Photograph by USDA/Bob Nichols
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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to the National Farmer’s Union on the economy of American agriculture during their annual Fall Legislative Fly-In at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D. C. on Monday, Sept. 12, 2011.
Photograph by USDA/Bob Nichols

Food Czars and Food Policy Councils

Food people can be a funny bunch—eating, the most democratic of subjects, is sometimes treated with aristocratic separatism.

An architect friend made the food separatism point when grilling me this weekend about Food Policy Councils (FPC), the mainly 21st-century creation of government advisory panels that centralize coordination of food laws. We live in Washington, D.C., which in July held hearings to consider a bill creating an FPC to manage our city’s dizzying food evolution, on the expensive end with our first Daniel Boulud restaurant, the food insecure end with mobile farmers markets visiting areas where fresh food is otherwise in low supply, and every point in between.

My friend questioned the city government funding infrastructure for a group of experts to consider regulations for subjects as varied as feeding the hungry, tackling diet-based disease (resulting from both poverty and wealth), urban beekeeping, and food trucks that sell $20 sandwiches. Perhaps even more controversial is the creation in same legislation of a new position of Food Policy Director, which would presumably be a paid position and was immediately labeled as the “Food Czar.” (Expect it to remain so because, let’s face it, who would give up that title?) These issues are usually handled by health, zoning, and environmental government workers—is another layer superfluous?

With the past decade of food issues at the forefront of public discourse, new organizations to improve the food network have sprung up that don’t operate under the same assumptions that older food organizations use. As Councilman Ben Kallos (D) of New York City wrote to me last week in support of his proposal to create a government-based FPC, there are “hundreds of food active groups, from the organizations with annual budgets of millions of dollars to the tiny neighborhood advocates…. A Food Policy Council would help level the playing field for the grassroots advocates…”

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Members of the National Farmer’s Union line up to ask questions. Photograph by USDA/Bob Nichols

For-profit and not-for-profit corporations, faith-based organizations, government agencies, and individuals like farmers and chefs need coordination to best serve an area’s needs. FPCs are by definition local and responsive to those needs and focused on food.

Whether established at the city level (as proposed in D.C. and New York) or on the state level, FPCs are locally based and can address their citizenry’s particular commerce and cultural needs. This sensitivity is particularly important around the highly personal subject of food—people tend to see food regulations as mandates about what they can’t eat handed down from on high. Indeed well intentioned federal food programs, the carrots most frequently misinterpreted as sticks, can be translated through FPCs.

Translating food speak into language that citizens understand and support is a crucial function. Food people are a passionate bunch and sometimes we can’t understand why everyone doesn’t get it, to our own detriment. FPC members must communicate that better food systems affect everyone, and improve every area of our lives—productivity at work (in every single sector), health care outcomes, maximizing return on our significant investment in children’s education, saner neighborhood development, to name a few. As Kallos says “our complex, urban food systems provide great opportunities to tackle many problems for many people simultaneously.”

On the other side, food businesses are more likely to trust and feel understood by an FPC who speaks the language of food. Developers are beginning to put food at the heart of commerce once again, from farmers’ markets to small specialty markets to fast casual restaurants. Incentives should be codified to ensure continued progress.

FPCs come in many forms but the ones I advocate are government-based, and—funded whenever possible, rather than independent coalitions. Non-government FPCs, while vastly superior to no FPCs at all, are usually funded by outside organizations with particular issue interests and may focus too heavily on one issue at the expense of others. For example, focusing on food security, while a worthy and urgent issue, omits other issues and may not bring people with certain expertise to the table (like small restaurateurs) who could help with food security, simply because they’ve never thought of the issue.

Even though FPCs’ supporters often focus on food security benefits, commerce and business have much to gain from a cohesive approach to taxing, zoning, and the special health regulations particular to food services. Most urban areas like New York and Washington have both extreme wealth and poverty.

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Pamela Roy, director of the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council, poses a question to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Photograph by USDA/Bob Nichols

With its members’ special knowledge about the food world, FPCs can recommend development of legislation promoting policies that have been successful in other cities or internationally. Imagine abandoned city land improved by gardens, with a law leasing those lots to farmers to grow food and tax abatement as incentive. If the same crops are served to both food banks and high-end restaurants, the urban grocery gap gets a little narrower.

And imagine food being central to planning low-income communities in the same way that most mixed-use luxury buildings now boast a high-end market. In D.C., having access to a grocery store is defined as having one within a five-minute walk, because walking farther than that can be burdensome as an elderly person or a person with a child (and even more so when weighed down with groceries on the way home). A poor food environment without access to fresh foods strands many to a life with nutrition-related illness. FPCs can be forward-thinking and address the grocery gap, not just its effects of disability and early death.

Government-based FPCs usually consist of representatives of various stakeholders in the food sectors, appointed by a Mayor or governor, who volunteer their time to serve on the FPC. Complicated problems call for many perspectives. In an email, Kallos gave his vision for a wide array of people who might be included in his proposed FPC—food chain labor (workers centers, unions), food distribution (large scale and alternative, like food co-ops), waste management, community gardening, architecture/design.

The past decade has been marked by extraordinary social innovation by state and local governments in many areas. FPCs might be the next new government trend.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.