A new study from the American Planning Association shows that only a mere 105 jurisdictions across the US have established plans for their regional food systems, according to the APA Sustaining Places Blog:
Alongside air, water, and shelter, food is a basic necessity for life.
Food plays a role in our health, economy, and culture and is a critical part of a sustainable community. The World Health Organization and the United Nations consider access to safe and nutritious food a basic individual right; however, many rural and urban residents have limited access to fresh produce and other healthful foods.
Disparities in food access are influenced by geographic, economic, and social factors, but also by a community’s food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste recovery policies and practices. While local governments are actively planning for a range of social, economic, and ecological issues in local-level plans, food access and other food system issues are often missing from this sustainability planning approach.
According to a recent national study conducted by APA’s Planning and Community Health Research Center, only 105 jurisdictions in the U.S. explicitly address an aspect of local or regional food systems in their comprehensive plans or sustainability plans. Of these identified plans, the top most-cited food system strategies included:
- preserving rural agricultural land;
- supporting new opportunities for the agricultural production of produce;
- improving access to farmers markets and community gardens; and
- supporting new opportunities for urban agriculture.
Planners, public health professionals, dietitians, and nurses call for food systems that are health promoting, sustainable, resilient, diverse, fair, economically balanced, and transparent. While only a few comprehensive plans and sustainability plans identified by this study embraced all tenets of the Principles of a Healthy, Sustainable Food System, some local governments are taking important steps to connect local food system–related issues to economic, social, and ecological goals.
For example, Baltimore’s sustainability plan explicitly connects the concept of ecological sustainability to food access: “Practicing good stewardship of our natural world improves the ability of future generations to eat fresh food, breath clean air, drink healthy water, and enjoy open space.” Sacramento, California’s comprehensive plan includes one goal and five policies that address the important role municipalities play in preserving and protecting farmland in neighboring jurisdictions for their “value for open space, habitat, flood protection, aesthetics, and food security.”
Doral, Florida’s sustainability plan identifies urban agriculture as an important sustainability strategy due to its economic, environmental, health and social co-benefits, and includes 10 guiding principles, of which one is dedicated to city agriculture. Cleveland’s sustainability plan identifies urban agriculture as an important strategy for the productive reuse of vacant property, and lists seven policy recommendations (along with relevant city government departments) to reuse vacant property for urban agriculture purposes.
The presence of food-related goals and policies alone does not guarantee the plan will have an impact. The research team also took into account the quality of implementation and evaluation components. The top five highest-scoring plans included Marin County, California’s comprehensive plan; Philadelphia’s sustainability plan; San Francisco’s sustainability plan; Sacramento’s comprehensive plan; and Baltimore’s sustainability plan. All of these plans included explicit goals and policies to improve food access equity within the context of the larger community food system, but also addressed how to implement each food-related policy outlined in the plan and how to monitor and track progress in achieving the plan’s food goals.
Lessons learned from this study revealed that there are 10 main steps a local government can take to effectively plan for healthier, more sustainable local and regional food systems:
1. Develop a food policy council to facilitate coordination, communication, and collaboration among food system stakeholders within and outside of local government.
2. Partner with and include a cross-section of local government department staff in the planning process by developing a cross-appointed, intergovernmental food systems planning staff position, an intergovernmental food systems working group, or cross-pollinating working groups to bring ideas together.
3. Actively engage food-related nonprofit organizations in the planning development and implementation process to ensure key food system stakeholders are involved in the planning process, particularly farmers and other food producers, food retailers, and underserved and marginalized populations.
4. Partner with local foundations to support community engagement and food assessment activities by leveraging financial support to cover the start-up costs of the initial steps in the food system planning process.
5. Collaborate with a land grant university, university, college, or nonprofit to collect and analyze food access and systems data at baseline and over time.
6. Make connections between local government plans, policies, and initiatives explicit, to mutually reinforce food system efforts and ensure that they are institutionalized in the local government planning and policy-making framework.
7. Use food-related actions to achieve open space, transportation, land use, economic development, housing, natural resource, and solid waste goals of local plans.
8. Evaluate how existing local policies inhibit or support food access and other aspects of the local food system during the plan development process.
9. Clearly identify strategy type, time frame, funding source(s), lead agency or organization role and responsibilities, and co-benefits for each plan implementation action to provide a framework for ensuring food policies are effectively implemented.
10. When crafting plan goals and policies, balance and mirror aspirational food system goals with measurable objectives, indicators, and targets to enable effective plan monitoring and evaluation over time.