N.Y. needs council for food policy

food policyWhat do obesity, hunger and food insecurity, the declining number of farms, water and air pollution from factory farms, the prevalence of unhealthy food choices and the lack of quality, affordable foods have in common?
First, each represents a complex issue of public concern linked to our food system.

Second, achieving meaningful solutions will require coordinated effort among the agriculture industry, health professionals, nutritionists, anti-hunger advocates, environmental groups and government.

This kind of coordination is rare since dozens of relevant programs, located in federal, state and local agencies, are seldom guided by comprehensive food policy planning. Nutrition programs usually are not designed in conjunction with agriculture policies. The way our nutrition assistance and school meals programs are designed, for example, makes it difficult to use locally produced foods.

In response, a growing number of states and cities have established food policy councils. Susan Roberts, an Iowa Food Policy Council member and director of the Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellowship program, describes them as groups of citizens and government officials that provide a comprehensive examination of a state or local food system. They can cut across governmental lines to provide coordinated responses to food, nutrition and agriculture.

Mark Winne, former director of The Hartford Food System, believes the councils' mission is to:

  • Develop, coordinate and implement a food system policy.
  • Link economic development, anti-hunger and food security efforts, preservation and enhancement of agriculture, and environmental concerns.
  • Ensure universal access to healthy and affordable food.
  • Support development and expansion of local food systems.

Over the past two decades, food policy councils have been established in 14 states and in a handful of North American cities. It is time for New York state to establish one.

Earlier this year, Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, and Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, introduced legislation to establish a state food policy council to develop "comprehensive, coordinated state food policies with the goal of providing a plentiful, accessible, affordable, safe and nutritious food supply, comprised of locally produced foods as much as possible, so that all citizens ... are able to eat a healthy diet and avoid hunger and have the opportunity to support a vibrant local farm and food economy."

Framers of the bill believe food assistance programs could be better coordinated to end hunger. Programs and policies could be developed to simultaneously benefit New York agriculture as well as nutrition, the environment, and state and local economies. School meal programs alone bring more than $700 million from the federal government into New York each year.

To Mark Dunlea, associate director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State, the need for a food policy council is clear. "We will not end hunger in our community without a thriving agriculture community. The council would help create win-win situations, such as helping local farmers sell to schools and restaurants so consumers have better access to healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables."

Despite widespread support, the bill didn't pass. But the need for a more comprehensive approach to the problems has not vanished. Hopefully the new governor will support this initiative.