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Food Councils Connect People, Share Knowledge, Empower Change

By: Leo Horrigan

Successes in food policy work can make a big difference, from empowering urban farmers to putting food recovery plans into action. But policy work can lack glitz. And when the successes happen, they’re often a long time in materializing.

So, it helps to have peers in other cities and counties with whom to share knowledge gleaned from both the successes and the failures. But it’s not always easy to develop connections with those peers.

That’s why the Food Policy Networks project at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) has made it a priority to connect food policy councils (FPCs) from across the region and the country. Some of the means by which the Network connects people and organizations include a mailing list, webinars, and in-person conferences.

“We can feel like we’re on an island [doing food policy work],” said Heather Bruskin, the executive director of the Montgomery County Food Council, who attended a recent Chesapeake networking event hosted by CLF. The day brought together FPC representatives from across the Chesapeake region. “It’s challenging politics to navigate, and having CLF there as a non-biased, really trusted source of support has been critical. I can’t think of anything CLF has offered that we haven’t taken advantage of.”

CLF also connects FPCs with their counterparts across the country.

“Right now we’re working on solidifying and legitimizing the food recovery initiative in the valley, and taking advantage of what other groups around the country are doing in that area,” said Sue Dalandan, coordinator of the Lehigh Valley Food Policy Council in Pennsylvania. “We met some of these people through the webinars, and some through the research and listings CLF has available.

“And sometimes it’s just a matter of contacting the Center and saying ‘Who do you know that’s working on this?’” said Dalandan.

CLF also connects FPCs with expertise residing in other organizations, as Sydney Daigle can attest. Daigle is the coordinator of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Food Equity Council (FEC), which wanted to craft zoning legislation to make urban farming easier to do in their county. FEC set out to expand both the definition of urban farming and the number of zones where it could be practiced.

CLF connected Daigle and her colleagues with the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School, which helped Daigle and her colleagues hone the language in the proposed zoning amendment.

“We were able to work with people from the Harvard clinic on that definition [of urban farming] to make sure it wasn’t too vague, and to make sure we weren’t going to inadvertently do something we shouldn’t do,” Daigle said.

The zoning amendment passed in 2016, and now 73 percent of the land in Prince George’s County is zoned for urban farming, and at least 13 new urban farms have sprung up.

Daigle also reports that “our advocacy and partnerships led to the creation of a full-time position in the County’s Soil Conservation District Office to support urban farmers, and an urban agriculture property tax credit.”

Daigle anticipates that the newest zoning ordinance – about to be released – will further expand urban farming by allowing it to happen indoors and in industrial and commercial zones, and allow new uses such as urban farm breweries.

One of the signature initiatives that Dalandan is involved in is an effort to create a statewide food policy council in Pennsylvania. CLF helped organize two listening sessions – in Philadelphia and Harrisburg – with the heads of all state government departments and other stakeholders from across the state discussing how such a council might be structured.

“One of the things that came through loud and clear is that we don’t want [the council] housed primarily in the government sector, because if you have a change of administration, you can lose it,” Dalandan said.

Colorado has already been through the process of developing a statewide food policy council, one that began meeting in 2011, and has been providing advice to the Pennsylvania effort. “I suspect that we’re going to be using them quite a bit more,” Dalandan said.

All food policy councils go through a maturation process that gives rise to different needs at different stages of the process. CLF tries to be a resource along that entire path.

As Montgomery County’s Bruskin recounts: “The support and the encouragement, the recognition and the partnership we get from CLF has been critical to our success at every stage of our development.”

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