The Problems & Progressive Local Solutions
Ensuring an equitable, sustainable, and thriving local food system involves myriad concerns, and local governments must tackle these problems holistically, from farm to table.
Progressive local food policies should consider the implications of their food system on public health and ensure the availability and affordability of healthy food options for all their residents. Local governments should also cooperate and coordinate their efforts to improve their food systems: When cities ensure that the surrounding farm communities have ample opportunities to sell their fresh foods locally it makes communities and the local economy healthier. Finally, local governments must also address land use policy issues to encourage healthy and environmentally-sustainable local food practices, including supporting farmers markets, establishing community gardens, promote Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), and encourage roof-top gardens or other residential innovations.
Available Local Levers & Targets of Reforms
Local levers for engaging with food concerns include three government functions: public health, land use, and economic development. Food is a public health issue because a lack of healthy options ultimately leads to poor health that puts more pressure on local health-care budgets. It is also a land use issue, because local zoning must be amended to encourage and protect the local food supply. Finally, it is an economic development issue because regional coordination on food can provide a smart way to ensure local value-capture of economic activity.
ProGov21 has a collection of resources and guides for local governments on designing smarter food systems. The Mayors Innovation Project put together a comprehensive guide for promoting healthier food options. A toolkit from the USDA on local food hubs shows how to connect cities to surrounding farm communities to create smart development, and a strategic plan from the Wallace Center at Winrock International, which focuses on generating innovation and investment in San Francisco’s food sector.
Current Reforms & Tools to Fight for Them
Progressive local government already address public health concerns related to their food system. Much of these efforts focus on improving access to healthier options with an emphasis on improving nutrition for children. ChangeLabs and the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network (NPLAN) conducted broad review on childhood obesity, producing a toolkit on combating the epidemic. Two more guides from ChangeLabs focus on addressing the problem of food deserts and funding healthier food options at local retailers. The Reinvestment Fund (TRF) wrote a report on funding of healthier local food retailers in Pennsylvania.
Local government should also encourage children to develop healthier eating habits. Robert Wood Johnson reviewed one such local initiative to reduce childhood obesity rates. Since fast food is one of the central contributing factors to obesity, local governments could focus efforts on targeted zoning reducing the impact of fast food on children. NPLAN and its model healthy food zone ordinance prevents fast food restaurants from locating near schools. United for ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) created a model ordinance requiring fast food restaurants to offer healthy sides as the default for children’s meals. Santa Clara passed an ordinance banning toys with unhealthy fast food meals. A comprehensive guide from ChangeLabs focuses on designing local taxes on sugary drinks, which are another leading cause of obesity.
Farmers markets provide healthy food options and have a minimal environmental footprint, but are scare in low-income areas. Working with farmers and local groups to create healthy food markets is critical. Project for Public Spaces and the Community Food Security Coalition and Farmers Market Coalition both provide excellent guides on how to make the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards usable at local farmers markets. Progressive governments should also work to protect existing farmers markets from future development. Madison, WI passed a downtown land use ordinance that promotes smart development and tourism while protecting the city’s famous farmers market.
Local purchasing ordinances can cover nearby farms – Cleveland, OH, and Madison, WI enacted law that promotes local farming and healthier food. Going a step further, Woodbury County, WI, requires government agencies to buy from local organic food suppliers. Importantly, the ordinance also applies to large regional detention facilities, which frequently work with corporate suppliers that simultaneously under-nourish people in government care (or worse) while undermining local food providers.
Taking it to the Next Level
Moving into the future, local governments should consider adapting their food policies to address the impact of climate change. For example, local food policies can promote the use of urban agriculture and community gardens. From NPLAN and ChangeLabs we offer a guide on changing local land use law for this purpose. We also offer concrete example of laws for promoting urban agriculture from Kansas City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago. A Dallas zoning ordinance promotes vegetative roofs.
Local government can also use their food policies to address historical inequalities, ensuring that all residents have access to healthy foods and can benefit economically from investments in the food system. To tackle this issue, ProGov21 offers a guide from the National League of Cities on addressing health and food inequalities in cities, and a guide from the Project for Public Spaces on how to ensure diverse farmers markets that include minority farmers and provide opportunities for diverse communities engaging in urban food production.
Local food policies should also consider workers rights, especially in the food service industry, in which most employees are from historically-marginalized population. ProGov21 offers a report from the Restaurant Opportunity Center that addresses racial and gender discrimination in the restaurant industry. Los Angeles created an innovative grocery worker retention ordinance that ensures low-wage workers are not harmed by the frequent ownership changes in food retail industry.
Helpers & Allies
- National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity
- Project for Public Spaces
- Restaurant Opportunity Center
- Farmers Market Coalition
- Mayors Innovation Project
- National League of Cities