Why are 600 food policy wonks about to converge on Portland?

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Why are 600 food policy wonks about to converge on Portland?

Community Food Security Coalition Executive Director Andy Fisher describes the upcoming Food Policy: From Neighborhood to Nation conference

In recent years, Portland has established itself as a center for innovative food policy. This is due in part to the geographic proximity of the fertile soil of the Willamette Valley, and also because of a commitment to locally sourced and sustainable ingredients offered by chefs who achieve near-celebrity status in the city as a result. (And receive a foodie “seal of approval” by the New York Times in the process.) Portland is known nearly as much for its farmers markets as it is for its microbrews, and a recent speech by best-selling food writer Michael Pollan was delivered to a crowd of 4,000 engaged listeners at the University of Portland.

None of this is completely by happenstance. The substantial influence of the Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council has helped develop the environment that allows the regional food policy innovations to thrive. Formed in 2002, the stated vision of the Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council is that “All City of Portland and Multnomah County residents have access to a wide variety of nutritious, affordable food, grown locally and sustainably.” The successful results of the Council’s near-decade of existence are encouraging, providing the model for other local food policy councils around the country to effect policy at the local level. By every account, Portland is a natural choice to host the first national food policy conference, which will be held in the city from May 19-21. Organized by the Community Food Security Coalition, the theme of this conference is From Neighborhood to Nation with a major goal of the conference is the creation of national network of food policy council. Andy Fisher, the executive director of the CFSC, took a break from last-minute planning to provide more insight into this event.

Andy, before we discuss the conference, can you take a moment and describe the Community Food Security Coalition for those who don’t know? What is the Coalition, and what does it do?

AF: Sure. The Community Food Security Coalition is a national coalition founded in 1994 and currently we have 550 member organizations. The purpose of the CFSC is to increase access of healthy food to underserved communities. The Coalition does a lot of advocacy work in Washington, D.C. including Farm Bill efforts and child nutrition legislation. We also provide training and technical assistance for such efforts as farm-to-school, healthy retail, increasing the number of farmers markets, as well as hosting our annual food security conference. We moved to Portland from L.A. about three years ago as it just seemed a better fit.

So, why a food policy conference, and why now?

AF: The CFSC has been working to promote the concept of food policy councils for ten years. One day at a meeting at our 2009 national conference in Des Moines, Iowa, the idea of a food policy conference was met with tremendous support and enthusiasm. There has been an explosion in growth of food policy councils around the country in recent years, and most of them are working in isolation. This conference is intended to provide an opportunity for food policy council members from around the country to meet each other, discuss how we can work together on the Farm Bill and other policy, and create a greater policy agenda in which we hope to create a food policy network.

Tell me more about this idea of a food policy network. What do you imagine it would look like, and how would it accomplish its goals?

AF: Well, that’s still to be announced. We have sent out pre-conference surveys to attendees, and hopefully from those answers we could find ways to get people to connect and keep a strong connection after they return home from Portland. We don’t just want people to view this conference as solely an opportunity to network and collect business cards, but also to work and develop associations they might have such as with mayors and city managers. And clearly, the food policy network would also serve to share information amongst different food policy councils throughout the country.

Why did you decide to host the initial food policy conference in Portland?

AF: Primarily because Portland is such a hub of food policy: you have the council, the Multnomah Food Initiative, the local land-use planning process. It also just made a little bit of sense logistically to host it in our headquarters city. Plus, there’s a lot going on both the state and the city, as well as a lot of food policy development occurring throughout the Northwest, from Seattle to San Francisco.

How many participants do you think will attend this conference?

AF: Friday, May 6th is the registration deadline, but we’ll continue to be able to register participants after that if space is still available. We’re looking to have 600 food policy wonks attend this conference- not the sexiest conference Portland has hosted, I’m sure.

Finally, currently the Community Food Security Coalition is accepting nominations on its website for the 2011 Food Sovereignty Prize. I’ve written about food sovereignty in the past, and if you’d be willing, I wonder if you could explain the concept a little bit more. It seems like proponents of food sovereignty want to see the government play a diminished role in the foods we eat, while opponents feel that everything produced in a “food sovereign” state would be full of fecal matter and E. coli. Could you perhaps shed a little insight into the food sovereignty concept from the CFSC's perspective?

AF: Sure. The Community Food Security Coalition is not intending to encourage food self-reliance. We are not suggesting tha people go “back to the land” and grow their meals out of backyard gardens. Instead, we encourage a concept of “food sovereignty” that is more about people getting control of how and where food is produced. Consider Wal-Mart. They have reduced prices on fruits and vegetables, reduced sodium in their products, have made a commitment to buy local products. On the one hand, that’s wonderful and it provides Wal-Mart a certain legitimacy- if that’s their goal. The CFSC’s food sovereignty approach considers Wal-Mart’s actions along the lines of “that’s fine… but” perspective. Wal-Mart is the largest food retailer in the country, with twenty-five cents of every food dollar spent. Shopping at Wal-Mart does nothing to decentralize a monopolized food economy hat continues to put money and power into the hands of a few. What the CFSC encourages by “food sovereignty” is to ask who is benefitting from the food you buy, and how are we able to build long-lasting economic influence beyond merely saving farmland and buying local produce.

Food Policy: From Neighborhood to Nation will be in Portland from May 19-21. Most events will be at the Doubletree Hotel near Lloyd Center. Registration is still open. Go to www.foodpolicyconference.org for more information.

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