Magazine article Public Management

Food for Thought: How and Why Local Governments Support Local Food Systems

Magazine article Public Management

Food for Thought: How and Why Local Governments Support Local Food Systems

Article excerpt

For many of us, food is an easy thing to take for granted, but the systems that ensure we're able to access and enjoy food are not always obvious, particularly if you don't run a farm, a grocery store, a restaurant, or a food pantry. As a local government leader, it's unlikely you'd consider yourself to be in the food business.

But consider for a moment how food is at the core of community well-being. Different metrics of well-being have been used to evaluate communities in the United States and abroad, and they often include factors related to individuals' health and security. Food can be closely linked to each. It provides sustenance, fueling our performance at school, work, and play; it's hard to dispute that everyone deserves access to food that is healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate.

Strong economies, sustainable environments, and opportunities for interaction also contribute to community livability. Food-related sectors make up significant components of our workforce, from agriculture to retail to restaurants. Food can be produced in ways that either degrade or conserve our natural resources. And from families gathering at the dinner table to neighbors mingling at a community garden or farmers market, food facilitates connectedness.

While local governments are admittedly not primarily responsible for generating their communities' food supplies, local government plans, policies, programs, and posture do influence--for better or worse--how food is produced, processed, distributed, accessed, and disposed of. It is possible to leverage these local government practices and tools to promote quality of life, whatever that means to you and your constituents, through local food system activities.

Many communities have figured this out.

Three years since we fielded the first comprehensive national study of local governments' food-related activities, (1) ICMA and the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems conducted a follow-up survey (called the 2015 Food Systems Survey) in the summer of 2015. A total of 2,237 local governments responded to this survey, at a response rate of 15.7%. Table 1 provides a summary of responses. (2)

As in 2012, the 2015 instrument covered a wide array of potential opportunities for local governments to engage in food system development, including specific policies, practices, and programs. We also inquired about partnerships, funding sources, and motivations and drivers of food-related activity.

While the incidence of various specific activities appears modest in many cases, if we take a wide-angle view, a majority of local governments can and do find ways to support local food systems.

Consider these observations about the local governments that responded to the survey:

* 73% provide some type of support--that is, via policy, practice, or as a partner in or administrator of a program--to at least one of 24 types of local food system activities suggested by our survey.

* 56% associated their food-related plans, policies, and/ or programs with at least one, and on average 2.9, community priorities such as public health, community development, or economic development.

* Similarly, 56% identified at least one of their departments with responsibility for food systems issues.

These municipalities and counties referenced above can be found in every state; range in population from under 2,500 to over 1 million; and represent every form of government. These results affirm our previous assertion that local food systems provide fertile ground for local government innovation, regardless of community size, geography, or other community characteristics. This analysis will review some of the more common approaches observed in 2015.

Targets of Specific Policies, Programs

As we recognized in 2012, there are often multiple forms of support local governments can provide to a given food system activity:

* local ordinances or zoning can provide the legal basis for something to exist

* internal practices, formal policies, or partnerships can dedicate human, capital, or financial resources

* administration of projects or programs can even reside solely within a unit of government. …

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