Steve Rhode photo Buy Local from flickr
There is wide consensus that lack of access to healthy, affordable food and problems with how our food gets to our table are real issues across the nation. Oakland is no exception. A new body called the Oakland Food Policy Council has just been formed to address policies that affect residents and the food system in which we all participate.
“Though it is something of a cliché, the farm-to-fork image is something that can help us understand that system.” council-member Heather Wooten explains. “We need to think through all the steps it takes for food to get from the seed in the field to your plate.” This includes farmers on the land, the trucks driving it in, and the stores that carry it.
The Oakland Food Policy Council is a coordinated effort from diverse sectors of the Oakland community to create a strategic policy plan to nudge our city’s food system in a healthier and more sustainable direction. One way to steer a wayward vessel (i.e. the unsustainable food system) in the right direction is to throw as many hands on the wheel and start pulling. But you also have to know where you are going, so you get out the map, see where you are and decide where you want to go. An assorted group of Oaklanders are interested in contributing to the plan, from regular citizens who simply want to buy good food to eat in their neighborhoods, to food justice and healthcare workers, to those who work in directly in the food system such as growers and distributors.
The purpose of the Oakland Food Policy Council is to look at current food policy and to push the City of Oakland to chart a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable course. This means proposing and advocating for policies that advance access to good food in more Oakland neighborhoods, growing and sourcing more local food, and integrated distribution networks. The hope is that their recommendations and advocacy will help tangible projects and initiatives across Oakland, including getting more healthy fruits and veggies into local mom and pop markets and school cafeterias, more urban agriculture projects, and more farmstands.
Roots of change
Local grassroots projects and organizations such as People’s Grocery, Mandela Foods Cooperative, and Mo’ Better Food in West Oakland have been working on access to healthy food for many years. Opening in early summer, Mandela Foods Cooperative is a worker-owned enterprise that focuses on selling healthy, organic, and locally sourced food. People’s Grocery is a community-based organization in West Oakland that aims to build a local food system that improves the health and economy of the West Oakland community. They develop programs and enterprises that produce and distribute fresh foods, provide nutrition education, promote urban agriculture and create local jobs. Mo’ Better Food’s mission is to promote good food, healthy living and economic sustainability in underserved communities and to reconnect African-American farmers back into neighborhoods.
Oakland also boasts of a growing number of community gardens, farmers markets, and organizations working on everything from public policy to school gardens. All these efforts are partly in response to Oakland’s pressing issues of food insecurity, health issues, an unsustainable food system, and a general desire to put food production and choice back into the hands of the community.
Despite Oakland’s budding reputation as a leader in green initiatives, some areas such as West Oakland have long been considered food deserts. A single grocery store served the area’s approximately 25,000 residents until 2007, when it left. Many West Oakland shoppers shop at corner markets, where canned and processed food are abundant and fresh vegetables rare. When these corner markets do carry produce, it is often more expensive. A UCLA Center for Health Policy Research study published in 2005 concluded that about 33 percent of Bay Area residents are “food insecure,” meaning they cannot afford healthy food. That figure is even higher for the area’s black, Latino, and Native American populations. And lack of access to fresh, nutritious food is linked to a whole range of health problems including obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The Oakland Food Policy Council was formed to address some of these problems in a systematic way.
“There is no doubt there are many difficult challenges with our current food system, but Oakland has a bright history of vibrant, grassroots work and dedicated people throwing their energies into tackling these issues,” Oakland Food Council Policy Coordinator (OFPC) Alethea Harper tells me in her office in the North Oakland house that is the headquarters of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, the organization that is incubating the OFPC.
In addition to individual concerned citizens and its main allies--Food First and the HOPE Collaborative (Health for Oakland’s People & Environment)--the OFPC is collaborating with local partners including the City of Oakland, the Alameda County Public Health Department, City Slicker Farms, People’s Grocery, the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and PUEBLO (People United for a Better Life in Oakland). These alliances and dialogues across different sectors will help forge a coordinated and systematic plan to transform Oakland’s food system. In addition to drafting policy recommendations the OFPC will work with agencies and organizations during the implementation process.
Birth of the Oakland Food Policy Council
The OFPC has been many years in the making. While technically less than a year old, the OFPC has its roots in the Oakland Food System Assessment that was published 4 years ago through the former Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. The report by then-graduate students in City Planning at UC Berkeley Heather Wooten (now one of the council-members) and Serena Unger asked tough questions and sought answers about Oakland’s food system. For example, how much food consumed in Oakland is locally produced? Even tougher: how can that amount be increased? The report examined and evaluated Oakland’s entire food system, from the growing of produce to the handling of food scraps -- and all the points in between. It is one of the most thorough looks at food access in Oakland.
One of the main recommendations in the 2005 report was to form a Food Policy Council. Less than a year later the City Council’s Life Enrichment Committee unanimously resolved to form the council and to provide start-up funding. Last year, Alethea Harper was hired as Coordinator and the OFPC found a home base in Food First, the non-profit organization chosen to incubate the new council. After several months of networking, researching, and securing funding, the OFPC held its first official kick-off event in March this year.
A group of people on the OFPC development committee have spent the last few months recruiting for the first class of council-members, reading applications, and setting up the council’s basic organizational structure. They received over 40 applications to be part of the new 21-seat council. “We ended up having applications from many walks of life, from health professionals to a CSA and farmers’ market director for a local farm,” Alethea Harper says. The 21 new council-members were finally announced on Friday, August 28. Among other criteria, the committee responsible for choosing members was looking for Oakland residents committed to food issues in Oakland, who were able “to comprehend and re-imagine the entire food system.”
The 21 seats allow for a diverse set of voices to be heard from across Oakland. Several sectors are represented: the business community; the labor community; community organizations and private citizens; rural and regional businesses and organizations; health and education organizations; and local government. Harper said that some sectors have been harder than others to fill, such as labor and farm producers. She said that rural farmers were interested, but wouldn’t necessarily be able to commit to a regular schedule of meetings in the city. The CSA and farmers’ market director will be an indirect representative in that sector. Among the council-members are Mike Henneberry, Communications Director at the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 and Hank Herrera, a long-time food justice advocate, founder of The Center for Popular Research, Education and Policy (C-PREP) and a board member of Food First. See a full list here.
The broad mission of the OFPC is to create a more healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system in Oakland and to assure access to healthy, affordable food within walking distance of every Oakland resident. More specifically, the OFPC has 8 goals, the implementation of which will become more specific and clear over the next few years:
Increase food security by working to ensure that no Oakland resident experiences hunger.
* Build greater public health by supporting the development of balanced food environments that empower residents with opportunities to make healthy food choices and reduce environmental causes of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related illnesses.
* Support local agriculture that is economically viable, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible. Make Oakland a market for processing and consuming local food, with the objective of having at least 30 percent of Oakland's food needs sourced from within the City and the surrounding region.
* Promote energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption, by promoting local, sustainable food production.
* Support the protection of environmental resources, by promoting consumption of locally and sustainably-grown food, particularly food produced using environmentally-benign and energy-efficient growing, processing and distribution practices.
* Promote a “closed-loop” food system by working for a system that eliminates pollution and the use of non-renewable materials, and by promoting food scrap composting.
*Promote community economic development by promoting the creation of living-wage jobs and local ownership in many sectors of the food system.
*Increase public “food literacy” by promoting the sharing of information that will allow communities to make food-related choices that positively influence public health, social responsibility and environmental sustainability.
The OFPC held its first meeting on September 30, where members formed subcommittees, reviewed research data, and began to formulate goals and processes for the year. “The first step is to all get on the same page, absorb the data, and get our hands on what is known,” Harper says. While the 21 Oaklanders that are seated do the policy work, all Oakland citizens concerned about food issues are invited to participate in the process. The OFPC actively solicits input from the community. Towards that end, the council plans to hold a series of listening sessions over the course of the year, and OFPC meetings will be open to the public.
“I’d also like to see lots of fun, social events. Council Meetings are often a barrier to many people,” Wooten said.
The OFPC will have an annual strategic plan and make policy recommendations to the city council on all issues and departments that have an effect on access to healthy food. It is difficult to say in advance what form the specific policy recommendations will take, but they will be guided by community input and several existing reports, including two produced by Food First in partnership with Public Health Law & Policy: a Food System Meta-Analysis for the San Francisco Bay Area; and an Oakland Food Retail Impact Study, which includes a framework for evaluating different styles of food retail. Another Food First report currently being drafted with the OFPC and other food policy councils in mind is Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned, which looks at existing food policy councils across the country.
“One of the big jobs ahead is in terms of outreach and awareness building.” Wooten said. Other more target-oriented tasks include looking at purchase agreements, land use, economic development, and distribution networks.
In addition, once policy recommendations are made, “we will need a strong and vocal movement backing us up,” Harper says. This could mean actions ranging from talking with and writing letters to elected officials, attending and speaking at city council meetings and school boards, and helping to educate other Oaklanders on the issues.
Harper emphasizes that Oakland’s food policy is a work in progress and that the more voices involved, the better. “We all want a healthier Oakland and we all participate in the food system, so we all have a stake in it.”
For more information, to get involved, or to get your voice heard:
Oakland Food Policy Council
Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy
398 60th St.
Oakland, CA 94618
Coordinator Alethea Harper at email@example.com
510-654-4400 ext 233