Creating sustainable, local food systems through food policy councils

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

This article is the second in a two-part series about 
food policy councils and how SNAP-Ed can help to inform that work. 
 
Founded in 2009, the Detroit Food Policy Council (DFPC) is a preeminent example of food policy council work in Michigan. The council includes Detroit community members as well as representatives of Detroit's various food system sectors, mayor's office, city council, and Department of Health and Wellness Promotion. Its mission is to develop "a food-secure City of Detroit in which all of its residents are hunger-free, healthy, and benefiting from a robust food system." Its executive director, Winona Bynum, says collaboration is key to a food policy council's success. 

An urban garden in Detroit.
"The Detroit Food Policy Council is a convenient place to bring together people who work across disciplines but are like-minded and want to see an improved food system. We give them a place to work together," Bynum says. "It's a place where someone who is growing food could talk to someone who is doing nutrition education or school nutrition or talk to someone who is in an entrepreneurial space or a grocery store. It's cross-disciplinary. Those conversations help people look at the whole system and really talk about how you can have effective policy and how different parts of the community can work together for a system that really serves community." 
 
DFPC recognizes that community residents are the experts on how the operating food system impacts families in their neighborhoods. 
Winona Bynum.
"Policy makers may or may not have participated in a particular program. But if you talk to the community members who are benefiting from those programs — or experiencing pain points from those programs — they can tell you how things actually work and what is important to them," Bynum says. "I can't emphasize enough the importance of community voice being heard. And I can't emphasize enough the need for partnerships." 

Partnerships as catalysts for change 

Local food policy councils are built on partnerships. To understand, assess, and create food systems that work for everyone, food policy councils bring together the voices of residents, local businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, education organizations, and those who deliver Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) in their communities. SNAP-Ed has an important voice in this work because it supports the nutrition and food security of people who face difficult circumstances due to lack of resources. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for SNAP-Ed. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan. 

Providing a space for local food policy councils to build capacity, the Michigan Local Food Council Network recognizes that collaborations between those delivering SNAP-Ed  and groups in the process of creating a food policy council can help start the conversation, build momentum, and gather feedback from community members facing nutrition insecurity.

“In talking more with MFF about how they're advancing local councils, what SNAP-Ed can really do is support the work in that foundational building space, helping a coalition develop on the ground in a community. They bring data and assessments into those conversations in a way that other organizations might just not have access to,” says Liz Gensler, local food council specialist, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. “Using SNAP-Ed’s policy, system, and environmental change (PSE) models can structure how a community addresses those needs.”

Healthy food at a family picnic.
SNAP-Ed nutrition educators work directly with residents in their communities to encourage eating healthy, including access to affordable, delicious, healthy foods. They have a unique understanding about the barriers people face, whether it is a lack of time, budget, knowledge, transportation, location, cultural changes, etc., and SNAP-Ed PSE strategies can help address those barriers.

“Our SNAP-Ed partners are able to use what they’ve learned on the ground to help inform their PSE work, and that helps to address challenges when informing their local food policy council about community needs,” explains Jane Whitacre, MFF project manager. “Or, in many instances, they can be found working to establish a local food policy council like the current work being done by our SNAP-Ed partners in Genesee County.” 

Supporting healthy food access 
 
Following DFPC’s example, in 2020, Crim Fitness Foundation (Crim) and Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD) partnered to form a new food council. The Flint/Genesee Food Council (Council), supported in part by MFF SNAP-Ed funding, includes food pantries, community members, and other stakeholders. Using PSE strategies, they will be able to address barriers to healthy food access that are impacting their local food system.  

Fresh locally grown produce.
"The overall mission of Crim is to support healthy and vibrant communities where people feel confident and safe to make healthy choices. The Council definitely is trying to usher that mission forward," says Samantha Farah, manager of food systems and nutrition at Crim. "PSE work can feel frustrating. But taking the time to build those community connections is great. SNAP-Ed prioritizes helping find food systems solutions." 
 
Farah says SNAP-Ed has been key to making the Council’s work sustainable. From their SNAP-Ed work, they have direct access to the people the Council is trying to serve. Because Crim and GISD understand the barriers people in face in the communities they serve, they can inform the Council and help drive efforts to create a health-focused shopping experience for guests at area food pantries.  
 
“Our experience really helps provide guidance and influence some of the decisions that the Council has made,” Farah says. “SNAP-Ed has been a critical connector. It's especially valuable in creating the framework for our food policy council. It’s such a key part in our organizing because [our SNAP-Ed work] got the concept and conversations started.” 
 
Whitacre says Crim and GISD’s partnership is important because their PSE work intersects and reinforces each other. By working together, they can develop strategies that address barriers to make healthy choices more accessible to area residents. 
 
"There are always PSE issues — the big things that keep the small things from being successful," Whitacre says. " Communities have systems in place that don't consider the needs of everybody. For example, in Crim and GISD’s SNAP-Ed work, they strive to connect people with healthy foods, so they are able to eat better. But they also know many of the people they serve may not live near the grocery store or the bus line so they can't get to the places that sell affordable, healthy food. So, by looking at one issue, it shines a light on another." 
A mother introduces fresh plums to her daughter at a farm stand.
The Council has created opportunities for Crim, GISD, and other collaborators to cultivate more multi-sector partnerships; recruit diverse community voices; connect with experts, including other food policy councils; and reach out to growers and food businesses to address and solve issues. By leveraging partnerships and resources across sectors using PSE strategies, they can effect positive change to transform their local food system. 
 
"We're making some excellent progress," Farah says. "When we're all working and trying to row the boat in the same direction, we're going to maximize resources, minimize waste, and streamline services, which will have a positive impact our community. And I think, eventually, through our goals we are going to create a pretty significant impact on economic development, trade groups, and businesses from all sides — production, processing, distribution, especially as it relates to all the available land that we have in the city with potential to be used in a way that's helping to feed our community."