Food Policy on the Menu

Public officials across the country are striving to promote healthier, sustainable food options.

Food has caught the country's attention, and not only because of our holidays-induced food coma. Public officials across the country are striving to promote healthier, sustainable food options.

From Michelle Obama on down, there is a trend toward greater food awareness, both among individuals and government. Civic-minded consumers support local farms. Foodies hunt for the authenticity of fresh, organically grown produce. City planners are converting vacant lots in struggling neighborhoods into productive green space.

Food policy has a big budget impact, too. The number of Americans receiving food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has risen to over 40 million for the first time. In St. Louis, about 3 in 5 children rely on SNAP. In September, the USDA spent $9.8 billion on nutrition assistance
including SNAP, the national school lunch program, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and more -- an almost 60 percent jump in just two years.

While hunger persists, consuming too much of the wrong food is in part responsible for the rise in the number of overweight and obese Americans. As the First Lady's Let's Move campaign put it, "Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese." The health consequences are frightening. Overweight Americans are at risk for diabetes, heart disease, asthma and more. Improving nutrition is expected to bring financial benefit in the form of reductions to health-care costs.

As local governments address serious social problems, from unemployment to environmental sustainability to public health, food policy questions intermingle. Government actions that support local food production can positively impact job training, opportunities for youth and the development of social capital. The secondary benefits of urban farms -- such as Will Allen's Growing Power, Inc. -- show that growing food can also grow community.

With limited resources, public officials have to grapple with tough questions: What about our food supply should fall within the bounds of public policy? What is better left off of the government's already full plate?

Traditionally, food production, processing, distribution and consumption has comprised a primarily market-based system. Government's role was limited to labeling, standard-setting and safety monitoring through the FDA, USDA and public health inspectors. The other major public policy interventions were financial support programs such as SNAP, WIC and free and reduced school lunch programs.

Today, the food policy umbrella is expanding. Cities are encouraging urban farming through zoning changes and making vacant lots available. Cities are supporting local food producers in their role as purchasers, particularly through the schools. According to Occidental College, almost 10,000 schools have joined farm-to-school programs in which schools source more of their produce from local farmers.

On the consumer side, policy tends to focus on driving behavioral change through education and awareness. Let's Move is an example, as are new rules requiring restaurants to provide nutritional information and the Victory Gardens planted at the White House and in government buildings across the country. Other policies drive behavior by fiat, by restricting individual choice, including bans on trans fats, fast food and fast food toy bans.

Skyrocketing rates of diabetes and obesity are rooted in part in behavior, but these epidemics cannot be checked if families lack access to healthy food alternatives. Low-income, urban and rural neighborhoods often have a third fewer chain grocery stores than more affluent suburbs.

Officials are working to change this. The Baltimore Department of Health's new Virtual Supermarket offers citizens with little to no access to supermarkets an opportunity to order and pick up groceries, some grown locally, at their neighborhood library.

In Philadelphia, a coalition has designed a solution: use public and private capital to help build or refurbish grocery stores in urban food deserts. To date, the program has provided more than $85 million in financing to support 88 new or refurbished stores throughout Pennsylvania. These stores are expected to bring 5,000 jobs and 1.67 million square feet of food retail space. An Innovations in American Government Award finalist in 2008, the Fresh Food Financing Initiative is spreading into New Jersey and New York, and as far away as California, Colorado, Illinois and Louisiana. The U.S. Treasury has modeled a new program after it.

The growing government focus on healthy, local and/or sustainable food is fraught with tension and debate about the proper role of government, particularly during a time of economic downturn. Translating these ideas into public policy is another matter, however. Some public-sector innovations appear to be no-brainers, such as accepting food stamps and WIC funds at farmers markets, or identifying unused city land for use as urban farms. Other innovations, however, are more contentious.

One final, very practical note public servants must consider: How high a priority is improving food access to your constituents? How does it compare to improving education, reducing crime or improving the economy?

Food is likely an issue your city or jurisdiction is already planning around. Yet practice appears to have outpaced our ability to fully understand, realistically, the current and future potential of transformation inside local food systems.

We encourage you to share your own experiences with local, sustainable or healthy food efforts in the comment section below!