Statewide, food policy makers think locally


On Wednesday, 100 or so people from all over the state, representing government agencies, public school systems, farms, retail, even big businesses got together to discuss something that is near and dear to all of our hearts… and stomachs: food. 

This wasn’t a frou-frou foodie event (though the Georgia-grown snacks were quite good). This was the first statewide gathering of the nascent Georgia Food Policy Council. At this point, it’s still really more of an idea than an actual organization, operating under the wing of the Georgia Health Policy Center at Georgia State University. But it is a great idea: Collect farmers, nutritionists, environmentalists, nonprofit leaders, researchers, business people, agency administrators and general food lovers from around the state, and ask them to help identify critical issues involving food—and then craft policies to address those issues.

Participants spent the day working through exercises to bring some of those issues to light and set some early priorities. How could a food council help tackle Georgia’s growing obesity problem? How could it support and encourage sustainable agriculture? Or a reduction in landfill waste? Or equitable distribution of nutritious, affordable options for all Georgians? 

“I do think that providing people with a sort of laundry list of policies was a surprise to the participants,” says Debra Kibbe, the senior research associate at Georgia Health Policy Center who spearheaded not only the state meeting but also a series of regional meetings leading up to it. “People are in their silos”—school nutrition or meat inspection or peach distribution, say—“and the surprise for them is the diversity of the issues.” 

So it was all the more interesting to me that locally produced food was already a basic premise to this broad representation of thoughtful, food-loving Georgians. It is not necessarily a given, for example, that school nutrition directors would view easier access to local produce as a path toward stronger school lunch programs. They could buy fresh produce from anywhere and meet students’ nutritional needs. But they see a greater value in local food: a way to engage their young charges in the food they eat and the lifelong dietary choices they make. 

It is not necessarily a given, either, that chronic disease specialists would care about tax incentives for farmland preservation and zoning laws for urban community gardens. But beyond the clear connection between health and good food, they see the connections between health and local food: between gardening and eating vegetables, between saving a nearby farm and securing a safe and reliable food supply.  

Who knew that so many people, representing so many interests, would care about the creation of community compost heaps? Or about regulations involving small-scale food processing facilities? Or about tax breaks for beginning farmers? 

Who knew that so many different imperatives are, increasingly, being associated with local food? Not me. 

“One thing that’s been interesting about the food movement is the way it has percolated up from the local to the state to the national,” food policy expert Mark Winne, the meeting’s keynote speaker, told me. Food policy groups have been popping up around the country as people working at the grass-roots level in all sorts of fields look around and realize they have a common interest in improving what we eat … even if that means revamping our nation’s entire food system.

Good food is a topic that truly unites us all. And rapidly, surprisingly, “good food” and “local food” are becoming synonymous to more and more of us.