022 

Failings within our food system have existed for decades. And unfortunately, food insecurity, a known social determinant of health, has only grown worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in poorer health outcomes for individuals nationwide. 

“Poverty and racism are the root cause of most social inequities,” Sam Applefield explained when asked about the health inequities that he and his Pittsburgh project team are working to address through the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. “Unequal access to food can be a symptom that emerges from these root causes and has many significant further negative ripple effects.”

That is why fragmented systems that contribute to food insecurity cannot be addressed separately and require a multi-sectoral approach to address the conditions that hold inequity in place. For many communities nationwide, the solution has unraveled in the form of a food policy council. 

Gaining momentum in just the last 30 years, food policy councils have become a way for communities to address the food system as a whole and work across sectors, engaging with According to Food First, instead of having communities work in silos and haphazardly bandage the failing pieces of our food system, food policy councils  “establish a platform for coordinated action at the local level.”

They also create an opportunity to discuss and strategize among groups with different interests, and encourage advocates to recommend comprehensive changes around food policy in a coordinated fashion.   

“At the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, we address our food system holistically,” Applefield said. “We believe in the strength of collective impact, and work with many different partners to advocate for and create a just, equitable and sustainable food system. For example, we work with local growers to increase access to land, with large regional institutions to improve procurement practices, with advocates to create free public transportation for SNAP recipients, and with local community leaders to meet needs as they emerge.”

The Pittsburgh project team isn’t the only one leveraging a food policy council to advance health equity in their community. The Cumberland County, North Carolina team established the first-ever county-military food policy council. Not only have 15 members been appointed to the Fort Bragg and Cumberland County Food Policy Council earlier this year, but the group has established three separate ad hoc committees in order to better coordinate their actions as a council and tackle multiple pressing issues around food security in their community. 

In Collier County, Florida, diverse partners, including food pantries, a faith-based organization and small- to medium- sized growers, joined the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. Their project team explained that adequately representing various sectors within the council has helped improve coordination between agencies whose policies influence the food system substantially. 
The most powerful thing about food policy councils is that they reflect the diverse needs and perspectives of the food system’s various constituents, including those with lived experiences of food insecurity. 

For example, the Paterson, New Jersey project team engaged community members through a resident advisory board to obtain feedback on their local food policy council strategies. In Rochester, New York, project leaders committed to resident-led processes in order to orchestrate the city’s first-ever food policy council.

Similarly, the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council implemented a Food Equity Ambassadors program earlier this year which allowed for increased community participation in policymaking processes. The program not only encouraged local residents to produce policy recommendations that were sent to local government institutions, but also built leadership capacity for continued advocacy around food justice and equity in Pittsburgh.

“Through the Ambassadors program, resident leaders have been able to support each other in the similar challenges they face in their unique neighborhoods across the city,” Applefield said. “Shifting power to resident leaders has helped to grow the range and reach of our work at the council.”

Stay connected to the work of these incredible food policy councils and the rest of the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge project teams by visiting our website.