June 23, 2015
How can local food policy councils in Ohio band together to enhance effectiveness? Can they increase access to healthy, affordable foods? Can they ensure equitable engagement? These questions were a few of many explored at the Ohio State Food Policy Council Summit, held earlier this month. The Summit brought together members of local and regional food policy councils from across the state and gathered in Columbus, Ohio, for their annual meeting.
Food and agriculture is the largest sector of Ohio’s economy, accounting for $105 billion of the state’s economy. Even though Governor Kasich dissolved Ohio’s Food Policy Advisory Council in 2011, approximately 22 local and regional food policy councils have continued to work independently throughout the state. This statewide effort is evidence that Ohio’s food policy councils (FPCs) have the potential to make a powerful impact on Ohio’s agriculture. The summit provided individuals from the councils, as well as members of the community, with an opportunity to come together and discuss successful programs, share challenges, and brainstorm ideas for “what’s next?” Highlighted below are a few of the key themes I took away from the summit.
Ensuring equitable community engagement in making food policy
This theme seemed to resonate the most with myself and with other attendees. Kip Holley from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity spoke about understanding our biases and our differences in positions of power. He identified the main principles of equitable civic engagement, which include: embracing gifts of diversity, invitation and listening, building trust through empowerment, recognizing race, power and injustice, valuing disagreement and dissent, and adapting to change. In situations when these principles are followed, people tend to have greater access to opportunities. I think this was an extremely important session to include in the summit, because food policy councils must be aware of the systemic inequities in the food system when they are implementing policies or programs.
Growing food access through incentive programs
Currently, over 50 farmer’s markets in the state are piloting financial incentive programs designed to improve the affordability of healthy, locally grown produce. These programs also enhance the financial security of local farmers and producers. In the future, the state of Ohio plans to apply for a Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant, which will make it possible to expand SNAP incentive programs throughout the entire state.
Strengthening Food Policy Work in Ohio
This was a theme that occurred throughout the conference and into the networking and question and answer sessions. After the first Ohio Food Policy Advisory Council was disbanded, local and regional councils have been working independently. But, as Noreen Warnock from Local Matters stressed, a strong central, statewide structure will improve communication between councils, facilitate sharing resources between councils, develop greater political influence within the state, and will have to ability to launch statewide initiatives.
The conference closed with attendees agreeing that a statewide coalition will improve the effectiveness of the individual FPCs; almost every attendee raised his or her hand, committing to taking part in re-imagining this coalition. Ohio already has a strong network of people devoted to influencing food policy. I am eager to see how it will become a leader in this field.
Image: Haystacks in Phillips field, Dayton, Ohio, 1905. Courtesy of Miami University Libraries. http://digital.lib.muohio.edu/u?/snyder,3468