Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mark Winne: Moving from Projects to Policy

Mark Winne
(photo by Norah Levine)
Each day before we head out to visit a new program, we pray for, among other things, guidance in “doing our part to inspire just and healthy access to food for all people.”  After visiting 42 states and about 66 different programs, it is clear that in this country we do not have a system that provides good food to us all. 
Facing Hunger in America has chronicled remarkably caring and generous charitable programs, from food banks and pantries to feeding programs and broader social service agencies.  We have seen the effectiveness of federal programs such as SNAP, WIC, and commodity distribution.  And we’ve seen the rise in farmers’ markets, organic farms, and recommendations to consume more fresh fruits and vegetables.  These all provide important nutritional benefits to those of us struggling with food insecurity.  But they have not solved the problems.  Many of us still experience deep and persistent poverty, food insecurity, and profoundly unequal access to healthy food. 
So what kinds of things can be done to create a better food system, one that offers healthy food to all?  If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve seen some great examples of organizations that do significant work at the policy level to reform our food system and solve problems that prevent access to healthy food by large numbers of Americans.  For example:
Perhaps the person with the most experience in bringing healthy food (or he would say “extraordinary food”) to all, is Mark Winne.  Mark spent about 25 years as the executive director of Hartford Food System in Hartford, CT.  He is the author of two fabulous books about reforming our food system:
Rereading these books prior to our visit with Mark in Santa Fe, NM, his current home, this quote fromthe introduction to Closing the Food Gap jumped out at us:
“…the bridge from empathy to the political will necessary to create profound institutional change is a wobbly one.  As the food gap grows in both width and complexity, it continually calls upon us to develop a more sophisticated understanding of its nature so that we can cross more confidently from empathy to political action.”
The image of crossing a wobbly bridge from empathy to political action seems very apt.  It’s relatively easy to offer direct assistance to those in need; it is important work and provides an essential understanding of hunger and food system problems.  But we may not think we have enough experience, good examples, skills, clear vision, or political will to really tackle the systemic issues.

Mark is now the Food Policy Council Program Director for the Community Food Security Coalition, a national organization based in Portland, OR, that Mark cofounded in 1994.  We specifically wanted to learn from Mark how food policy councils work and the role they can play in creating healthier food systems.
“Food Policy Councils (FPCs) bring together stakeholders from diverse food-related sectors to examine how the food system is operating and to develop recommendations on how to improve it.” 
The website lists 104 food policy councils across the US.  It’s interesting to note the variety in these groups – Some serve an entire state, while others serve a region, county, or single city or town.  Some are grass-roots coalitions of various food-related organizations, and others were formed by and/or officially report to governmental entities.   To see if there is a food policy council serving your community, you can check out the list and clickable map.  But be advised that not all groups doing this sort of work are represented – some groups are being formed or are just not (yet) visible to the Coalition.

What do food policy councils actually do?  Mark gave us several great examples (and more are detailed in his books and on the Food Policy Council website).  Basically, they identify problems and find solutions to them by exercising whatever leverage they can find.
  • Perhaps they find a way to create new bus routes so that shoppers in underserved areas can get to a quality grocery store or farmers’ market. 
  • Perhaps they help schools and institutions purchase food from local farmers, or help small schools and small grocery stores pool their purchasing power to be able to source more fresh produce. 
  • Perhaps they find private and public grant money to try creative new solutions to bringing good food to underserved areas, such as new community gardens or a mobile grocery store or farmers’ market. 
  • Perhaps they find ways to save local farmland, better support local farmers, or organize community gardens. 
  • Perhaps they figure out ways to offer meals to children in the summer.
  • Perhaps they educate politicians, town planners, and voters to become better educated food citizens. 
What leads to a successful food policy council?  Mark said that the key is to work in a coordinated way with an eye toward balancing the system, improving things for all parties (consumers, farmers, producers, institutions, government entities, etc.) not just addressing the individual problem in isolation.  Conduct background research on the current food system in the area -- not just availability, but also health, justice, working conditions, environmental effects, sustainability, and economics for all parties.  Look at everything the town (city, county, state) does through a “food system lens.”  Talk to all the parties and look for imaginative partnerships. 

If you think food policy work might be useful in your area, we urge you to check out the gold mine of resources that other food policy councils have shared on the website, including policy and issue statements, “how to” resources, and a huge number of sample documents.
Mark likes to talk about the three “P’s” necessary to change our food system (Closing the Food Gap, page 172).  They are:
  • Projects – those activities such as food banks, feeding programs, SNAP outreach, etc. that offer direct services and narrow the gap between the rich and poor.
  • Partners – the set of players involved in the food system, those who need to work together and whose issues must be addressed as part of any system change.
  • Policy – generalizing our work in ways that benefit us all, influencing local, state, and federal government and organizations to exert appropriate leverage in reforming our food systems.
If we use all of our energy on projects, we will not improve our food system overall. 

We find the rise in the number of food policy councils to be a very positive development.  We need people experienced in project work, bringing partners together, and working on policy improvements.  As more of us cross the wobbly bridge from empathy to policy we will come closer to a just and healthy food system for all people.

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