Why food policy councils are essential to driving change in Michigan communities

One of the Michigan's very first Food Policy Councils (FPCs) is from Detroit. In the mid-2000s, The Detroit Food Policy Council emerged to address issues of food access in Detroit, as well as equity in how the food economy benefited citizens.

The Detroit-based organization has worked to improve every aspect from "farm to fork," according to Liz Gensler, an academic specialist at Michigan State University's Department of Community Sustainability.

The lessons that Detroit learned rippled out into other communities and helped similar groups and food-concerned individuals understand how to advance equitable access by engaging with their communities around food laws or working with cities on issues regarding land use and urban agriculture. In this way, FPCs straddle the ground between influencing policy and supporting individuals in their respective communities to create food security for those who need it most.

In many ways, Detroit's FPC has helped stakeholders form a more holistic view of the local food economy. "Many times when people think about food," says Winona Bynum, executive director of the Detroit council, "they just think about access and not [about] participating in the economics of the food system ... and being really rooted in sustainability and equity."Winona Bynum

By sharing insights through informal networks and the Michigan Local Food Policy Council Network, an organization created to foster these networks, FPCs have managed to build a framework for bodies that create civic action around food issues. For example, councils do outreach through new and existing networks, create rural and urban coalitions, and promote general literacy for policy among community stakeholders.

Councils supporting each other

Across the state, Michigan now has around 25 food policy councils or similar organizations that influence change in everything from hard policy – such as local, state, and national legislation, and operating procedures for large institutions – to programming for farmers markets and food banks. Although these organizations often have different missions in response to their specific community needs, they also have found strength in learning from one another and unifying around certain priorities at the statewide level.

"We can band together and talk about what's good for communities across the board," Bynum says of the partnerships between different councils, "and make sure those things are lifted up and show that we have a united front."

A major part of their job, according to Bynum, is to make sure that community concerns don't get lost in the shuffle. "[Our work] is about really trying to connect with the community and keeping that community focus ... because administrations or different mayors can come and go."

It helps that members of these councils are usually volunteers who spend the rest of their time working on farms, at food banks, and for local governments. They're able to bring the concerns of their various constituencies to bear on the council's work.

In the realm of civic involvement, food is a motivator

Although policy can be a dry subject, FPCs believe that the more people engage with food policy, the more likely they will be to see its importance in their lives. After all, food policies govern everything from federal, state, and municipal laws, to the food-based practices of hospitals and universities. Food policy engagement tends to help create more civic involvement in general.

"People are really inspired and motivated by food issues," says Markell Lewis Miller, chairperson of the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council and director of community food programs at Food Gatherers. "From kind of a civic education perspective, it's a great way to get people engaged and participating in big issues and policy."

Several years ago, the Michigan Local Food Policy Council Network was created to help FPCs better share ideas and collaborate on issues. "The councils themselves have been great about making themselves accessible to one another," says Gensler, who co-coordinates this body.

But having a statewide organization with quarterly meetings and monthly calls has helped the volunteers just getting started with younger FPCs. Nationally, the Johns Hopkins Food Policy Networks project is another resource.

Michigan now has about 25 food policy councils
One of the statewide issues FPCs have come together on is the Michigan Farm Bill. This is a classic coalition-building piece of legislation that covers a diverse set of programs from crop insurance to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known colloquially as food stamps. And yet, people in urban areas might not realize how much a bill with the word "farm" in the name affects them; roughly 80 percent of the money in it goes to nutrition programs.

Because they recognized this issue as critically important to food access and security, the Detroit and Washtenaw councils recently co-hosted an event intended to raise awareness about the issues at stake.

Community support, from land use to food banks

Top on the list of concerns listed in a recent Johns Hopkins report were food access and equitable development. Bynum echoes these sentiments in Detroit, asking questions about real estate development and land use. "Who does this benefit and who pays and how can we make sure that people are not negatively impacted by what may possibly be perceived as progress?"

Often, the first job for FPCs is to make information more accessible to the people who need it most. Among other things, the Detroit Food Policy Council has worked with the Detroit Land Bank Authority to try and make sure their policies were readily available and easy to understand so that community members — not just big businesses — are able to acquire land.

The act of making food issues more legible is important across the state, but takes different forms, depending upon the needs of the community. While Detroit may be concerned with urban agriculture, Gensler says that rural councils are often engaged with issues of farmland preservation, which has an impact both on food access and on the local economy.

When it comes to making FPCs work, Bynum and Miller emphasize a broad-base of support from different parts of the community food system and multiple people willing to carry the load.

"Bottom line," Gensler says, "I think it's about the people that show up and having a strong cadre of leaders ... who are just willing to get in there and do the work."

And although not all the food councils in Michigan are completely comfortable working in the policy realm — preferring to do programming that falls outside of government channels — Bynum and Miller emphasize the importance of policy to create systemic change.

"Those changes take longer to implement," Miller says, 'but they're more sustainable and scalable."

By facilitating connections among legislators, administrators, and ordinary citizens, FPCs are able to make sure community concerns get heard, building community capacity in the process.

"Policy is where long-term change comes in," Bynum says. "Giving ordinary community members a chance to learn how to advocate on their own behalf ... and learn which policies are shaping what they see on the ground has been an important part of our work."

This story is part of “Michigan Good Food Stories” a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Read more in this series here.

Photos by Steve Koss.
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