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Food Policy Councils: Is There a Best Structure?

By: Laura DiGiulio

There are many organizational types of food policy councils (FPCs), but for my masters thesis I explored the significance of those differences—and similarities. In particular, I investigated whether those differences were associated with differences in FPC outcomes, objectives or orientations.

What did I want to know? As a research topic, this question of how best to structure an FPC is relatively new and has not been addressed, let alone answered, in the literature. So, in partnership with CLF’s Food Policy Networks (FPN) project, I dug deeper into the question: Is there an association between organizational type and differences in institutional and organizational characteristics, discourse (how FPCs conceptualize and communicate about food systems issues as well as their role in improving them) and strategies (approach to food system issues)?

How did I do it? My research involved both bivariate analyses , which are used to determine the relationship between two variables, of the 2015 FPN directory data (N=173) as well as qualitative analyses of 24 case studies, selected from the survey sample. In both datasets, FPCs were divided by three main organization types: grassroots, nonprofit and government-embedded. Within the survey sample, there were 75 nonprofits, 61 grassroots and 37 government-embedded FPCs. For the case studies, I narrowed down the pool to the FPCs that had been in existence for at least three years and had some web presence to draw from, and then selected eight of each organization type. For those case study FPCs, I analyzed their institutional and organizational characteristics, their discourses and their strategies.

What did I find? The table below summarizes my hypotheses and whether support was found for each when considering both the survey and case study results together. For instance, while survey results showed that government-embedded FPCs were significantly more likely to receive government-funding, the FPCs selected for case studies showed similar levels of need for funding and staff across all subgroups. By and large, more similarities than differences were found across subgroups. This suggests that FPC “form” may not be a significant factor in their success or orientation toward problems, but may be related more to local influences and available resources.

Hypothesis

Support found?

Institutional & Organizational Characteristics
H1: FPCs of different organizational types will vary in terms of institutional and organizational characteristics, discourse, and strategies. Little support. There are more areas of convergence among FPCs of all subgroups than differences.
H2: Government-embedded FPCs will exhibit greater institutional support and access to resources compared to the other two subgroups, which will exhibit reduced access to resources, particularly staff and funding.

 

 

Mixed. Government-embedded FPCs in case studies appear to have equal problems with lack of resources such as funding and staff, but survey results show higher frequency of “government-funded” connection and overall closer relationships to government.
H3: Nonprofits may enjoy greater access to institutional partnerships and/or funding opportunities compared to grassroots. Little support, although nonprofits did exhibit a somewhat lesser need for basic organizational stability.
Discourse
H4: Discourses will fit into food security and/or food justice lenses. Strong support. Mostly food justice.
H5: Government-embedded FPCs may exhibit a weaker orientation towards social justice issues more broadly. Little support. Discourse less diverse.
Strategies
H6: Government-embedded FPCs will exhibit a greater tendency to engage in activities that conform more closely with the Reformist trend than the other two subgroups. Moderate support. Greater within-group uniformity in food provision-related approach to food system issues. In other words, these FPCs are highly concentrated on hunger alleviation, as opposed to systems-based structural change of the food system that promotes equity and sustainability.
H7: Nonprofit and government-embedded FPCs may enjoy greater success or effectiveness compared to grassroots (see H2 & H3) Mixed support. These subgroups exhibited somewhat greater organizational stability & policy activity.

 

Additionally, this Venn diagram provides a visual representation of the many areas of overlap, as well as a few areas of divergence, in the discourses of each FPC organization type. We see that for all subgroups, certain terms such as “access,” “local” and “sustainability” arose frequently. This, along with the other terms shared across all three subgroups and the relatively fewer quantity that are unique to any individual subgroup, suggest that FPCs of all organizational types are converging around similar concepts and sharing similar language to discuss the food system. It is interesting to note, however, the relative abundance and diversity in terms unique to the nonprofit subgroup, as well as the inclusion of “safe” as a common term in the government-embedded subgroup only.

In some cases, these findings did not necessarily relate to any of the hypotheses listed above, but came out of the research in the process of testing those hypotheses. As such, last but certainly not least, I ask: What are the takeaways (or important, significant, and consistent findings)?

To summarize, here are my most important takeaways for FPC leaders, community members, government officials and researchers:

  • Many FPCs operate similarly, with shared opportunities and challenges, despite differences in organization type. In other words, we find more similarities than differences across organizational types. A better strategy may be to start with the resources available to your FPC, based on local context, and allow the structure/organization type to follow.
  • Networking is something that many FPCs express a desire for, and that could help to address other needs, such as access to information about what what works and how to communicate better across organizations, cities, regions, etc. This could potentially be done through virtual meetings and/or webinars on specific topics.
  • This point is similar and highly relevant to the preceding one. FPCs are converging around many of the same issues and experiencing many of the same challenges. This suggests that the potential for productive collaboration AROUND these shared goals is great. Moreover, this convergence around common issues could help to facilitate/ease the process of networking and collaboration itself.
  • Critiques of FPCs and similar organizations have included a noted underrepresentation of labor and workforce representatives as well as of farmers and other members of agricultural industries. Other critiques have cited a need for greater focus on social and racial (in)justice as well as economic development and inequality as central to creating a just food system. My results have not provided evidence that would contradict, and thus might suggest that FPCs work to further engage these stakeholders and to focus on a wider range of core social issues.

Finally, FPCs may find some of the following links helpful when considering how to get involved with a range of issues, connect with other FPCs and consider the best organizational structure for their community context:

Food Policy for All: Inclusion of Diverse Community Residents on Food Policy Councils (2014)

Building the Case for Racial Equity in the Food System (2014)

Taking a look at the bylaws of other FPCs may also provide guidance

For any questions about this post or other specific findings, please feel free to contact me via lad5144 at gmail dot com.

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