6 Ways to Get Involved with Food Policy

by Emma Clippinger

7/15/19

Food policy shapes every aspect of our food system. While it can often seem as though decisions about our food system are outside of our control, food policy gives us the tools to better understand and participate in those decisions. Read our Food Policy 101 page to learn more about how food policy gets determined at the institutional, local, state and federal levels — and then take these actionable steps below to become the most essential part of how food policy gets made in this country: individual voices.

Join or Start a Food Policy Council

Food policy councils (FPCs) discuss local food system issues and push for local and state policy change. The number of FPCs has grown rapidly in recent years, with over 270 councils active across the United States. Membership, governance and priorities vary from group to group, but in general, they’re a great place to get involved, whether through attending open meetings and workshops or joining as an active member of the council. Food Policy Councils address a wide range of issues, depending on the specific needs of their local communities, and they have claimed a number of policy wins – from New Mexico’s Food & Agriculture Policy Council securing $85,000 in recurring state funding for New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables for school meals to the Washtenaw County, MI Food Policy Council changing county buying policies to give preference to local food and require reusable, compostable, and recyclable foodservice wares.

Source: Bassarab, Karen et al. “Food Policy Council Report 2018.” Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, April 2019.
Source: Bassarab, Karen et al. “Food Policy Council Report 2018.” Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, April 2019.

Food Policy Networks,  out of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, maintains a number of excellent resources for food policy councils, including an up-to-date FPC Directory and a library with webinars, research reports and toolkits.

Identify Organizations Fighting for the Food Issues You Care About

Food is complicated and there are lots of issues to tackle, so the leading advocacy organizations typically focus on a narrow subset of issues. The day-to-day work of food policy advocacy involves tracking relevant laws and regulations, publishing research to support your positions, and establishing relationships with elected representatives, government officials and other key stakeholders to advance your policy agenda. It would be nearly impossible to do this work for every issue that touches on the food system, across all levels of government.

Think about what food issues are most important to you, recognizing, of course, that most issues are deeply interconnected. Sustainable agriculture? Labor? Public Health? Animal welfare? There is no singular, “most important” issue; what matters is that it is important to you and will move you to take action.

There are many fantastic organizations doing policy work related to these issue areas and the following list provides a small sampling of national organizations that make it easy to follow their policy agenda and take action:

We also strongly encourage you to find opportunities to engage at the state and local level. Reach out to your favorite local organizations and ask how to best support their policy agenda.

Put Your Local, State and Federal Representatives’ Numbers in Your Phone

Calling your representatives is important for all of the policy issues that you care about, but especially for food! Food policy issues often go under the radar. This means that even a relatively small number of calls about a sustainable agriculture grant fund or a CAFO moratorium law can convince your representatives that these issues are important to their constituents.

Advocacy organizations do a great job of alerting you to government action on the issues you care about, but they often ask you to email your representatives or sign a petition. While clicking “sign my name” feels easier in the moment, picking up the phone and calling your representatives is more effective. This can sound intimidating — calling a busy elected official about a complicated policy issue! — but keep in mind that you will talk to a member of their office whose job it is to listen to you, a constituent. Calls need not be lengthy: the most important information is 1) your name, 2) your zip code, and 3) the government action you would like to see (e.g. support this legislation or fund this initiative). You should also mention if you have a personal or professional connection to the issue, but this is not necessary.

You can use this easy search tool to look up your representatives at the local, state and federal level and get their phone numbers.

Identify Who Shapes Your Food Environment

Food policy is ultimately about looking for opportunities to achieve systems-level change: addressing the root causes and making changes that alter the structure of how food is made, purchased and distributed. A number of forces converge to influence what food is available to us at any given moment and what we do next with that food – purchase, consume, throw out, donate, compost, etc. Take a moment to think about the places where you and your family most frequently encounter and consume food, particularly large institutions such as employers, schools and food retailers. Whether they are public or private, these institutions can all implement policies to support healthy, equitable and sustainable food.

Employers

See if your employer has a workplace health program that supports healthier food options in vending machines and cafeterias. If your employer caters meals, how do they make decisions about what vendors they use? The Philadelphia Food Policy Advisory Council, for example, puts together guidelines for supporting fair, healthy, sustainably-sourced, and local vendors. You can also work with your employer to reduce food waste by donating food or implementing a composting program.

Schools and Universities

Public schools are required to develop and implement school wellness policies that include nutrition standards and guidelines for all food available – and marketed – to students during the school day. Parents and teachers can get involved in drafting wellness policies that support healthier choices and options. See if your school district is part of the Good Food Purchasing Program and, if not, meet with district officials to talk to them about it. Likewise, if you are college or graduate student, see if your campus is a member of the Real Food Challenge, which seeks to shift $1 billion of university food budgets towards “real food.”

Grocery Stores

The next time you go to your grocery store, see what items are available at the checkout aisle. If you see unhealthy items, meet with a manager and encourage them to adopt healthy checkout practices. Or, look at the date labels on your packaged foods: do you see labels other than “BEST if Used By” or “USE by”? Encourage your grocery store to adopt these best practice date labels to reduce food waste. You can also see if they partner with a food rescue organization to donate surplus food to community kitchens and food pantries.

Comment on Food-related Regulations at the Federal and State Levels

Laws and regulations are both essential components of policy, but advocacy efforts often focus on the former and overlook the latter. Under federal law, agencies must allow the public an opportunity to comment during the rulemaking (creating regulations) process. There are many ways that commenting makes a difference and agencies will analyze comments and address key concerns when they issue a final regulation. Regulations.gov makes it easy to see what issue areas are open for public comment. You can also search the comments to see what other people and organizations are saying.

The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) provides an excellent example of how commenting makes a difference. Under FSMA, the FDA was given authority to revamp food safety practices for agricultural producers and, in 2013, issued two draft regulations. These draft regulations would have placed significant burdens on sustainable producers and caused indelible harm to local food economies around the country. Thanks in large part to a campaign led by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the FDA received tens of thousands of comments and revised the regulations to create exemptions and protections for small, sustainable producers.

Make Food Choices that Support Your Values

Recent shifts in food marketing and production — like the increase in organic sales to the rise of plant-based food options to the spread of cage-free eggs — show us that changes to our food system can happen on a large scale as the result of consumer demand. As Michael Pollan reminded us in his influential 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, eating is political act. We encourage you to think about the whole value chain when you think about your food, not just what the label says or where you buy your food, but also who is producing, packing, transporting, serving and profiting off of your food choices. It can be very hard to distinguish marketing from rigorous certification and you can use FoodPrint’s Food Label Guide to understand what a label does — or does not — guarantee.

We recognize that making food choices that support your values often costs more. We have grown accustomed to a food system that externalizes its negative consequences — such as diet-related disease, low wages and environmentally destructive production practices. When producers try to correct for these externalities, they — and, in turn, their customers — must bear the true costs. There are ways to stretch your food dollars while you participate in such a system. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), for example, offers one way to support local producers, eat seasonal food, reduce waste, and support community food security while paying less. With a CSA, you purchase a “share” of a local farm’s harvest directly, reducing many of the costs associated with marketing, packaging and distribution. CSAs also often make a commitment to accessibility and offer different pricing models to accommodate members with different means.

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