Participants in the 2020 listening sessions that led to publication of Massachusetts’ Local Food System: Perspectives on Resilience and Recovery repeatedly raised the need to build up awareness of the local food system at the municipal level. There were many ideas put forward toward that goal: engaging municipal leaders in food system advocacy; building coalitions to advocate for policy change at the municipal level; and working with local food policy councils to affect change, among them. Education about the food system for municipal leaders and advocates becoming more familiar with municipal legislative and regulatory processes could make coordinating at this level easier.
The value in municipal-level work to support the food system is significant. Local officials can effectively lobby the state for policy changes, or can change existing local laws, regulations, programs, and investments to make the local food system more sustainable and equitable in the municipality. Boston’s Article 89, passed in 2013, is widely cited as an important step toward reducing barriers for commercial scale urban agriculture, and allowed urban farming in residential areas. Over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in the number and variety of urban agriculture policies enacted, which has been addressed in a wide variety of ways.
While the state limits the authority of municipalities to take action on certain issues, such as zoning, municipalities have significant power over their local food system - property taxes, public water and sewer systems, public school systems, local public health measures, public works and public safety all fall under a municipality's jurisdiction to regulate. These systems all influence the food system – how much local and healthy food is accessible to residents, how financially viable farms are, and more. Continued gaps in food access, challenges to farm sustainability, and disruptions to the supply chain point to the need to address systemic issues. Community food assessments and food plans can help to do so, and collaboration between private sector stakeholders and local officials and agencies can leverage public resources and create long-term buy-in for meaningful change.
Engaging municipal leaders in broader campaigns like Closing the SNAP Gap and the Campaign for HIP Funding can help educate them about the benefits these programs can bring to their communities. Both SNAP and HIP leverage federal and state funds to improve access to food and reduce the need on the emergency food system, bringing more spending to local grocery stores and farms and leading to increased money circulating in the local economy. Educating local agency staff who understand the needs of their community and gaps in programs, as well as elected officials who can help to implement policy, builds a base of leaders committed to working to make the local food system more sustainable and equitable.
The Collaborative developed Local Food Systems: The role of municipal governments as a resource on how stakeholders can effectively work with local leaders to address food system issues. The tool includes questions to consider when reviewing proposed or current municipal policy in sectors ranging from infrastructure to social services to public safety.
The Collaborative also published Cultivating Good Food Policy, a policy advocacy guide for Massachusetts food system stakeholders. The Healthy Food Policy Project also has a database of municipal level policy changes enacted around the country on their website here.
2021 is a municipal election year, and food system stakeholders should use this opportunity to educate candidates for city council, selectboard, or mayor about the issues they face, as a way to foster increased collaboration and shared goals. The Collaborative is available to schedule workshops or trainings on municipal policy; please reach out to Becca Miller at email@example.com if this is something your organization would be interested in pursuing.