Food policy councils are springing up in communities across Michigan

Food policy councils formed to address matters related to local food and food systems are now serving residents in 40 of 83 Michigan counties.

Policy makers, producers and consumers of food are beginning to look more closely at issues that impact the food we produce and eat. More and more consumers have questions about where their food comes from and the manner in which it was produced. Producers, especially in small or niche markets, are seeking to farm in urban and suburban plots to be closer to their markets. Policy makers are more frequently asked to respond to land use demands, noise and odor concerns and increasing demand for farmers markets, mobile vendors and other non-traditional methods of distributing locally produced food, such as food carts that sell exclusively fresh fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods.

According to Food First – Institute for Food and Development Policy, “A Food Policy Council consists of a group of representatives and stakeholders from many sectors of the food system. Ideally, the councils include participants representing all five sectors of the food system (production, consumption, processing, distribution and waste recycling). They often include anti-hunger and food justice advocates, educators, non-profit organizations, concerned citizens, government officials, farmers, grocers, chefs, workers, food processors and food distributors. Food Policy Councils create an opportunity for discussion and strategy development among these various interests, and create an arena for studying the food system as a whole.”

Food First found four basic functions of food policy councils. They serve as forums for discussing food issues; they attempt to foster coordination between sectors of the food system, they evaluate and influence policy; and they launch or support programs and services that address local needs. Not all councils were formed with the goal of influencing policy and may have a programming orientation. For distinction, they may refer to themselves as a food council.

Food policy councils have developed in communities where the demand for policy and issue guidance is growing. The first council was formed in 1982 in Knoxville, Tenn. Since that time, local, regional and state food councils have been established across the country. The Michigan Food Policy Council was formed in 2005 with the purpose of bringing together a broad spectrum of governmental agencies to work in partnership to address a range of food policy issues affecting state governmental departments and the citizens of Michigan. The Council’s quarterly meetings are open to the public.

From Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the metropolitan Detroit region and in many communities in between, citizens are represented by food policy councils. Most are grassroots organizations covering regional, multi-county or individual counties. It is a goal of Michigan State University Extension’s Community Food Systems team to support the development and sustainability of local food councils.

Many communities are beginning to realize the need for food councils and responding accordingly. Jane Whitacre, director of the Michigan Food Policy Council said, “Our survey of the state identified 22 local food councils representing about 40 of Michigan's 83 counties. It is clear that good food is valued as a pathway to better health and a better economy all across our state. These councils formed on their own because food is an issue that is central to so many aspects of our community; health, children, obesity, jobs and family to name a few."

The Fair Food executive summary of a review of food policy councils across the country can be accessed online. For more information about food councils in your area or to contact an Extension educator, visit MSU Extension’s “Find an Expert” website and search using the keywords, “community food."

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