August 1, 2017

Food Policy Councils: Is There a Best Structure?

Laura DiGiulio

Laura DiGiulio

Guest Blogger

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

There are many organizational types of food policy councils (FPCs), but for my masters thesis I explored the significance of those differences—and similarities. In particular, I investigated whether those differences were associated with differences in FPC outcomes, objectives or orientations.

What did I want to know? As a research topic, this question of how best to structure an FPC is relatively new and has not been addressed, let alone answered, in the literature. So, in partnership with CLF’s Food Policy Networks (FPN) project, I dug deeper into the question: Is there an association between organizational type and differences in institutional and organizational characteristics, discourse (how FPCs conceptualize and communicate about food systems issues as well as their role in improving them) and strategies (approach to food system issues)?

How did I do it? My research involved both bivariate analyses , which are used to determine the relationship between two variables, of the 2015 FPN directory data (N=173) as well as qualitative analyses of 24 case studies, selected from the survey sample. In both datasets, FPCs were divided by three main organization types: grassroots, nonprofit and government-embedded. Within the survey sample, there were 75 nonprofits, 61 grassroots and 37 government-embedded FPCs. For the case studies, I narrowed down the pool to the FPCs that had been in existence for at least three years and had some web presence to draw from, and then selected eight of each organization type. For those case study FPCs, I analyzed their institutional and organizational characteristics, their discourses and their strategies.

What did I find? The table below summarizes my hypotheses and whether support was found for each when considering both the survey and case study results together. For instance, while survey results showed that government-embedded FPCs were significantly more likely to receive government-funding, the FPCs selected for case studies showed similar levels of need for funding and staff across all subgroups. By and large, more similarities than differences were found across subgroups. This suggests that FPC “form” may not be a significant factor in their success or orientation toward problems, but may be related more to local influences and available resources.


Support found?

Institutional & Organizational Characteristics
H1: FPCs of different organizational types will vary in terms of institutional and organizational characteristics, discourse, and strategies. Little support. There are more areas of convergence among FPCs of all subgroups than differences.
H2: Government-embedded FPCs will exhibit greater institutional support and access to resources compared to the other two subgroups, which will exhibit reduced access to resources, particularly staff and funding.


Mixed. Government-embedded FPCs in case studies appear to have equal problems with lack of resources such as funding and staff, but survey results show higher frequency of “government-funded” connection and overall closer relationships to government.
H3: Nonprofits may enjoy greater access to institutional partnerships and/or funding opportunities compared to grassroots. Little support, although nonprofits did exhibit a somewhat lesser need for basic organizational stability.
H4: Discourses will fit into food security and/or food justice lenses. Strong support. Mostly food justice.
H5: Government-embedded FPCs may exhibit a weaker orientation towards social justice issues more broadly. Little support. Discourse less diverse.
H6: Government-embedded FPCs will exhibit a greater tendency to engage in activities that conform more closely with the Reformist trend than the other two subgroups. Moderate support. Greater within-group uniformity in food provision-related approach to food system issues. In other words, these FPCs are highly concentrated on hunger alleviation, as opposed to systems-based structural change of the food system that promotes equity and sustainability.
H7: Nonprofit and government-embedded FPCs may enjoy greater success or effectiveness compared to grassroots (see H2 & H3) Mixed support. These subgroups exhibited somewhat greater organizational stability & policy activity.


Additionally, this Venn diagram provides a visual representation of the many areas of overlap, as well as a few areas of divergence, in the discourses of each FPC organization type. We see that for all subgroups, certain terms such as “access,” “local” and “sustainability” arose frequently. This, along with the other terms shared across all three subgroups and the relatively fewer quantity that are unique to any individual subgroup, suggest that FPCs of all organizational types are converging around similar concepts and sharing similar language to discuss the food system. It is interesting to note, however, the relative abundance and diversity in terms unique to the nonprofit subgroup, as well as the inclusion of “safe” as a common term in the government-embedded subgroup only.

In some cases, these findings did not necessarily relate to any of the hypotheses listed above, but came out of the research in the process of testing those hypotheses. As such, last but certainly not least, I ask: What are the takeaways (or important, significant, and consistent findings)?

To summarize, here are my most important takeaways for FPC leaders, community members, government officials and researchers:

  • Many FPCs operate similarly, with shared opportunities and challenges, despite differences in organization type. In other words, we find more similarities than differences across organizational types. A better strategy may be to start with the resources available to your FPC, based on local context, and allow the structure/organization type to follow.
  • Networking is something that many FPCs express a desire for, and that could help to address other needs, such as access to information about what what works and how to communicate better across organizations, cities, regions, etc. This could potentially be done through virtual meetings and/or webinars on specific topics.
  • This point is similar and highly relevant to the preceding one. FPCs are converging around many of the same issues and experiencing many of the same challenges. This suggests that the potential for productive collaboration AROUND these shared goals is great. Moreover, this convergence around common issues could help to facilitate/ease the process of networking and collaboration itself.
  • Critiques of FPCs and similar organizations have included a noted underrepresentation of labor and workforce representatives as well as of farmers and other members of agricultural industries. Other critiques have cited a need for greater focus on social and racial (in)justice as well as economic development and inequality as central to creating a just food system. My results have not provided evidence that would contradict, and thus might suggest that FPCs work to further engage these stakeholders and to focus on a wider range of core social issues.

 Finally, FPCs may find some of the following links helpful when considering how to get involved with a range of issues, connect with other FPCs and consider the best organizational structure for their community context:

Food Policy for All: Inclusion of Diverse Community Residents on Food Policy Councils (2014)

Building the Case for Racial Equity in the Food System (2014)

Taking a look at the bylaws of other FPCs may also provide guidance

For any questions about this post or other specific findings, please feel free to contact me via lad5144 at gmail dot com.


  1. I think this is very thoughtful and helpful.
    In my view, the Toronto Food Policy Council experience does not confirm your experiences. This may just be because you are discussing FPCs in an American context, assuming that what’s true in the US is true everywhere.
    If I may be blunt, the US is pretty backward politically, and you may just be seeing what happens in your country, where you don’t even have public medical care or university education or a functioning public school or public health system or public broadcasting. In countries where a dynamic public sphere is assumed, even within capitalism, there are different debates and different commonalities.
    For example, IMHO, there is no conflict between food security and food justice. More important, food advocates are very unwise to think or say there is. I believe it speaks to the unusual degree of academic presence in US protest movements, and to the absence of people with political experience who have worked with everyday people that such distinctions become so outsized.
    The big learning of the CLF research is that there are more similarities than differences among Councils. This means that we should get going and get active and deal with structural issues when opportunities arise to make a resolution of any conflicts viable.

  2. I’ve been feeling guilty about the way I expressed myself on political backwardness in the US. I don’t want to be thought of as The Ugly Canadian! So please accept my policies, and please know that I have the utmost appreciation for the indispensable contributions Americans (including American refugees who live here) have played in our food movement. Food policy councils arose in the US, and the concept of community food security comes from the US, Mark Winne and the founders of the Comunity Food Security Coalition, especially Andy Fisher..
    If I could rephrase my thoughts, it is important to people in all countries not to attribute behaviors or beliefs about food and food policy exclusively to activity surrounding food. Overall political cultures also matter. When Americans debate the politics of a food issue, it is important to know that some elements of the debate are shaped by the overall political culture. When others, such as Canadians, evaluate a US position on food issues, it is likewise important that we understand the overall political culture food activists operate in.
    I would say that the relative strength of the Canadian left (compared to Europe the US, not Europe) often means that food activists seldom need to fight for principles related to public health care or human solidarity. A powerful labor movement and progressive churches have done that work on our behalf. (I have written a blog about this tradition, which explains why right-wing populism doesn’t have much of a base in Canada.)
    I hope I can say this without disparaging the unique grassroots vitality of US activist movements, or in any way showing disrespect for the work of my American food comrades and colleagues.

  3. Christine Grillo

    Posted by Christine Grillo

    Hi Wayne,
    As a US citizen, no offense taken! I think you are correct in your assumption that in the US we have to weigh whether or not to make “public health” an argument in food policy reform. I’d say that in many, many parts of the nation, arguing for public health puts one at an immediate disadvantage, since it identifies one as left-leaning or liberal, which plays poorly in regions “public health” and “justice” are synonyms for “giving undeserving people things for free.”

  4. Laura DiGiulio

    Posted by Laura DiGiulio

    Hi Wayne! No need to feel guilty! I cannot (and do not wish to) argue with many of your critiques of public life in the U.S. nor with your point about the importance of overall political cultures. I found your comments to be very insightful and important for thinking about how we move forward with this work.

    I am interested to know: which of the experiences I outlined specifically do you think are not confirmed by the Toronto Food Policy Council’s experience? I do not disagree, just am interested in more specificity.

    I think you summed up my main point very well when you wrote: “The big learning of the CLF research is that there are more similarities than differences among Councils. This means that we should get going and get active and deal with structural issues when opportunities arise to make a resolution of any conflicts viable.”

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Posted by A. K.

    Hi, thanks for this article.

    I am really interested in learning more about the processes successful FPCs in urban communities use to actually get stuff done. As a member of an FPC in a large urban county, we have lofty ideals and plenty of bylaws, but keep coming back to the chicken and egg problem of wanting to have authentic community engagement, but not knowing what issues to engage around because we haven’t (or think we haven’t, despite a wealth of internal knowledge/experience) engaged the community. We also struggle with defining the “community” as there are several distinct and diverse communities within our county. Would love your input.

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  7. Very helpful and timely for the Riverside Food Systems Alliance. As to Wayne’s comment about the differences in Canada and the US, thanks for saying it. We in the US are have seen the erosion of the Public sphere. We’re so used to swimming in the polluted waters corporate influence, we’ve lost sight of the concept of Public.

    The good news is that collaborations are developing to make food production, access and consumption work with our local assets. The biggest dividend engaging community while we build the organization. We’re at the stage where policies and structure will help us grow to the next level.

    Thanks for doing the research. This will be shared with our community.

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