How Local Governments Support Community-Led Food Systems Transformation

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In May 2021, ICLEI and the City of New Haven, CT’s Food System Policy Division hosted the North American Local Food Dialogue on Inclusive Food Systems to inform and contribute to the cities and counties proceedings of the UN Food Systems Summit in September.

More than 40 local government stakeholders, including local government staff and community-based organizations advancing food equity, participated in the dialogue.

The Dialogue

Latha Swamy, Director of Food System Policy for the City of New Haven opened the Dialogue. She noted that no single dialogue would be able to bring together all voices who have a right to contribute, but that the event can serve as a place to start, an assertion echoed by other participants. Throughout, the dialogue uncovered an emphasis on intentionally creating spaces where all stakeholders involved in food systems planning and action — farmers, food service workers, and community members, as well as government staff at all levels — have a seat at the table.

Latha Swamy opened:

First, as best described by three (former) UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food, the Summit’s parameters [at the global level] were determined by a small set of actors. The private sector, organizations serving the private sector, scientists, and economists initiated the process. Their perspectives, knowledge, interests, and biases dictated the framing of the Summit and related processes. Subsequently, governments and civil society actors were invited to work within those pre-determined parameters.

For decades, farmers, fishers, and food workers have been demanding a food system transformation rooted in food sovereignty and agroecology. This vision is based on redesigning, re-diversifying, and re-localizing farming systems. In order for this to happen, we need to redefine the economic assumptions of our food system, protect human rights, and rebalance power.

Some adjustments have been made to the UN Food Systems Summit process along the way but it is a bit too little, too late to have any meaningful impact.

The U.S. dialogue integrated these observations and focused on how local governments could work with other local stakeholders to ensure food security, resilience, and equity. The dialogue prompted practitioners to consider the methods, measurements, and goals necessary to increase cohesiveness and inclusivity in food systems planning and action. Speakers, panelists, and participants shared their community’s contexts, successes, and visions. Food security, resilience, and equity are deeply intertwined. Food systems practitioners throughout the U.S. found that centering community voices and needs helped them do their job of ensuring food security, resilience, and equity.

The Power of Local Governments

To succeed in building a healthier, more sustainable food system, stakeholders must work at all levels. The power of the local level is that it is made up of the individuals and communities that experience the realities of the current food system.

Local governments have an opportunity and responsibility to channel the voice of people and communities as a way to collaboratively tackle local and regional food system challenges. 

Practically, local governments can foster collaborative environments, celebrate food culture, invest in initiatives, and facilitate conversation between actors. They can use this information to catalyze change on the ground to improve food access, equity, emergency preparedness, sovereignty, urban land access, and community health, to name a few.

Improving Local Level Food Work

Throughout the dialogue, local food system practitioners shared their best practices and ideas for how to approach local food systems work.

One shared message across all participants: practitioners must listen deeply, and authentically, to the community members and disinvested communities who are most impacted by food system policies and programs implemented at all levels of government.

Many U.S. local governments have a wide array of disconnected food programs. There is a movement toward connecting these programs and developing overarching food systems visions and goals across local government departments and with local stakeholders. To start creating holistic food systems improvements, leadership must come together with the community to develop an overarching vision, develop structure, and connect programs and people. 

These disconnected food programs have often focused on solving the symptoms of an unjust food system. For example, distributing food to those that cannot procure it themselves. To holistically improve local food system outcomes, cities and communities are starting to look at food sovereignty, land access, community-led processes, and improving city and community-wide communication and commitment. 

Local governments throughout the U.S. are diverse. The structure and focus of food systems planning depend on the local context. Even with this variation, or maybe because of it, the discussion focused on centering and giving power to community members to shape the food system. 

The issues of food justice, racial justice, food sovereignty, community involvement, and sustainable production are all connected. As one speaker said, “today, I heard agreement across all panels and breakouts in the belief that all people and all communities should have the right and the means to produce, procure, prepare, share, and eat food that’s nutritionally and culturally affirming free from exploitation of themselves, other people and nonhuman animals, and also in harmony with the rest of the natural world.”

Insights and actions

Below, we have summarized additional participant reflections from the Dialogue, across several themes, that further support this shared message.

Community-led processes

Food systems outcomes are most successful when community-led. Cities contribute to this success by facilitating community conversation, building networks and relationships, funding pilot projects, providing information, and codifying conclusions into plans and legislation.

Actions:

  • Cities should facilitate and channel the voice of the community. Listen to, create relationships, and build trust with community groups.
  • Take on the expense of what the community wants/needs. For example, conduct soil tests on land that can go to the community for gardening.
  • Host demonstration projects, that train people how to have successful food endeavors followed by policy that enables these actions. 
  • Have dialogues with the community and support what people are asking for through legislation.
  • Develop programs and structures that can be self-sustaining over time, since government resources shift.
  • Be transparent, report back to the community to hold the government accountable. 
  • Pay community members to be part of advisory boards. Include residents that aren’t usually involved in these processes and aren’t already affiliated with organizations that already have access to power in the city.
  • Use community engagement and ownership model of planning and action to alleviate disparities in actual representation and leadership. 
  • Be flexible and humble. Always keep coming back and revisit the community and their recommendations.

Food Sovereignty

Structural racism limits access to healthcare, culturally appropriate nutrition, food preparation, retail food stores, and wellness programs. It causes disconnected BIPOC networks and high food insecurity. There are barriers to access infrastructure, food assets, community gardens, food programs, and community kitchens. Uneven access to funding to BIPOC organizations meant they were not able to respond quickly in times of crisis such as COVID-19. Additionally, land is prohibitively expensive for people to start new rural or urban farms. Racist policies took land from many farmers of color.

Actions:

  • Place community leaders as experts, pay for participation, and create online opportunities to increase reach.
  • Declare anti-black racism as a public health crisis. 
  • Advocate at the state level to improve land access for new farmers and farmers of color. 
  • When working with native nations, approach as equals and ask “how can we support your solutions.”
  • Provide the resources, support, and information needed for communities to create their own thriving food systems.

Land Access & Urban Farming

Promoting urban agriculture can help residents, especially residents of color to build job skills, generate income, contribute to community development, increase food access and security, and foster connection to broader efforts that combat the root causes of structural inequities such a racial and economic justice. 

Actions: 

  • Look at the open land from city operations, the military, utilities, schools, and universities. This land can be used for urban agriculture.
  • Invest in testing soils, renovating, and putting in water infrastructure. From there, let the community take over.
  • Put grants in place to make properties available and accessible. 
  • Provide urban agriculture training and work opportunities for inmates or recently incarcerated.
  • Support the creation of community land trusts as a way for the community to build wealth.

Data

Data is important to mobilize action and engagement with key stakeholders and to effectively identify gaps and priority interventions. Food Asset mapping was discussed as a positive way to both collect data and mobilize action within communities. While collecting and sharing data is essential, it must not be seen as an end itself or as a substitute for action.  Collecting data from more traditional sources (eg. Scientific peer-reviewed studies) as well as non-traditional sources (“community intelligence” and experience) is key for promoting inclusive food systems. 

Resilience & Emergency Planning

The pandemic showed cities that they weren’t prepared for the level of food insecurity posed by disasters. Cities must integrate food access and resilience into adaptation and emergency planning, develop relationships with stakeholders across the food system to build resilience, and ensure at least some local food production for emergencies. One city surveyed its residents and found that residents recommended prioritizing food in emergency planning.  

Rural-Urban Interface

Cities focus much of their effort and resources on urban agriculture projects. Greater connection between urban and peri-urban and nearby rural areas was discussed as a way to build resilience. Regional collaboration and resource distribution can strengthen both urban resilience and nearby rural agriculture economic sustainability. 

Schools

Schools connect people of many backgrounds. Cities can use that as an opportunity to build relationships between rural and urban children and residents. To strengthen children’s relationship with food, build in science and education about food systems and have school gardening projects and farm to school food procurement.

Conclusion

With or without the help of government support, local communities will continue to do this transformational work. To support these community-led efforts, governments can integrate the community’s voices into their decision-making structure and scale up effective community-led interventions. Focusing this support on those most impacted by oppression and inequities in the food system will accelerate the food system transformation into one that is equitable, resilient, and food secure.

This dialogue will result in a report to both the United Nations Food Systems Summit proceedings and the United States Department of Agriculture. ICLEI supports local food systems planning and action through its Circulars platform and the Food Systems Handbook. ICLEI USA’ Circulars USA hub is a place to stay up-to-date on our current food systems efforts and offerings.

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https://icleiusa.org/2021049-2/