February 13, 2012

Food Movement Tsunami: U.S. Mayors Ride the Wave

Leo Horrigan, MHS

Leo Horrigan, MHS

CLF Correspondent

Center for a Livable Future

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino

Sometimes it’s worth reflecting on where we’ve been, if only to show ourselves that we’ve actually gotten somewhere.

Case in point: Recently, mayors from across the U.S. initiated a Food Policy Task Force to “focus on issues including reducing obesity, increasing access to healthy affordable food in low-income communities, and increasing local food procurement and entrepreneurship in cities.”

This might sound like the normal everyday work of mayors, until you consider how far it is from the policy environment that existed a few decades ago regarding food issues.

“It’s nothing short of astounding to see the number of big-city mayors who have gotten religion recently on food issues,” said Mark Winne, a food policy specialist, when I asked him about the formation of the task force. For about a quarter-century Winne was head of the Hartford (Conn.) Food System, a non-profit working on food and hunger issues. “When I first asked the mayor of Hartford in the mid-1980s—when there was only one [food policy council] in the country—to consider creating a food policy council, he looked at me like I was from Mars.”

So, it must be music to the ears of someone like Winne to hear a quote like this one from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, the chair of the new mayors’ task force:

“All across our cities, a local food revolution is taking place—we see it at our farmer’s markets, in community gardens, in our schools and in small and growing businesses.” Or this statement, also from Menino: “Every person should have access to healthy, affordable food, regardless of their neighborhood or income.”

The mayors may not have started the revolution, but they don’t want to be left behind by it, either.

“Today, mayors want to ride the food movement tsunami before they are drowned by it,” Winne said. “At the very least, they finally see the economic potential of food—food usually being the second or third largest sector of any local economy—as well as the health consequences related to diet, obesity, and ‘food deserts.’ ”

So, how to explain this sea change in attitude among city leaders? It’s as simple as strength in numbers. With so many people and organizations working on food issues nowadays, it’s not wise for mayors to ignore them.

“As political animals, mayors now recognize the impact of that constituency,” Winne points out.

At this point, not all of the impetus for change is coming from outside of city governments. It is becoming more common for cities to hire a food policy advisor to head up its food system improvement efforts. When Baltimore City hired Holly Freishtat as its food policy director in May 2010, she was only the second such city official in the country. But, in the last 18 months, seven more cities have joined this trend.*

“With those positions in place, that’s really providing the support to the mayors to be able to move forward on these issues,” says Freishtat, whose boss – Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake – is vice-chair of the mayors’ food policy task force.

When Menino announced the formation of the task force a few weeks ago during the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual winter meeting, there were 15 mayors in attendance. Nine other mayors either expressed interest in the initiative or sent a representative to the meeting, with the latter group including the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.

Only with the benefit of hindsight can we can recognize how much progress these events represent.

* Other cities with food policy advisors are New York, Boston, Louisville, Ky., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and – most recently – Philadelphia.

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