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Research Offers Insights into Factors Shaping Food Policy Council Priorities

Membership Composition, Relationship to Government Influence FPC Policy Agendas

Feb 25, 2020


A recent study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Health Engineering examines how factors such as organizational structure, relationship to government, and membership composition affect food policy councils’ policy priorities. This work adds to a growing body of literature that aims to better understand the structures, operations, activities, and goals of food policy councils.

“Food policy councils are important organizing vehicles for individual and community participation in food systems change,” said Karen Bassarab, lead author of the study and Food Communities and Public Health Senior Program Officer at the CLF. “Our goal for this research was to start to understand what factors drive the food systems issues that food policy councils decide to focus on.”

The researchers used survey data from 222 food policy councils across the United States and quantitative analysis to examine their organizational structures, relationships to government, and membership composition; as well as broad patterns in the relationships between these key factors and policy priorities. To illustrate some of the dynamics of the significant relationships they found in the statistical analysis, three case studies of food policy councils in Baltimore, Maryland; Adams County, Pennsylvania; and Austin, Texas were also included.

The study found that in general, food policy councils operate at the local-level and most are embedded within an institution such as a nonprofit organization, state or local government, or a university. Many of the food policy councils have a connection to government, including government funding or government members and appointees. Food policy councils’ membership consists of stakeholders from across the food system, including nonprofit staff, elected officials, and community members.

The study’s findings suggest that membership composition and relationship to government appear to have more bearing on policy priorities than organizational structure. More involvement with government, however, leads to the de-prioritization of specific policies, particularly food production. Conversely, food policy councils with no relationship to government are more likely to prioritize food production policies. In addition, for some membership sectors, the study found a relationship between the policy priority and the sector that the member represents. For example, food policy councils with members who are farmers or ranchers are more likely to prioritize food production policies.

These findings highlight the importance of further studies on mechanisms for participation in food policy councils, including member selection and authority. The relationships between membership sectors and policy priorities raise questions about whose values are being represented by the food policy council. The councils face an inherent challenge in trying to balance the influence of experts and professionals with the experience and knowledge of those facing food systems issues who are traditionally excluded from the policy process. Food policy councils can create greater pathways for citizens to participate in the policy process, but that can only be achieved with government cooperation.

“Food policy councils allow people with varying interests to grapple with the complexities of food systems issues, deliberate on appropriate and timely strategies, and collectively agree on directions to pursue for policy change. This study shows that members matter,” said Bassarab. “Who sits on a food policy council, and to a lesser extent, how they are connected to government, are key in shaping which issues they address in their policy work.”

Finding our way to food democracy: Lessons from US food policy council governance” was written by Karen Bassarab, Jill K. Clark, Raychel Santo, and Anne Palmer and published in a special issue of Politics and Governance on New Perspectives on Food Democracy.