Collaborating for public health and farm sustainability
Protecting public safety through health regulations while supporting the growth and sustainability of farms and food businesses at all scales was a persistent topic of conversation during the development of the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan. Stakeholders noted a tension between farmers, who face a patch- work of health regulations, especially if they sell products in multiple venues and municipalities, and local boards of health, who are tasked with a broad set of responsibilities and given little specific training about agriculture and production practices.
The Plan included a number of recommendations to address this tension, including convening stakeholders to work through specific areas of concern. Out of this recommendation came the Working Group on Farming and Public Health, convened by the Collaborative and facilitated by a trained mediator. Several months of research, meetings, and interviews with farming and public-health advocates and practitioners resulted in a final report and eight consensus recommendations to alleviate tension around this issue.
Several of these recommendations are moving forward. Legislation has been introduced to implement one: to require local boards of health to hold public hearings and engage municipal agricultural commissions when considering changes to regulations that would affect farmers. Another recommendation—to develop mutually agreeable model regulations and resources that regulators and farmers can both refer to—is proceeding, with some model regulations already developed by the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau.
Working Group participants also agreed to advocate for funding for staff to assist municipalities in addressing farm and public-health issues, and for the state to provide training for both regulators and farmers on topics such as farming practices, food safety, and composting. Work toward these recommendations is ongoing.
Farming - Action 2.3.7: Create a professionally-facilitated working group that includes representatives from the fields of public health and food systems, as well as regulatory agencies, to develop a proposal to improve regulatory oversight of the local food system with respect to public health.