Food System Planning: Setting the Community’s Table

By Mark Winne


Food system planning is a relatively new concept that grows out of American society’s increasing concern for what it eats, where and how its food is produced and the inequities that exist in the distribution of food resources. Like other planning activities, food system planning is concerned with what happens and could happen in a specific place, whether a neighborhood, city, state or region. It is this association with a particular place—one that citizens can readily identify and that consumers increasingly wish to influence—that makes food system planning a concrete and necessary enterprise. In Connecticut, Hartford has been leading the way in integrating food system planning into its wider planning agenda. While lacking teeth to implement policies that raise the issue of food security as a planning problem, Hartford, and Connecticut more generally, nonetheless provide an important model for the rest of the country.

The Food System

The failure of both the global food system and marketplace to meet the needs of a substantial number of food system stakeholders has given further impetus to food system planning. Housing and commercial development place extraordinary pressure on farmland. Chain supermarkets—typically the retail food outlets with the best prices and highest quality—are often unavailable in lower-income urban areas. Food assistance programs like food stamps and child nutrition (school breakfast, lunch and summer meal programs) are not sufficient to prevent hunger and food insecurity. The increase in obesity and diabetes, fed in part by questionable food industry marketing practices (“super-sizing” of portions) has made diet a major public health issue.

A food system is generally understood to be the chain of activities connecting food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management. Not only does it include the diverse system of agriculture that produces our food, it also includes the natural resource base, e.g., soil and such natural systems as regional watersheds, underground aquifers and the inputs necessary to sustain soil fertility. The seed-to-table idea extends the food system concept further to include processing facilities, transportation systems, warehousing and distribution centers, supermarkets, restaurants, farmers markets and farm stands and of course, consumers. In the case of hunger and food insecurity, food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, community kitchens, elderly feeding programs and the entire array of the fourteen USDA food assistance programs must be considered as integral parts of the food system.

The relation of governments to food systems goes far beyond feeding the needy. Regulatory functions—from USDA border inspections of imports to local health inspections of restaurants—constitute a complex network of domestic food safety. Even governmental authorities and institutions that are not obviously associated with food influence our food system. Transportation systems, for instance, can promote or deter sprawl, which affects farmland. Local school districts can purchase food from local farmers to improve farmers’ market opportunities, restrict student access to vending machines that dispense unhealthy food and increase nutrition education to promote healthy eating behaviors. Economic development officials can provide incentives to developers to locate supermarkets in underserved areas and work with transportation planners to ensure that transit-dependent populations have easy access to quality food outlets.

Planning and the Food System

The list of opportunities for fruitful cooperation is long, but the dis-incentives for food system planning are strong. Both the lack of venues and low acceptance levels by the planning field present major impediments. Ken Dahlberg, of Western Michigan University and one of the leading proponents of local food systems, notes that no US city has a “Department of Food.” A few state departments of agriculture have the word “food” in their title, but rarely does their authority extend beyond the production end of the food chain. Planning departments do not as yet generally recognize the food system as a unique area of concern requiring special attention. As Kami Pothukuchi and Jerome Kaufman point out in the Spring 2000 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association, “The food system is notable by its absence from the writing(s) of planning scholars, from the plans prepared by planning practitioners and from the classrooms in which planning students are taught.”

The size, scope and complexity of the food system itself may serve as a deterrent to planning and coordination. In 1996, in a report to the Connecticut legislature, Toward Food Security for Connecticut, that body’s Planning and Development Committee wrote:

Sufficient cause exists for Connecticut policymakers to give the security of the state’s food system a critical look to ensure that a safe, affordable and quality food supply is available to all, both now and in the future. The state’s food system is large, complex and paradoxical. The food industry is a substantial contributor to the state’s economy, yet hunger, malnutrition and limited access to food for the poor are well-documented, forcing publicly-funded food assistance programs and private emergency food sources to play an ever increasing role in feeding the poor. Connecticut has experienced unprecedented growth since World War II, but that growth has been accompanied by a corresponding decline in farmland and an increase in environmental degradation. State government provides more services and plays a larger role in everyone’s life, but the state agencies that address the production, distribution and quality of food rarely coordinate their efforts.

The best examples of food system planning to date may in fact be in Connecticut. Hartford, the state’s capitol, is among the first cities in the country to have a municipal food policy council, while Connecticut is the first state to have a state food policy council. In addition, the Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), the regional planning agency for the 32-town Hartford area, may be one of the first such agencies to make food system planning a part of its Regional Plan of Development. Let’s take a brief look at how these three entities have used these respective vehicles to begin the process of food system planning.

Founded in 1992, The City of Hartford Advisory Commission on Food Policy was formed by ordinance that established both a city food policy and then a commission whose task it was to advise city government on how that policy should be implemented. As stated in the ordinance, “The purpose of the policy shall be to integrate all agencies of the city in a common effort to improve the availability of safe and nutritious food at reasonable prices for all residents, particularly those in need.” The policy statement goes on to identify fourteen functions of city government to be used to implement this policy, including transportation, land use, direct services (WIC, Child Nutrition), education, health inspections and business development.

The Commission, whose members are appointed by the City Council and include representatives of several city departments, monitors the performance of the city’s food system, researches and analyzes food issues and works to improve city government’s response to food problems. Examples of Commission activities include: management changes in the WIC program (administered by Hartford’s Department of Health and Human Services), which led to increased participation levels by low-income mothers; surveys of supermarket shopping patterns and bus routes, which led to the establishment of a new bus route that improved supermarket access for city residents; and planning and coordination efforts with city agencies to address the high rates of obesity and diabetes.

The Connecticut Food Policy Council was created by the Connecticut legislature in 1997. The state statute (Public Act 97-11) charges the Council to “develop, coordinate and implement a food system policy linking economic development, environmental protection and preservation with farming and urban issues.” Its members include representatives from six state agencies and six non-governmental food sectors (the latter group is appointed by the legislature). Like the Hartford Commission, the state council monitors, analyzes and advises, but it also takes a more active role in public education. For instance, the Council sponsored a statewide conference on farmland loss, which led to an increase in both publicly and privately supported farmland preservation measures.

The Council’s coordinating work led to the creation of the Connecticut Farm Map, which highlights locations where consumers can buy directly from farmers. This project came about as the result of two Council agency members, the Department of Transportation and Department of Agriculture, agreeing to work together on a joint effort. Perhaps most importantly, the Council articulated a specific food security goal for the state (an end to hunger by 2010) and identified the methods by which that goal would be attained.

The most interesting development for food system planning, however, may lie with the Capitol Region Council of Governments, which included two chapters on food system issues for their Regional Plan of Development 2002. The two chapters—one titled “Open Space and Farmland Preservation” and the other “Food System”—identify the food and farming challenges facing the Capitol Region. These include the need to preserve farmland, the development and maintenance of transportation systems that allow all residents access to food, the public health consequences of unhealthy diets and the need to increase the composting of food wastes.

This seminal work in food system planning drew on previous efforts to highlight these issues, including the work of the two food policy councils cited above. But CRCOG’s analysis also built on the Connecticut State Plan of Conservation and Development, which provides general guidance to the state’s 169 municipalities on how to manage their growth. The Plan’s 1998-2003 document stresses the need for the state to preserve farmland and its long-term food production capability (skills, markets, infrastructure, natural resources) to ensure food security. The CRCOG document refines these recommendations and applies them to the particularities of its 32-town region.

Do these efforts truly constitute food system planning? While none of the above agencies have the authority to implement or require action, they clearly have taken many steps which have and will influence the direction of their local, regional or state food system. Their efforts may not be as comprehensive or detailed as, say, a region’s master transportation plan or a city’s economic development plan, but they have articulated a vision for what they want their food system to look like. They have taken additional steps as well, including inventories and assessments of their food system’s assets, needs and the roles that different sectors, agencies and organizations should play.

Though lacking authority and respectable budgets, these entities have become de facto food system planning agencies that perform the following functions:

  • Set goals, establish performance indicators and report trends and results;
  • Regularly convene the area’s “food system experts,” including farmers, food program managers, agency heads, food processors, supermarket operators, transportation planners and health experts;
  • Gather, analyze and disseminate information that increases understanding of the food system and its many components among policymakers and the general public;
  • Place food, nutrition and agriculture issues squarely before all government agencies that have the authority, resources and skills to implement the food system-related recommendations; and
  • Conduct projects and activities that require coordinated action.

Two USDA agencies—the Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CSREES) and the Risk Management Agency (RMA)—have bolstered food system planning efforts with small grants to support the development of food policy councils. In addition to Connecticut, councils are currently operating at the state level in Iowa, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah. At the city or regional levels, councils can be found in Austin, Texas; Berkeley, California; Knoxville, Tennessee; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; and Portland City/Multnomah County, Oregon. Several other cities and states are either planning for councils or have one in the early stages of development.

While its limitations are many and its history short, food system planning and its most common vehicle, food policy councils, are rapidly emerging in response to an ever expanding agenda of food, agriculture and nutrition concerns. Community food activists of all stripes are joining forces with policymakers and government agency staff to shape a food system that promotes food security, access to healthy and affordable food and a viable, regional agricultural foundation.

Mark Winne is a food and society policy fellow, a fellowship funded in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. In October, 2003 Mark left the Hartford Food System, where he had been the executive director for 25 years. Mark is a resident of Hartford and member of the City of Hartford Advisory Commission on Food Policy and the Connecticut Food Policy Council. He can be reached at mwinne(at)hartfordfood(dot)org.

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