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Talent at the Table: Making the Most of Your Food Policy Council

By: Anne Palmer
People trickled in, greeted each other, and introduced themselves. Conversation peppered the room. By the time we started the meeting, all chairs were taken and the room was full of energy that happens when a group of dedicated, creative and passionate people come together.

All this took place last week in the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council (PFPC), located at the Penn State Center Pittsburgh in the Energy Innovation Center, a newly renovated former trade school, now a LEED-certified green energy and sustainability teaching institution. The Council hosted Mark Winne and myself for two days.

Pittsburgh, like many post-industrial cities, has been busy reinventing itself. From its steel-producing roots, Pittsburgh now supports abundant green space, hip restaurants, and a spectacular skyline for a city of 305,000 residents. And a food policy council!

Like most councils, people are volunteering their time – sometimes in a professional capacity, sometimes just being there because it’s important to them – and come to participate in the meeting. The PFPC is a place for them to network with new colleagues, find out what’s going on with peers and learn from other food system stakeholders about their trials and successes. How do we engage and sustain engagement with all these people? Council Director Dawn Plummer and her colleague, Dora Walmsley, who have been in their positions for one year and a half, can already chalk up a number of significant successes including convening panels, hosting trainings, and helping to pass the urban agriculture zoning code.

Yet they can’t continue to do all they have been doing and still provide leadership and management to the council. That’s where the members come in. Members with lots of experience, expertise and skills bring the Council to life. The urban farmer might have a social media background to help with communications. The community organizer has firsthand experience in advocating for zoning changes. The university researcher is a trained facilitator.

In our final meeting with the leadership team, Mark posed the question, “So I’m new to the food policy council, and I walk in the room, what happens next?” How are they welcomed? Who follows up afterwards? And perhaps most important, what and how do they want to contribute? How will they benefit from becoming a member?

Engagement starts with “hello.” And then a member application and joining a working group. On the application, perhaps ask your volunteer what she or he wants to contribute and hopes to gain from being an FPC member. Instead of a typical board skills matrix, start with Jan Masaoka’s simple questions: “What do we want to accomplish and do we have the right people on board (food policy council) to make that happen?”

When I think about my most rewarding volunteer positions, the common denominator was that I felt my time was used wisely. My supervisors knew what I was good at (talking, translating research) and what I wasn’t good at (details, sitting in meetings); in other words, they knew how to use my talents. I walked away feeling great because my time was well spent and I was actually contributing something. Everyone has something to contribute. If you are a member of a food policy council, ask yourself what you have to offer the group. What will keep you coming back?

I’ve only talked about the people already attending the meetings. Who’s not at the table? The daytime meeting schedule limits community involvement because of work schedules. PFPC talked about attending existing community meetings (rather than expecting people to come to them), and holding meetings in the evenings in strategic locations to increase community participation. How do we use community members’ time wisely so they too have a voice at the table? Yes, it takes time and so does anything that is worth doing. But with everyone lifting a little more, the load becomes lighter.

Photos of the PFPC by Anne Palmer, 2015.

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