Forging Food Democracy

By Mark Winne

It is not only our duty to make the right known, but to make it prevalent.
—Edmund Burke

General Charles de Gaulle once said, “Politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.” While I wouldn’t want to leave politics to the generals, I take this statement to mean that citizens should never forfeit the process of making public policy to their elected officials. Once we, the people, have elected policy makers, we need to hold them accountable for their actions, whether in matters of war, health or food.

When it comes to hunger, food insecurity, nutrition or agriculture, I can say with categorical certainty that not a single significant policy gain has been made in the past 50 years without the instigation and participation of an active and vociferous body of citizens. Innovation and change do not occur spontaneously in major centers of political power without the incendiary spark of the populists’ voice.

Democracy works best when it’s closest to the people. That is why we can expect city hall to act faster than the state capitol, which in turn tends to respond to its people before Washington, DC. The farther away the decision makers are from those whose lives are affected by their decisions, the slower will be the change that occurs. As we look back over the United States’ efforts to end hunger and provide equitable access to healthy and affordable food, we see that the food gap has widened or narrowed in proportion to the amount of citizen pressure applied. An informed and activated citizenry, one that speaks for the grass roots first and foremost, is necessary to secure lasting change in this country.

The more people seek to gain control over the food they eat and their larger food system, the more they discover the intrinsic logic of addressing food issues and increasing the food security of their own communities at the local and state levels. Because of their interest in community food security, activists, parents, farmers and anyone who feels that he or she has a dog in the fight for healthy and affordable food have been turning increasingly to food policy and food system planning.

Hartford and Connecticut

Hartford, Connecticut, was among the first cities in the country to have a municipal food policy council, while Connecticut was the first state to have a state government food policy council. Founded in 1992, the Hartford Food Policy Council was formed by a city ordinance that established both a city food policy and a council whose task it was to advise city government on how that policy should be implemented. As stated in the ordinance, “The purpose of the policy shall be to integrate all agencies of the city in a common effort to improve the availability of safe and nutritious food at reasonable prices for all residents, particularly those in need.” The policy statement goes on to identify 14 functions of city government that will be used to implement this policy. They include transportation, land use, direct services (food assistance programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, and school meals, which are administered by city agencies), education, health inspections and business development.

The council, whose members are appointed by the city council and include representatives of city departments and the private sector, monitors the performance of the city’s food system, researches and analyzes food issues, and works to improve city government’s response to food problems. Among its accomplishments, the council brought new public transportation to low-income residents that enabled them to easily travel to supermarkets, played a substantial role in removing soft drink machines from the city’s schools, and eliminated barriers to participation in the WIC program that restored the program’s caseload to 11,000 low-income people after it had dropped to 6,000. The Connecticut Food Policy Council, created in 1997, took the lead in securing public attention and support for a major farmland preservation initiative, bringing Electronic Benefit Transfer technology to farmers markets, and securing funding for supermarket development in underserved communities.

Projects, Partners, and Policy

Three things are necessary to change our food system and close the food gap: projects, partners and policy. Without these “three Ps,” synchronized and fully engaged, we will never be able to develop the innovation, know-how, or resources necessary to reach those goals. Projects are singular activities that social justice and local food system advocates pursue—such as farmers markets, food banks and improving the delivery of food assistance programs. They are the oil that lubricates the gears, but more importantly, they are the source of innovation that inspires others to replicate and disseminate them, and, as people learn more from their own experience, to innovate again. Partners are the nexus of relationships and the wellspring of social capital that we draw from to accomplish our work in today’s complex world. No one person, organization or approach will close the food gap. Doing so will require an extended and long-term team effort with some uncommon connections and often un-thought-of players. But it is policy that will “make the right…prevalent.” Getting our heads above our own projects, or even above our own supper plates, is necessary to see the opportunity that public policy affords. We cannot expect change to occur unless we can replicate everywhere the good work that is going on in specific parts of the country, and to do that requires the broad shoulders of government to push with us in the same direction at the same time.