Healthy Food in Your Community

A Toolkit for Policy Change (2014)

Published Oct 17, 2014

Why is unhealthy food so much easier to buy than fruits and vegetables? Why do some neighborhoods lack stores selling affordable fresh food? And why is adult and childhood obesity so prevalent in the United States? The answer to all these questions is that our current food system is inadequate to make healthy food available for everyone.

But change is possible—and the route to healthier food policies starts with you. Our new resource, Healthy Food in Your Community, offers tools that will help you participate in the policy decisions that shape your community’s access to healthy food. This toolkit will demystify the often overwhelming world of food policy and provide practical tips and resources for getting involved.

You will learn what are the key issues and policies affecting food access, how food policy decisions are made, and how you can build relationships within your community and take effective action.

Navigating the Food System

We encounter food and information about food in a wide range of settings, and food policy affects healthy food access in all of them:

  • At the grocery store, policies ranging from federal legislation to local zoning ordinances can shape affordability, accessibility, and financial viability.
  • At restaurants. Food policy can be a tool to help reduce the negative impact of fast-food restaurants on the health of marginalized communities.
  • On the label. Food labels can be a source of clear, science-based information, or a vehicle for marketing tactics, depending on policy decisions.
  • In schools. Food served in school has a powerful impact on children's health, and policies to improve the nutritional quality of school meals are currently sparking lively debate.
  • From the farm. The $100 billion federal Farm Bill affects healthy food access in many ways, with provisions that influence what farmers grow, what it costs, and how and where it is sold.

Identifying Policy Levers

Photo: DC Greens/Flickr
Photo: DC Greens/Flickr

A variety of different policy tools can be used to improve health food access and affordability:

  • Planning. Cities can incorporate strategies for increasing healthy food access into the planning documents that guide their development policies.
  • Licensing and permitting policies can be revised to encourage farmers markets and other healthy food outlets.
  • Laws governing land use and zoning can be used to promote healthy food access—Boston's Urban Agriculture Initiative is a recent example.
  • Financial tools can be used to promote healthy food through targeted application of federal appropriations, incentives to establish or expand healthy food businesses, special taxes on unhealthy foods, or procurement policies that commit public institutions to purchasing healthy food.
  • Food-specific regulations are produced by federal, state and local agencies to implement standards and policy goals spelled out in legislation.

Recognizing Who Makes the Decisions

In order to change food policy, we have to understand how—and by whom—it is made. This can be challenging, since food policy decisions are made and implemented by several branches and levels of government. Across local, state, and national levels, this section of the toolkit will help you learn about the key decision makers involved in the food policy issues you care most about, as well as how you can engage them and make your voice heard.

Building Relationships

Photo: tracktwentynine/Flickr
Photo: tracktwentynine/Flickr

Everyone is a stakeholder in our food system, and changing that system for the better requires building strong partnerships with a broad range of those stakeholders. In order to do this, it's important to understand who is already working on food issues in your community, and whose voices are being heard (or excluded) in policy discussions.

The Building Relationships section of the toolkit offers a detailed view of the various stakeholders, their roles, and tips to help you build more effective partnerships and increase the impact of your actions.

Taking Action

Girl holding bundle of greens
Photo: DC Greens/Flickr

You've developed an in-depth understanding of your community's food system, identified the key policy levers and decision makers, and begun making connections with other community stakeholders. Now it's time to act. The toolkit offers a wide range of resources to help you be a more effective healthy food advocate:

  • Food policy web resources that can help you stay on top of the rapidly changing food policy landscape.
  • Evidence-based information sources that can help you bolster your advocacy with the best available information from scientists, economists and public health researchers.
  • Data visualization tools that can provide powerful visual reinforcement for key points.
  • Pointers to help you strengthen your approach and amplify your impact.

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