Reconnecting: Oregon's Food Policy Councils Pursue Sustainable Food Systems

By Craig Beebe, 1000 Friends Communications and Development Coordinator

All across Oregon and the nation, people are recognizing the interconnectedness of a wide range of issues related to the food we eat, and the food we grow. It’s a mindset that has expanded our understanding of how healthy communities must be supported by healthy local farms, and how fighting hunger in cities also means improving rural livelihoods. This movement seeks to understand and improve entire food systems, and the effort necessarily requires a comprehensive and collaborative kind of organization.

That is the vision and purpose of Food Policy Councils. Oregon has several of these organizations, which number over 100 nationwide. Wherever they are located, Food Policy Councils aim to educate, inform, and connect farmers, retailers, consumers, and policymakers in pursuit of more sustainable and just regional food systems. While they take on a variety of forms—from independent nonprofits to government-affiliated advisory boards—Food Policy Councils are shaping food conversations and policy throughout the nation.

New Connections in Central Oregon

Oregon’s newest regional food policy council formed this year in Central Oregon, and is co-chaired by  Ben Gordon, 1000 Friends’ Central Oregon Outreach Coordinator, and Katrina Van Dis, a Program Coordinator at the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council. Focusing on access, advocacy and building networks and knowledge-sharing in the region, the Central Oregon Food Policy Council (COFPC) hopes to utilize Central Oregon’s unique strengths in regional identity to help create a successful infrastructure for supporting local farmers and providing residents with healthy local food. “It’s an opportunity to build up our region,” says Van Dis. “It’s exciting that we’re able to brand ourselves collectively.”

The COFPC is bringing together partners and taking part in efforts like Project Connect, which helped educate low-income populations about healthy eating and living through a farmers market and workshops at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds on September 24.

The COFPC is a distinctly grassroots effort, which is one of its strengths, says Dana Martin, a council member who is also an assistant professor at the Oregon State University Extension Service and leader of the central Oregon Small Farms Program. The Council and its board consist of a wide range of farmers, planners, nonprofit employees, academics, and businesspeople. Martin is excited about the Council’s potential: “We’re helping farmers succeed and helping our population become more healthy. This is a positive movement for our community,” she says.

Understanding An Everchanging Concept in Lane County

Although located in a considerably different setting, the Lane County Food Policy Council (LCFPC) also seeks to build a holistic understanding of regional food systems and how to improve them. “Everybody eats,” says David Richey, a council member. “But we don’t always pay attention to where food comes from.” Richey notes that many planning efforts don’t pay enough attention to protecting food security and access, and the LCFPC seeks to address these issues through advocacy and research. Formed out of a series of studies and meetings in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Council has brought together experts in public health, planning, nutrition, economic development, and local government (including the mayor of Oakridge) to explore how food access and local agriculture can be strengthened throughout the urban and rural communities of Lane County. Council members’ work and research has greatly informed the local discussion around land use, food access, and agriculture, and Richey is proud of that effort. He points out that the Council’s work explicitly recognizes that agriculture is “a complex and everchanging concept,” linked in with global and local markets alike. But working with local partners, the LCFPC seeks to integrate and improve the local food marketplace, supporting the health and livelihoods of farmers and residents alike.

The cover of the Multnomah Food Action Plan, released in December 2010, which the Portland/Multnomah Food Policy Council helped develop.Urban Challenges, Regional Vision

Oregon’s oldest Food Policy Council is also located in its most urban area, and is considerably different from the state’s other councils, in that its members are appointed by local governments. The Portland/Multnomah Food Policy Council has contributed a great deal to the development of many regional food initiatives and policies, from an unprecedented Multnomah County Food Action Plan (cover at right), to an update of the City of Portland urban food code intended to promote urban agriculture and direct farm marketing, to the establishment of new policies for community gardens with in the City of Portland. The Council has supported the County in efforts to promote healthy eating and urban farm training, and helped put together a coalition of partners for a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant to undertake a Portland Metro foodshed study that will support farmers within and just beyond the fringes of the Metro Urban Growth Boundary.

Click here to learn more about the Multnomah Food Action Plan.

The impact of the PMFPC work extends well beyond its jurisdictional borders, says Anita Yap, the Council chair and Deputy Executive Director of Home Forward (formerly known as the Housing Authority of Portland). Bringing an understanding of healthy food systems into an urban policy framework impacts farmers throughout the Metro region and beyond, she says.

Yap says the Council is also working to improve issues of food justice within Portland and Multnomah County; indeed, its Governing Principles state quite clearly that “every…resident has the right to an adequate supply of nutritious, affordable and culturally appropriate food.” To this end, the Council has organized a Food Justice Committee, and carried out research in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods like Lents, in Southeast Portland. One Council member, Charles Robertson, recently helped set up a market for fresh produce at New Columbia, one of the area’s largest public housing facilities. “We’re continuing to evolve and become more relevant,” Yap says, “working mindfully to find food-related issues at the forefront.”

Tying It All Together

Healthy local food systems require sensible land use planning and policies that support farmers and the impacts they have on providing nutritious food and economic development within regions. The state’s food policy councils are seeking to improve the success of local planning at achieve these outcomes. Yap says she is glad to see land use planning practice and policy evolving at the local and state level to support such efforts, as they will be integral to improving public health, environmental quality, and economic development.

The state’s Food Policy Councils are also creating a unique and necessary connection between the state’s urban and rural regions, breaking down barriers and building shared understanding. Their meetings are public, and provide a forum for the community to hear interesting speakers who have a lot to teach us about the food system; at a recent PMFPC meeting, Greg Archuleta of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde told the gathered council members and public about traditional native foods and how they’re continuing to be used today.

Ultimately, the food policy councils are dedicated to recognizing, enhancing, and expanding the interconnectedness of Oregon food systems, from field to fork, wherever we live and whatever we eat. “Food is the common denominator,” Yap says. “It is what ties us all together.”

Oregon Stories | September 2011

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