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Policy expert Mark Winne has watched food movement grow up

By: Leo Horrigan

Long-time food policy expert Mark Winne has seen this nation’s food movement follow a path that mirrors his own professional journey. More and more advocates are delving into policy to get support for the hands-on projects that were their first forays into food issues.

As a result of this shift in food movement emphasis, there has been an explosive growth in food policy councils in the U.S., going from 100 councils in 2010 to 180 in a recent census by the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC).

Winne may know more about the history of U.S. food policy councils than anyone, as he has been a consultant to dozens of councils over the years, working under the auspices of CFSC. That organization is closing shop at the end of 2012, however, leaving Winne without an umbrella organization to support his food policy council work.  Meantime, he will soldier on as an independent entity, Mark Winne & Associates, while looking for another organization that will house his work.  He has just released a how-to manual for anyone who’s creating a food policy council, entitled Doing Food Policy Councils Right: A Guide to Development and Action.

Winne also recently served as a consultant to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on a survey of U.S. food policy councils. In a recent phone conversation, the Center for a Livable Future asked Mark about the results of the Hopkins survey, the end of CFSC, and the future direction of the food policy council movement, which is a key component of the community food security movement.

Q:  What struck you most about the results from the Johns Hopkins survey of food policy councils?

I was impressed with how often these councils tied institutional food procurement to access issues. People are interested in procurement because it’s going to get more locally produced food into public institutions, which usually means schools.

Locally produced food is regarded as a critical part of increasing access to healthy food. The policies that these councils are trying to develop are very much linked to local food system issues; trying to increase the production and purchasing of locally produced foods.  This produces a much bigger picture of our local food system. They’re looking at linkages among health, equity, social justice and local school food. I was surprised that so many food policy councils were focusing on that larger category of issues – namely, procurement and access.

This seems to say a lot about the direction that food policy councils and policy in general are taking.  They’re talking about local food economies, they’re talking about how those economies could actually improve health, and they’re looking at what the policies are that could actually create more robust local economies.

I was expecting more of the councils to be working on improving ways to get food into emergency food programs, or urban garden programs. I think what was surprising was that taken together as a large group that this was a consistent theme, supporting and developing local food economies. We seem to have a more common agenda [in the food movement] than I thought.

The other thing I found interesting in the study overall is that people are starting to get the role of public policy in creating a just, sustainable food system. Nobody starts with policy. They think about projects.  Starting a garden or getting involved in some sort of hands-on work.  People come to policy work later, when they realize public policy can help those projects. There are obstacles that public policy can put in the way, or incentives it can produce to support those things. The numbers [of food policy councils] suggest that more people are moving from projects to policy.

Q:  What are the barriers to food policy councils becoming more effective tools for policy change?

The potential of food policy councils is far greater than what they’ve been able to achieve.  I think people lack an understanding of what policy is and how policy is made.  They don’t realize the potential that exists in government to make long-term change.  They overlook the things that are right in front of them, like comprehensive plans that are being undertaken by governments all the time.  There are regulations and contracts that schools have to abide by around their procurement. They can be changed; they can favor local food.  A lot of policy councils don’t understand the details of how that works.  Our learning curve is steep as far as how government works.

Sometimes we’ve fallen prey to groupthink and overemphasis on consensus decision-making.  So, we’re wasting a lot of time on process and not digging into the potential that’s there. We do need good leaders to try to move the process along, and we’re not taking that seriously enough. How do you bring about a well-functioning organization?  Not that I want the food policy councils to operate like Monsanto, but we could be learning more about how to do things well.

There’s a third area that I’ve become a little more concerned about lately, which is the pushback feature.  Big Ag is definitely recognizing that local and state food policy activism is potentially a threat to them.”

Recently I’ve seen big food corporations sending a representative to sit on a food policy council – basically, interests that do not share the typical values of these councils.  So, how do food policy councils reconcile their belief that all stakeholders should be heard with these differences in values?

That’s one of the things that’s going on in the country right now – it’s the money that’s voting, not the people.  That could play out with food policy councils, particularly at the state level.

Q:  How can food policy councils get more support within government?

Increasingly, food policy councils are being taken seriously by big-city mayors.  Baltimore’s mayor has been a big deal in food policy, and in the conference of mayors. It’s become a much bigger deal at City Hall. There have been a few skirmishes where the mayor wanted to claim a little too much territory for himself, and the food policy council wanted more.

The councils’ role is always advisory, though, with no specified authority.  I don’t see it evolving [toward greater authority].  I think it will be a long time before that happens. But, the lack of specified authority doesn’t mean that a food policy council can’t be powerful.  It has to do assessment.  It has to be constantly publicizing information around food.  A food policy council can derive power from its diversity. It can have members from the public sector, the private sector, etc. But the paradox is that you can have huge controversies that arise from differences in values.

Q:  Is the ultimate goal to get food policy councils institutionalized within local and state governments?

Ken Dahlberg, a professor in Michigan, once said: “No local or state government has a department of food.” He’s right.  Well, is it even desirable to have a department of food? How much authority do you want invested in a food policy council?  What I like about food policy councils is they are a multi-dimensional entity.  Once you create a department, you tend to put walls around it, create silos.  I kind of like the openness at this point.

I think it would be really helpful if cities began to take food more seriously; fund one or two positions around food, an office of food systems with one or two staff people.  That’s probably about as far as I’d like to see it go at this point.

Another aspect of why City Hall is paying attention: There’s this huge food constituency out there. They have to pay attention. Foodies are a pretty outspoken lot. They all vote. Any astute politician is going to say, this is a constituency I have to pay attention to. It has to become a more formal part of government.  My prediction.

It’s going back to this project-to-policy phenomenon. I experienced it myself. I see it in a lot of young people.  In some ways, the growth in food policy councils is a function of the growth of the community food security movement.  As communities become more responsible for their food system and more engaged, they tend to look at other things – models – to help them, and food policy councils are one of those models.

Q:  What has been the significance of the Community Food Security Coalition as far as food policy councils are concerned?

CFSC has been the platform for the development of the food policy council movement. We’ve been this hub of activity, and have provided an incredible amount of capacity building. Under the auspices of the CFSC, I have probably been to 50 communities in the past three years, and logged thousands of hours consulting on the phone and through email.

We have been the go-to place for policy councils, and now that’s gone.  I have said that I would make this my business, Mark Winne & Associates, and see if people will pay me for these services. It will be hard, without institutional support, to provide the kind of service that we had been providing. And I don’t know of anyone else who is doing this kind of work.

You can find out more about Mark Winne and his professional services at

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