In case you missed it, last year we were selected to participate in a national cohort of food policy councils that take a regional approach. Out of 50 applicant FPCs, Greater Cincinnati was one of 11 that joined the 18-month community of practice convened and supported by the USDA, The Ohio State University, the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and Colorado State University.
The Community of Practice has been meeting monthly via Zoom, but in May, the project organizers gathered delegates from 10 of the 11 participating FPCs to meet in person. Conveniently for us, the gathering was in Columbus, OH, at The Ohio State University's John Glenn College of Public Affairs!
Our Director, Maddie Chera, and Anna Haas, the representative for our FPC Consulting Member organization What Chefs Want!, traveled to participate in the two-day meeting (May 16-17) and bring back insights from this group of peers from across the country.
Themes and Goals
Matching the community of practice as a whole, the May gathering focused on the overarching theme of better defining regional food systems so that we can more effectively drive policy at the regional scale.
Experts in research, policy, and implementation are focusing more and more on regional perspectives in food systems work, finding that issues with our food systems extend beyond the boundaries of a city, county, or state. For example, a 2022 academic report and recent investments by the USDA, like the Regional Food System Partnerships grant and the Regional Food Business Centers, illustrate this wave of emphasis on the regional. But clarifying what we can and should do at the regional level is still underway.
To serve the guiding goal of the gathering, we heard from members of the project team (researchers and facilitators who work at one of the sponsoring institutions), guest speakers, and members of the other FPCs. Conversations ranged from funding and staffing models to working with political leaders, from engaging communities equitably to leveraging federal resources.
Review the schedule of activities and roster of guest speakers below:
Our FPC's goals for participating in the gathering included exploring the balance between engaging advocates and stakeholders at the grassroots, community level, and simultaneously leading regionally as a "grasstops" connector between organizations and jurisdictions. Hearing from the guest speakers and FPC peers, we came to see that operating in this regional space can be tricky for other FPCs too, and at the same time, it offers us unique opportunities to connect and advocate.
Networking with Other FPCs
One of the best parts of the gathering was meeting colleagues in person and having extended time to get to know each other. The other participating FPCs share many similarities with ours, but they also bring unique perspectives and challenges, based on how their FPCs are organized and where they are situated. Some of the FPCs are connected directly with local governments, while some are rooted more deeply in agricultural networks; some cross multiple states like ours, and others are focused on multiple jurisdictions within a single state. At the gathering, we were able to speak with peers from:
Boston Food Access Council (MA)
Cass-Clay Food Partners (ND)
Columbia Gorge Food Security Coalition (WA/OR)
Fresno Food Security Network (CA)
Hudson Valley Food System Coalition (NY)
Just Foods Council and Collaborative of Nash/Edgecombe Counties (NC)
Metro Washington Food Policy Directors/Food Security Coordinators Work Group (DC/VA/MD)
NW Indiana Food Council (IN)
Roanoke Foodshed Network (VA)
In addition to learning directly from peers during our monthly sessions and at the gathering, these connections have helped us outside the meetings. Recently, we utilized policy decision-making resources the Montgomery County Food Policy Council (part of the Metro Washington Food Policy Directors/Food Security Coordinators Work Group) shared with us in our own Steering Committee's governance conversations. And the NW Indiana Food Council (which is also in the cohort of FPCs working on climate action planning through RE-AMP that we are part of) is helping connect us with some folks in southeastern Indiana, so we can better engage across all our 10 counties.
Equitable and Inclusive Engagement Strategies Workshop
On the second day of the gathering, consultant and facilitator Kip Holley led us all in a session on power, bridging differences, and finding shared values. Throughout the session, Kip and other participants addressed the particular challenges of equitable engagement when doing regional work.
We discussed how engagement at the neighborhood and municipal level is different from engagement at the regional level, and often the latter defaults to more professionalized and more exclusive. It's important to acknowledge these differences and be as intentional and explicit with others as possible about which types of engagement we are doing on different policies and issues at any given time. We as individuals cannot work at every level all the time, but our networks are a way we can stay connected to these different scales. Our FPC might not be the primary mover in every space, but we can be part of an engagement chain for various networks.
Paying attention to the personal and building authentic relationships is critical, too. Once we've made space for sharing, recognition, announcements, and other personal connections, we can pivot to focus on our regional policy goals. As a regional coalition, we can serve as the translator between local and regional. And we must remember that, as one of our colleagues from Just Foods Council and Collaborative of Nash/Edgecombe Counties pointed out, "The region is only as strong as the local partners." We must continue to address equity challenges where we are, and be open to discomfort and change. This session provided the opportunity for our FPC delegates to hear suggestions from other FPCs about how we might tweak our convening practices to better do so.
Regional Food Business Centers and Other USDA Resources
On the other end of the spectrum of scales, we have the federal government, which is also looking at how to engage better at the regional level. Jenna Segal from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service shared a presentation that gave more detail about the recent announcement of finalists for the new Regional Food Business Centers program. Our 10-county region coincides with the Great Lakes Midwest center based at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, and the Appalachia center based at Rural Action Inc. in The Plains, OH. We are looking forward to learning how we can utilize the Centers in our (sub-)region of Greater Cincinnati.
Beyond the Regional Business Centers, Jenna's presentation provided useful insight into the mission of the Local and Regional Foods Division (LRFD), the complex structure of the USDA, and the history and growth of local and regional food programming over the past 50 years. Two tools that the USDA has recently developed are relevant to the current work of our FPC: the Food and Agriculture Mapper and Explorer, which we have started using to better understand the different needs across our 10-county region, and The Local and Regional Food Systems Resilience Playbook, which we would like to utilize in supporting regional climate resilient food system planning. (The Playbook was co-created by the University of Kentucky and Colorado State University! The StoryMap where the Playbook was hosted seems to be down from its original web location at the moment, but we hope the final Playbook will become available soon).
The Community of Practice continues to meet monthly online, as we work on projects and problems with support from peer food policy councils and from the experts in the project team.
If you are interested in learning more about the work our FPC is doing through this Community of Practice or accessing any of the specific notes and resources that our FPC is keeping throughout the project, please reach out to Maddie at email@example.com. She would be happy to discuss in greater detail and share the information.
📒 Are you planning to attend an important food-related event that impacts our region? Report "from the field" (whether it's a literal field or not!) through a guest blog post or summary to the Food Policy Council. Contact us for guidance and support!