Where Food and Policy Meet: Reflections on a Panel

Where Food and Policy Meet: Reflections on a Panel


Listen to the panel discussion on SoundCloud!

How does the law affect what winds up on our plate? The answer, “regulation” might pop into your mind. But as was discussed in April, at a panel convened at NYU’s School of Law on “the role of local governance in the building of local food systems,” the relationship between policy and food is full of potential and holds keys to the development of urban resilience.

Moderated by Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Attorney Mark Izeman, the panel explored the problems facing urban food systems and the role that citizens and lawyers can play in affecting change. On the panel were experts from diverse backgrounds: Nevin Cohen, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at The New School; Emily Broad Leib, Director of the Food Law & Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School; Kim Kessler, New York City's Food Policy Coordinator; and Beatriz Beckford, Director of Organizing & Policy at the Brooklyn Food Coalition. The panel was organized principally by Green Rabbits participants, Claire Hartten, Christine Rico, Georg Pedersen, NYU professor Matthew Hoffman and lawyer Adam Jaffee, along with graduate student groups NYU Food Law and the Wagner Food Policy Alliance. (Listen to the panel on SoundCloud!) 

Urban food governance is an issue that, as panelists pointed out, has only recently come to be a focus of discussion. Leib at one point remarked: “even five years ago there was no such thing [as food policy or food law], no sense of how powerful or important this issue is.”

Cohen chimed in: “Planners thought that food was a rural issue, thought it was a private sector issue. Really didn’t understand how it was integrated into all of the other systems.” But times have changed, significantly: “We’re realizing it’s not just a commodity we buy in the supermarket, but it’s actually something that we can transform. We have the power to change how it’s produced and how it’s distributed and processed. And also it can change cities.”

Today many cities across North America and Europe, including New York, have a food policy coordinator. Some, like San Francisco, Toronto, London and Detroit have officially-sanctioned food policy councils that focus on the inter-agency governance issues of food systems planning. There are policies that can begin at the city level, and then go national—like calorie labeling on packaged foods, which began in New York — and grassroots enterprises which become adopted by cities, such as NYC’s Greenmarkets. (NYC has a “food policy task force.”)

Leib pointed out that the subject of food policy has been around in law schools for some time, but what’s changing is that it has become an interdisciplinary subject, with an emphasis on sustainability,infrastructure, regional economic development, transportation and other aspects of urban planning, in addition to the usual focus on the health, safety and regulation of foods.

The subject of poverty vis-à-vis food access was repeatedly mentioned. Cohen posed the question: “whether food access and food justice should be distinct efforts as opposed to poverty. To this, Cohen added that what we need is civic engagement on food policy: a “food plan for the city that would engage people and then have the force of law in terms of coordinating agency activities because they have to be consistently planned”—an approach beyond the scope of the current version of PlaNYC. “The city should do it, and it would engage people, and raise some of these issues about disparities, wealth, access to material resources, land use.”

Kessler pointed out that the food system is “broken for everyone . . . not just poor people” -- although people living in poverty do have a harder time getting healthy food, obesity and diabetes afflict New Yorkers of all classes, and at alarming rates; Kessler cited a statistic that 57 percent of New Yorkers are overweight or obese.Leib stressed that a city food council must reflect urban diversity “so that different voices are heard. . . . in terms of race and ethnicity and poverty and getting all those voices at the table.”

Panelists discussed the idea of having a Food and Agriculture Commissioner. Beckford said, “I like the idea of a New York City Commissioner of Food and Ag that is a funded position with a staff, with resources— as difficult as that is for a city government to do.” But, added Beckford, this person would need to be focused on community accountability, and using creative, innovative approaches to reforming the urban food system. She echoed Cohen’semphasis on civic engagement as the best way to ensure an effective governance strategy in the realm of food. And above all, any commissioner would need to work across agencies, and collaborate with various players in the urban agriculture world—a lesson that Beckford has learned as the leader of the Brooklyn Food Coalition.

Reflecting on the panel recently, Mark Izeman said: “Local governance is becoming increasingly important for sustainable food law and policy in New York and around the country. Especially with gridlock in Washington, city and state officials are taking action to strengthen their regional food systems."

Many gems came out of April’s discussion, and the main takeaways were: (a) more and more cities are understanding the role of inter-agency food policy councils; (b) lawyers and law schools are stepping into food policy planning; (c) urban poverty and health issues can be addressed in innovative ways through food policy; (b) civic engagement is crucial to the efficacy of local food governance; (c) designing solutions through interdisciplinary and unconventional collaborations is essential in local food policy work. With such profound areas to explore, it is hoped that the panel was only the first in a series on the intersection between food and local governance. The conversation has been put on SoundCloud and is accessible here. Green Rabbits welcomes any suggestions or comments about these matters, on this blog or through our general e-mail box: info@greenrabbits.org.


Additional notes: The concept for developing a series of forums to address this subject was sparked by a conversations between members of Green Rabbits, lawyer Adam Jaffee, NYU professor Matthew Hoffman and integrative designer Claire Hartten. This first event evolved at NYU thanks to Matthew Hoffman who wrote the guiding text and title of the event, as well as formed a collaborative project team with two NYU graduate student groups, NYU Food Law and the Wagner Food Policy Alliance, as well as fellow Rabbits, Adam Jaffee, Claire Hartten, Christine Rico and Georg Pedersen. And after party with food and drink was provided to reflect the themes of the discussion by Jimmy Carbone’s Food Karma Projects.


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