In 2014, a group of four well-known food reformers—led by Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan—wrote a Washington Post op-ed in the form of a letter to the future president of the United States. Their plea: the federal government must take seriously the idea of improving the nation through food.
“The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget,” the authors wrote, in a letter also co-signed by former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, Union of Concerned Scientists’ Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations’ former special rapporteur on the right to food. “Yet we have no food policy—no plan or agreed-upon principles—for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole. That must change.”
For years, advocates have tried—and have failed—to garner support for a top-down national food policy. But what might have seemed possible during the Obama years—the President sometimes signaled he might take food system reform seriously, and Michelle Obama’s efforts to combat childhood obesity are well-known—now seems increasingly farfetched. In last year’s bruisingly divisive election season, food barely registered as an issue, overlooked almost entirely by both candidates and the electorate. In contrast to President Trump’s other cabinet picks, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue generated little controversy, and was confirmed almost without comment. Given America’s current fractured political reality, sweeping food reform would today seem to be a nonstarter.
Which may be why some towns and counties have given up waiting for top-down solutions to save them. Instead, a new, radical food justice notion is taking root: Communities are taking charge of their own fates through “food policy councils,” locally created and controlled civic organizations that are taking responsibility for the health, safety, and reliability of their regional food systems. So far, this largely unrecognized phenomenon has found success where national policy has failed to materialize.
“We really feel people at the local level can make things happen,” says Jeff Usher, senior program officer with the non-profit Kansas Health Foundation, which has funded more than 20 new Kansas food policy councils with a goal of establishing 40 total by 2020. “It’s a trickle-up theory.”