Community food system policy-development resources for local government

Local governments have a role to play and resources to use in cultivating a flourishing food system with supportive plans and regulations.

A group of chickens in a chicken coop
Inside a backyard chicken coop | Photo by Sarah Monte

In response to growing public interest and awareness surrounding agriculture and locally sourced food, the Upper Peninsula Food Exchange (UPFE) policy committee works with communities across the region to provide education, draft and recommend regulations, and advocate for public policy that supports the growth of community food systems. As a senior educator for Michigan State University Extension, I serve on this committee.

The committee, comprised of local food leaders, educators, local government officials, conservationists, and farmers meets monthly to talk about local government policies and regulations that affect community food systems across the U.P. Much of the work related to community food systems in Michigan focuses on connecting area farmers with institutional and other large food purchasers in a community. Less work has been done on the local regulatory environment that might prohibit a family from growing or raising some of their own food.

This is the focus of the UPFE policy committee – to assist local government officials in amending and adopting local policies and regulations that support growth of the community food system. In creating a regulatory environment for more individuals to produce food locally for personal and/or commercial purposes, the overall supply of local food in a region will more likely satisfy the growing demand by restaurants, institutions, and other large volume food purchasers.

The UPFE policy committee helped the City of Marquette draft language for its newly implemented Land Development Code that includes permissive standards for local food production. Under the updated code, new guidelines were set for season extension structures and the keeping of small animals - chickens, rabbits, and bees, within city limits. Similar policy changes have been implemented in the City of Ishpeming, and the City of Munising is working to improve the access and availability of local foods too, with the UPFE resources in-hand.

The UPFE policy committee takes an educational and technical assistance approach in working with communities on local food system policy. The committee has developed several guides and educational resources housed on the UPFE website as policy resources. For instance, the Community Food Systems Guide provides information on the benefits of a local food economy and also touches on important local government considerations associated with the Michigan Right to Farm Act, PA 93 of 1981, as amended.

The Right to Farm Act does limit a local government’s ability to regulate commercial agricultural operations, but it does not extend to livestock raised in primarily residential areas or non-commercial, hobby food growing or animal raising activities. While Marquette city officials were working on the new code, the UPFE policy committee provided assistance, connecting them with leading experts in the field and appropriate resources to streamline the process.

Other policy resources available on the UPFE website include:

  • A Guide to Season Extension Structures - provides descriptions and photos of standard small scale produce growing practices and structures to create a common understanding among those growing the produce and the local officials charged with administering local ordinances.
  • Community Food Systems Sample Survey - intended for use by local planning commissions in the development of a master plan update focused on the community food system, or by any community organization working to advance the food system in a target community. It provides insight into community perspectives about food systems so the community can develop and prioritize locally appropriate policies.
  • Sample Master Plan Language for Community Food Systems - defines the components of a community-based food system, lists types of policies and regulations to consider, and includes an implementation section to be used to guide policy, programming, and regulation development as they relate to food systems.
  • Sample Zoning for Residential Small Livestock Keeping - intended for use by local planning and zoning officials and others interested in tailoring local government zoning regulations to support community food systems where local authority to do so exists outside that covered by the Michigan Right to Farm Act.

On the technical assistance side, the UPFE policy committee understands that updating a plan or amending a zoning ordinance is no simple task. To assist, the group prepared sample language that a community can use as a starting place for having a community conversation about the topic and then tailoring the language to fit the community’s needs and desired future direction.

When it comes to specific zoning standards in our sample documents, we’ve referenced science-based standards, because if a standard is questioned by an aggrieved party or even a court, that standard can only be justified if it is based on science and developed to protect public health, safety, and welfare. For example, the committee references technical documentation including the State of Michigan Urban Livestock Workgroup Recommendations Report and the Care of Farm Animals Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices.

With education and technical assistance tied to the latest science-based information, the UPFE policy committee is trying to enable more communities to take the steps to cultivate flourishing food systems throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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