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Coastal Voices: What’s in a food policy?

Eating well isn’t only about what you eat; it’s also about where you live.

Whether you live in fast food central or around the corner from a farmers’ market, near two grocery stores or two liquor stores, your social environment helps dictate your food options.

Over the past year, I have helped coordinate the Community Food Council for Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands. It’s our local version of a food policy council and its mission is to create a vibrant, sustainable local food system for all.

You may ask — what does policy have to do with food? Many people believe that eating healthy is all about personal choice: If everyone chose to eat lots of fresh produce and whole foods, we’d be a fit nation. But not everyone has equal access to healthy foods. The truth of the matter is that personal choice is just one piece of healthy eating, and that policy affects how we all eat.

On the federal level, congressional legislation dictates what crops will be supported and what will go into school lunches. At the municipal level, zoning policies can either encourage or discourage community gardens, farmers markets, liquor stores, fast food restaurants and backyard chickens. Each policy decision made by legislators helps define what foods will be most readily available and affordable in any given neighborhood.

Last week, I attended a Prevention Institute training in Oakland called “Advancing Prevention in Your Community through Policy and Organizational Practice Change.” A wordy title to be sure, but the conference introduced a tool the institute uses to approach community change.

The “Spectrum of Prevention” involves six levels of action: strengthening individual knowledge and skills; promoting community education; educating providers; fostering coalitions and networks; changing organizational practices; and influencing policy and legislation. Our local Food Council is already working at multiple levels of the spectrum.

Strengthening individual knowledge and skills is at the base of the spectrum because it affects only individuals, not the social environment. For example, people can be taught healthy cooking skills, but if their neighborhood doesn’t have a source of affordable healthy foods, those skills will go to waste. As you move up the spectrum, you begin influencing more people.

The Food Council itself is in the middle of the spectrum, “fostering coalitions and networks,” as it brings together food producers, retailers, consumers, and educators. From this middle ground, the council can work to affect change on both ends of the spectrum.

In October, we debuted a pilot program called “Food and Cookin’ 101” at Sunset High School, which teaches nutrition, menu and budget planning, and basic cooking and kitchen skills to about a dozen students. It is building individual skills, the base of the spectrum, but also moving toward changing organizational practices.

The lessons from the pilot program will be combined into a curriculum tied to California educational standards that could be integrated into all levels of our school system.

The Food Council mission is much broader. We want all people to have equal access to good food: healthy, affordable foods should be available in every neighborhood and community. Our hope is that more of that food is produced here in Del Norte and the adjacent tribal lands so that we build a food economy that provides jobs and keeps food dollars in our community.

To reach that mission, organizational practices and local, regional and federal policies will have to be changed to support those goals. More of our smaller local grocers will need to accept CalFresh and WIC benefits and carry fresh whole foods. Our schools will need to continue their work to improve school meals, but we may also need to advocate for changes to the current federal school meal guidelines established by congressional legislation.

The Food Council is working to make our local food system healthier and more vibrant for us all. While it intends to create change at all levels of the spectrum, the most permanent and effective change will be through policy change.

What the newly elected Food Council representatives will choose to advocate for, I do not know. I do know that it will keep our area’s interests at heart as it moves forward into its first year of official operation.

Michael Waddle is a First 5 ServiceCorps VISTA serving with the Community Assistance Network as part of the Building Healthy Communities Initiative. You can reach him at 707-464-9190 ext 117, or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it   

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