On Jan. 30 I received email notice of my appointment to the Johnson County Food Policy Council. My application was chosen by the board of supervisors to complete a term ending June 30.
I declined to re-apply at the end of my term.
The idea of having a food policy council may have been good when it was organized. During my brief tenure, each meeting seemed a random conglomeration of thoughts, statements and opinions heading down a dead end street. To a person, everyone I met while serving was talented, including the county-paid coordinator Ilsa DeWald. So what was wrong about the food policy council?
The goal of fostering relationships between farmers, buyers and government in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids region is important. For their part, non-conventional farmers are a well-organized group of entrepreneurs that take advantage of networking within Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union, and other organizations. If you know some of these farmers, they seem to all be talking to each other about everything, all the time. That’s really no different from any successful farmer, regardless of what they grow.
The challenge of a local food movement is establishing enough mass to be a meaningful presence. The kind of changes needed in our food system are complicated and require engagement by many organizations, businesses, and individuals. That includes entities beyond vegetable, meat and flower producers.
By far, large corporations dominate food sales in our region. Reducing their presence or market share is not a point of discussion for the Food Policy Council. Even if it were, there are not enough local food producers to compete with or challenge them. The basic tenets of consumer participation in financing the growing season on a farm, knowing the face of the farmer, and understanding how our food is grown are main attractions for people who choose local food for their kitchen. As recently as last week, many community supported agriculture projects continued to accept new members this summer: demand has not been enough to significantly disrupt grocery operations.
The highlight of my tenure was participation in an annual forum titled, Land Access and Beyond: How Can the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm Support Beginning and Current Farmers? By participation I mean I made lemonade, helped set up, and led a couple of discussion groups. The forum was well-attended by a diverse group of people.
The board of supervisors decided to develop the Historic Poor Farm and this has been part of discussions of the Food Policy Council. Access to land is important and the Poor Farm has enabled some beginning farmers along a path to land ownership. Supporting the Poor Farm is a worthy endeavor for the Food Policy Council.
Part of the inability to engage in a single direction was the coronavirus pandemic. It affected council members both those who farm and those who don’t, and threw a monkey wrench into the machinery of effective policy planning. While we met via video conference, that’s not the same as being together in person with all of the possible side conversations. If not for the pandemic, I might have a different view of the council’s work.
I was happy to do what I could to advance the cause of local food in our food system. I value my time on the Food Policy Council.