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Local Food Policy Councils: Innovative Solution or Steward of the Status Quo?


FPC meme

Food policy councils (FPCs) are a component of local food networks emerging across the United States that seek to coordinate policies affecting the various components of a food system. Food policies are often siloed within disparate government offices responsible for overseeing agricultural production, food processing and distribution, nutrition education, food residual recovery, and environmental protection (Clayton, Frattaroli, Palmer, & Pollack, 2015). The result is policies and programs that target problems in isolation, creating gaps and inefficiencies within the system as a whole (Harper, Shattuck, Holt-Giménez, Alkon, & Lambrick, 2009; Lang, Barling, & Caraher, 2009). This haphazard food policy environment contributes to the poor wages for food system workers, chronic hunger, diet-related diseases, environmental damage that impact community and individual well-being (Anderson, 2008; Neff, Palmer, McKenzie, & Lawrence, 2009; Lang, Barling, & Caraher, 2009). While specific goals of FPCs vary, their primary aim is to provide a place for a variety of stakeholders to engage in dialogue and act collectively on local food system development initiatives.

The number of active local FPCs is growing as a way for local communities to exercise their voice over policies that promote economic development, promote social justice, and reduce the prevalence of food insecurity (Clayton, Frattaroli, Palmer, & Pollack, 2015). However, few FPCs engage in systematic evaluation and little is known about their actual impact (Dharmawan, 2015; Harper, Shattuck, Holt-Giménez, Alkon, & Lambrick, 2009; Scherb, Palmer, Frattaroli, & Pollack, 2016; Sussman & Bassarab, 2016). Shared evaluation processes that elicit stakeholder participation are important elements of effective collective action on food policy strategies (Kania & Kramer, 2011; Ventura, 2013). Furthermore, because many food policy councils receive public support in the form of meeting space, volunteers from public agencies, and sometimes grant funding, it is important to understand how they engage in evaluation of their work and its impact on the public good.


Evaluation is process of systematic inquiry for judging the value, worth, or merit of a program or strategy (Cousins, Goh, Elliott, Aubry & Gilbert, 2014; King & Volkov, 2005). It can take on many forms, including measurement of needs, performance, programs processes, outcomes, and cost-benefit analyses. However, even when organizations manage to conduct evaluations, the results and recommendations are not always used to enhance organizational learning or improve performance. Even though evaluation reports are an important source of information that contribute to evidence-based policy-making, evaluation results have had little impact on political decision-making (Daigneault, 2014; Weiss, 1990). Evaluation capacity is important as part of the broader theories of empowerment, participatory, and utilization-focused evaluation in which the contributions of all stakeholders are solicited and valued in the evaluation process (Preskill & Boyle, 2008). Within empowerment evaluation theory, self-determination is fostered through a process designed to “help people help themselves and improve their programs using a form of self-evaluation and reflection (Fetterman, 2001, p. 3).”

Food policy initiatives warrant special attention when it comes to evaluation because of their ability to cause great benefit or great harm to society (Werkheiser, 2016). Outcomes such as innovation, inclusiveness, self-determination, and community empowerment should be factored into the evaluation measures of these new political spaces (Cohen & Reynolds, 2014; Werkheiser, 2016). However, few FPCs report engaging in evaluation of their networks or policy efforts (Dharmawan, 2015; Scherb, Palmer, Frattaroli, & Pollack, 2016; Sussman & Bassarab, 2016). Lack of time, funding, expertise, and low organizational priority are common constraints (Calancie, Allen, Weiner, Ng, Ward, & Ammerman, 2017; Webb, Pelletier, Maretzki, & Wilkins, 1998). Despite some recent advancements in self-assessment survey tools for FPCs, is important that individual councils and their stakeholders develop the internal capacity to design evaluation plans, criteria, and data collection methods that are meaningful in their particular context and promote engagement in the organizational learning process (Patton, 2008). Without consistent and credible evaluation, is unclear whether FPCs are truly promote sustainability, economic development, and social justice within local food systems.


The local food system movement has been criticized for its equation of the proximity or scale from which food is derived with desirable characteristics such as social justice, nutrition, quality, and environmental sustainability (Born, & Purcell, 2006). This un-reflexive conceptualization of local food systems can overlook elite privilege and contextual differences in food systems, which may undermine the movement’s ability to challenge existing structural inequities and affect meaningful change on a large scale (Allen, Fitz-Simmons, Goodman, & Warner, 2003; DeLind, 2011; Rice, 2015). Furthermore, food policy councils without a lens for equity may inadvertently reinforce existing privilege by overlooking opportunities to advocate for indirect policies that improve food security, such as living wages in food industries, land ownership, access to healthcare, and historical traumas (Hoey, Colasanti, Pirog, & Fink Shapiro, 2017). To address criticisms of the local food movement and demonstrate their value for improving economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and social justice, FPCs need to engage in transparent evaluation of their processes and outcomes. Evaluations can be used to determine program impact, inform future action, persuade stakeholders, and legitimize the existence of the council in the eyes of the community (Fleisher & Christie, 2009; Højlund, 2014; Patton, 2008).

Cookie-cutter approaches to evaluation and external experts are often perceived as inappropriate or unhelpful to local food policy councils. Empowerment and participatory are bottom-up evaluation methodologies that aim to bolster self-determination and community empowerment by actively involving food policy council members in evaluation decision-making (Fetterman, 2001; Patton, 2008). Effective empowerment processes and evaluation use require substantive participation from a diverse range of stakeholders (Cousins & Chouinard, 2012; Patton. 2008; Emerson & Nabatchi, 2015). Substantive participation refers to the broad, equitable, inclusive, and balanced representation of stakeholders whose needs are formally reflected in the official agenda of the organization to be actively involved in the collaborative process (Koski, Siddiki, Sadiq, & Carboni, 2016; Ventura, 2013, p. 21). The use of empowering processes and attention to substantive participation in institutional and community relationships promote well-being through fostering self-determination, respect for dignity, and expression of voice and choice in personal and social affairs (Prilleltensky, 2007).

So what? Evaluation Capacity & Food Policy Councils

It is easy to get excited about new solutions to the problems facing our food system. However, without systematic evaluation of these strategies, efforts can be misappropriated and distract from solutions capable of having a greater impact. Food policy councils are relativity new in the food system landscape and evaluation has so far been limited. Many councils focus on building relationships that increase awareness of and access to farmers’ markets, urban gardens, food pantries, and SNAP. While these are certainly valuable programs, they are largely reactionary or piece-meal solutions that overlook the root causes of chronic food insecurity, unintentionally reinforcing the status quo of food dependency. This begs the questions: are the strategies advanced by food policy councils making a substantial and worthwhile contributions to the improvement of local food environments and food security of marginalized communities? How sustainable or long-lasting are these improvements? And, given scarce resources, are there other programs or policies that would lead to more significant health outcomes at an equivalent or lower cost? Building the evaluation capacity of food policy councils and other collective impact networks in the food systems arena is one important action that could leverage the passion and commitment for a more just food system in ways that provide substantial benefit in terms of innovation, economic development, self-determination, and inclusive institutions. Systematic and consistent evaluation of food policy council strategies would provide the much needed evidence that they meaningfully impact their local communities.



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Self-determination and Resiliency: The Case for Community-based Food Systems

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There are no unicorns, and there are no unicorn foods. This was the analogy given by an agricultural economist speaking on a panel about the future of our food system in reference to the fact that we as humans have multiple, and sometimes conflicting, values and needs that cannot be met by one perfect food. Since no one food, or one food system, is likely to live up to meet all of our needs, we ultimately need to make decisions and prioritize what is most important to us. Personally, I have oscillated through periods of shopping at farmers’ markets and supporting local food systems, and also periods of relying on grocery store chains to deliver the most convenient and economical source of daily sustenance. After the book Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, landed on my reading list this past summer, my commitment to community-based food systems once again strengthened as I reflected on the themes of self-determination and economic diversity.

Dark money is a detailed history that tells the story of a wealthy network of capitalists who have organized and funded a strategy to promote a neoliberal policy agenda aiming to capture the state and impose a new order around corporate interests. This strategy is designed by powerful business leaders to influence public opinion in support of policies that seek to privatize public goods, erode environmental and safety regulations, and suppress wages and labor rights, ultimately boosting corporate wealth and power at the expense of the public. Organizations, like the Koch Foundation, use their tax-exempt foundations to channel money to tax-exempt non-profits that champion their cause through research, advocacy, and public education. Or, as Kari Polanyi Levitt and Mario Seccareccia put it in their erudite commentary on the subject, these foundations foster the “proliferation of neoliberal think-tanks and other such lobby groups, often masquerading as research institutes that can hijack government policies at the local and national levels and end up almost as in camera advisors to elected representatives.”

This brings me back to our food system. Our predominate, commodity-based, food system has contributed to a dietary pattern disproportionately skewed toward a handful of artificially low-priced foods, namely wheat, corn, and processed meat products. Even within types of foods, variety has decreased. The varieties of cabbage grown, for instance, have decreased from 544 in 1903 to just 28 in 1983. In part, this has to do with innovation in seed production that provides farmers greater certainty in the quality of their product. But it is also the effect of a more highly consolidated food system that demands homogeneity in appearance and transport hardiness. All of this is associated with negative impacts on public health. While this system is arguably highly efficient in delivering calories, it is limited and fragile in its ability to provide workers with a living wage and ensure access to a diverse range of appropriate foods for large segments of the population. Further, its resilience over the long-term is questionable.

Resiliency in the food system consists of three key dimensions: (1) the diversity of the food system’s components, (2) the degree to which the components are connected, and (3) the degree of decision-making autonomy within the food system. Significant consolidation of the food system decreases the diversity of its components, including the varieties of foods grown, production methods, distribution channels, employment options for workers. Alternatively, community-based food systems support a wider base of farmers and value-added producers. These smaller, more diverse, networks increase farmer autonomy while building sustained relationships and shared responsibility for investing in the health and prosperity of the community. For example, the New South Produce Cooperative and Grassroots Farmer’s Cooperative in Arkansas connect members to distribution networks, provide technical assistance, and help small farmers raise capital as a collective. This wider base of producers also leads to more diversity in crop varieties, production methods, and employment options that are adapted to local conditions and cultures.

If degree of decision-making autonomy among a broad base of producers is a key component of a resilient food system, this brings us back to reflecting on the systematic erosion of public voice resulting from the extreme neoliberal agenda described in Dark Money. Because of the substantial wealth large food companies have accumulated in relation to workers and consumers, they now have a more influential political voice than the majority of citizens. Eroding the impact of citizens’ political voice creates a more controlled environment in which farmers and other food producers may find themselves with limited autonomy over their production and distribution decisions. With limited competition in the industry and few places to look for more favorable contracts, more and more decisions are instead dictated by corporate interests (whether or not it is beneficial for the farmer or local community). Operating under such conditions leaves the base of our food system vulnerable to shocks, disincentivizes innovation, and makes it difficult to adopt beneficial practices critical for adaptation.

When an industry becomes too concentrated and competition is diminished, politically powerful companies tend to rely on “special political privileges” rather than invest in the human, social and financial capital creation to build the adaptive capacity required for innovation, ultimately hindering their resiliency and ability to consistently provide stable levels of appropriate foods to the public. Farmers’ markets and locally-owned shops may not prove to be the most efficient way to produce and distribute food. But it can be an efficient way to produce and distribute a portion of our food if we re-define efficiency to account for alternative values like autonomy, civic participation, fairness, and long-term resiliency. So, at least for now, I’ve once again circled back to grocery shopping at farmers’ markets and local shops like my right to self-determination and democracy depend on it.

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