Will a citizens advisory council create a model for policy makers to address equity issues?
Local food has become a hot topic on the national radar, with a commitment to locally sourced food (organic, if possible) being sought by consumers ranging from trendy restaurants to neighborhood supermarkets. At a time when salmonella and E. coli outbreaks are almost a common occurrence in our industrial food system, consumers are seeking to connect with the growers and producers that provide products for the aisle of their local grocery store and, eventually, on their dinner plate. However, the amount of attention given to efforts to provide local alternatives to the industrial food system does not come without any pushback. Consider The Oregonian’s PolitiFact piece on BlueOregon’s own T.A. Barnhart challenging a Tweet declaring that the Multnomah Food Action plan will “interfere with your food delivery” and “disrupt the free market system” by taking away choices at the local grocery store. (A claim, by the way, that The Oregonian's PolitFact determined was ‘Too hard to swallow’.)
Indeed, the attempt to guide the murky waters of creating food policy is not for the faint of heart. The industrial food system got its first overhaul in 70 years with the passage of S. 510 in the previous Congressional session (one that actually got around to the business of passing bills, not to be confused with this current Congress). Locally, any proposed food policy to be considered by elected officials will be vetted by the Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council. One of roughly 40 councils and committees listed on the City of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement out-of-date website (do we really need a council overseeing publicly financed elections?), the Food Policy Council is a citizens advisory council comprised of 13 community residents who meet on a monthly basis to discuss their shared passion: food. Specifically, they discuss how the City of Portland and Multnomah County will promote, support, and strengthen a healthy regional food system. Such as ways to interfere with the delivery of certain food items and disrupt the free market system regarding food choice in the region, for example.
The 13-member panel is Chaired by Anita Yap, Community Development Director for the City of Damascus, along with David McIntyre, Chef Instructor at the International Culinary School, serving as the Council’s Vice-Chair. On a typical overcast March July evening, both Anita and David agreed to sit with me and explain just what, exactly, the Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council “does.” Besides explaining the Council’s recent successes and how the efforts of Council members are relevant to nearly all Portland- and Oregon- residents, both Anita and David spoke excitedly about how the Council’s new commitment to transparency and food justice could help create a model for policy makers to consider equity issues regarding other important policy matters.
To begin, I want to start with a hypothetical Portland resident. This resident lives out on 122nd Ave., and his food options are pretty much limited to Safeway, KFC, and WinCo. How would you explain the relevancy of the Food Policy Council to this individual?
DM: For this individual you speak of, I would want to increase options for them. I want to fight against the “having ONLY the food inside the Walmart” mindset so that if a community garden is near- or transit to get to a community garden is near- then that becomes high on the list of options to get food from. The Food Policy Council is place where that person has a voice about food, a voice about access to food, the quality of food, school food- a place where they could meet with staffers from the City and County. We might have Mayor Adams show up in future meetings, and Nick Fish and Jeff Cogen as well. I want the Food Policy Council to be an entry point to community activism. For those who food is important, it is a way to get involved with government. You realize it is not big and scary. You end up with examples like Charles Johnson and the Village Market.
AY: For me, the Food Policy Council is about how food is the common denominator- there should not necessarily be a level playing field when it comes to food, but there should be a common conversation shared about food. It ties people together, despite class and race. My cultural background includes four generations from Hawaii and China. My food background is multicultural. There is this huge immigrant and refugee community in Portland that share this cultural connection to food. I may currently be in a certain class background, but I grew up with food insecurity. My parents dealt with the War and the Depression and living in Hawaii. They moved to Portland, grew up picking berries and making jam. My mother would say about the Depression: “We were poor, but not hungry.” For me, at the Food Policy Council, we need people who want to have a voice about food, access to food, food that tastes good. Just an increase in the number of full-service grocery stores doesn’t mean people will buy better food. People don’t know how to prepare it. I also want the Food Policy Council to address the capacity background. Those with low food security are the real experts, and should tell policy makers what to do. That should be what the Food Policy Council is.
DM: This is nothing new. The Urban League put a garden in four blocks from my house, and I hate it that I don’t know who any of those people are. I live in an incredibly diverse neighborhood, but nobody talks to anybody. Its 88% non-white, so it’s not gentrified.
AY: It’s not that low-income people don’t have the time. It’s just that nobody asked them to build capacity. They don’t even know where to start. I was born here, so my background is not local food from Hawaii, but the local food from the Italian farmers along Marine Drive in the 1960s and 1970s. We would buy gill-caught salmon from the Indian tribes in Cascade Locks. Chinatown was bustling, a great source of cultural food. My food culture is varied. Our shared component is to increase the relevancy of the Food Policy Council, not just to Council members but to the community at large.
DM: And we also want to avoid feedback loops. The Food Policy Council has an opportunity to find out what people want- if they come to Food Policy Council meetings. We’re not just restricted to talking about politicking, jurisdictional issues, etc. It all comes back to relevancy- and if we don’t have community support, it’s just a few select people discussing these issues regarding food.
AY: David has been handling the outreach and recruitment commitment. Me, I helped form the food justice committee. It needed to be a comprehensive approach to deal with these issues. Both of these committees addressed gaps we recognized needed to be dealt with. At first, we didn’t receive support from City and County staffers, but now both are on board to create more transparency at the Food Policy Council and its membership process. Between us, we work very well together- I am a seasoned bureaucrat. I understand politicking and have 30 years with policy background. The Food Policy Council has lacked the policy background to translate into positive results.
DM: Part of that is knowing when you are being stone-walled. Anita has ability to, very politely, call bullshit.
AY: All of us are connected to the wider community, a lot of connections outside of food policy. The point is to leverage Council members various networks.
DM: Leveraging members’ networks is all a part of capacity building. Anita knows she can do these things. Other Council members simply are not bureaucrats and lack the “finesse card” that Anita has.
AY: A lot of work goes behind the scenes of the Food Policy Council. I’m kind of like everybody’s mother. There are a lot of personalities, a lot of “turf,” a lot of accomplishments that everyone wants to take credit for. What is key, however, is emphasizing that every member on the Council has relevancy.
DM: We want to make sure that people on the Council are gaining value for being on the Council. And really, the only way people gain value is by accomplishing something.
So let’s discuss policy for a minute. How active are Food Policy Council members in the ink-and-paper process of creating policy? Did any Council members go down and testify in Salem this most recent legislative session?
DM: Not really. [Council member] Dave Barman has communicated his desire to go down to Salem and participate in the process. The problem is- particularly with testimony- its very last minute. Everyone on the Council has day jobs, and it is hard to take the time to go down to Salem. However, things have originated from the Food Policy Council that eventually made their way to Salem. Examples would be the increased reimbursement for local procurement by local governments, or the temporary restaurant vendor license bill that was recently passed.
AY: The Food Policy Council as a whole are not directly involved with the legislative process down in Salem, but individual members are. I’m involved with the League of Oregon Cities and we have a lobbyist who wants to know what we think on certain bills.
DM: I don’t see the access points in state government as I do in the city and county government. I can get into my Congressman’s office, but no idea how to go about meeting with my state rep.
AY: A lot of us individually lack the capacity to play a bigger role in Salem. Steve [Cohen, who oversees the sustainable food program for the City of Portland] has done a good job sending us info, but we lack capacity to have more of a presence in Salem.
DM: We are in Portland. I understand we represent Multnomah County as well, but we are in Portland. I understand the urban-rural divide. This is why I am continually in contact with Sarah Hackney [manager of Gorge Grown mobile market] and with the central Oregon food policy councils, as well as the national structure of food policy councils to point out to USDA that food policy councils need technical assistance. Right now the USDA is not supporting food policy councils on any level. What I am finding is that food policy councils are different in all communities regarding intergovernmental relations, staff and volunteers. The USDA has this “big picture” piece which gets lost very easily when you actually get to on-the-ground efforts. If what we want is a systems change, we need to ask how they change over time. Policy and demographics change over time- what needs to be considered is the best way to achieve this change? And I’m not always sure relying on the government is the best model.
Anita, how does your professional experience as the Community Development Director for the City of Damascus influence your activities as Food Policy Council chair, and vice versa?
AY: I think I partly joined the Council because of my interest in regional food issues. I live in Portland and work in Damascus. I chose to live in Portland as I wanted to maintain a smaller footprint and was adverse to having a big house and accompanying mortgage out in the country. Over the last twenty years I’ve had eight different jobs, a number that I left because the culture was unbearable. But I partly joined the FPC because of having worked in Damascus, working with farmers who understand where their markets are. A couple of farmers I work with are really blunt: My garden may be here, but my market is in Portland. I am also concerned about the sustainability of the food system, and how that interplays with such issues as the urban growth boundary and the urban-rural divide. There should be commercial farmers within the urban boundary that have a low impact on the surrounding community. What is the point of taking 50 acres of prime farmland, paving it over and putting up a car lot? Is that good land stewardship? But that is exactly the type of land use our current practices encourage.
And I also want to make clear that I do not represent the City of Damascus in any way as chair of the Food Policy Council. This is more of a personal interest of mine. It’s a personal issue derived from my cultural background. It is not something I feel I need to do to represent Damascus. However, my involvement helped bring in a SARE [Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education] grant that is examining the entire food shed of the Portland metro region. This is a multidisciplinary project in which I am working with economists, the OSU extension service, the Institute of Metropolitan Studies at Portland State. And the result of this project is that we are finding that food is a common language that connects the region. As a regional system you can’t isolate the issue by focusing solely on the City-County relationship.
David, as Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Institute, you must have a natural background in regards to food policy. Do you incorporate policy issues as you teach your budding chefs?
DM: I do create and develop curriculum, both in the kitchen and the classroom. I just developed a ‘politics of food’ class, as far as I know the only program like that. Our school was the first to offer a BA with a sustainability minor which we incorporate into our classes which is now being adopted system-wide in culinary programs at other Art Institutes. I sit on the policy committee of the Community Food Security Coalition, where I help work on such pieces of legislation as the Farm Bill.
I’ve worked in restaurants for 25 years, and wanted to do more. I took graduate studies at NYU, where I worked with Marion Nestle. She inspired me to dig into policy. What I found was that there wasn’t any “food” in food academics, but now I get to teach cooking while teaching food policy. To me you can’t extricate food from the policy, or the policy from the food.
Let’s go back to the ink-and-paper world of policy for a second. You guys are roughly half-way through the 2011 Food Policy Council session. How do you think it has gone so far? And what are your expectations for the rest of the year?
DM: We’ve gotten some things rolling. It always feels like you get off to slow start when you take leadership of groups like this.
AY: Plus there is always a learning curve for new members.
DM: But the fact is we are always working on many, many projects that take many years to complete. Consider Village Market- can this current Food Policy Council take credit for it because it opened this year, or should this current Council take credit for what starts this year even if the completion is years down the line? I think the food justice committee will create good things because it will be something that Council staffers [from the City and County] will love to be on- they will love it.
AY: David’s work with outreach has made huge leaps and bounds. That’s a great accomplishment this year.
DM: It’s amazing how a tweak in a procedure changes perceptions in how the City will deal with these issues. Now there is a turf war over this and it’s funny to me.
AY: I thought of the food justice committee. And I proposed it to our City and County staffers, and their response was: ‘Why would you want to do this?’ And really, it wasn’t me who wants to do this; it was the Food Policy Council that wants to do this. The FPC staffer that heads the committee started doing good work and now the City and County have staffers attending food justice committee meetings.
DM: The Food Policy Council has been a leader in how to frame equity, something both Commissioner Cogen and Mayor Adams are interested in but not necessarily able to communicate yet.
AY: The Food Justice Committee could serve as a framework to address equity issues beyond just food policy, but also transportation, housing, and other issues. It would be great if this policy lens could apply across the board. That’s my greatest hope. Internally- we always need to confront institutional racism. Externally- we need to reach out in an equitable manner. Equity needs to be thought out very well, and I’m hoping that the Food Policy Council will allow that to occur.
By Kyle Curtis
July 26, 2011
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