Lucy Neely: Mendocino County Food Policy

The Gardens Project

On March 1st, the Board of Supervisors approved a resolution to recognize and support the establishment of a Mendocino County Food Policy Council, which intends “to collaborate with institutions, businesses, and the public at large to create a sustainable local food system that reduces hunger, increases health and expands economic vitality.”

Linda Helland is a Public Health employee who has been organizing with the Food Policy Council since its beginning. Linda is generous of spirit and energy. She chats earnestly with the mail man and rides a bicycle even when the sky is spitting. I asked to interview her for this article, and as she came out to meet me in the foyer of Public Health and escort me back into the bowels of the building, she seemed more tired and stressed than usual. Upon my inquiry, she spoke of layoffs and low morale, program cuts and parsimony. So we made some tea and sat down to talk about the Food Policy Council (FPC).

FPCs are springing up around the country. The first formed 25 years ago in Knoxville, Tennesse, and now there are more than 100 FPCs nationwide, primarily on the city and county level. Increasing numbers of funders are requiring that communities have an FPC to be eligible for grant funding.

The Mendocino County FPC emerged from the Local Food Summit of May 2010. Organizers of the Summit, along with individuals who expressed interest in policy issues at the event, took on a next step of beginning an ad hoc FPC and began meeting for that purpose in August of 2010. Individuals who currently comprise the group represent health, hunger, education, and localization.

It has been exciting for me to watch the Mendocino County FPC form. Initially, the group has been working to craft the operating procedures the body needs: purpose, membership terms and selection, regional representation, etc. The meetings are the best run meetings I have encountered since moving to Mendocino County; productive and pleasant, down to the cheese, mandarins, and personal check-ins. In this well-facilitated context, the group gropes its way through uncharted territory like all worthwhile and creative endeavors must. Linda comments that individuals “bring a lot of wisdom from their past endeavors to the Food Policy Council, making it a pretty fluid, forward process developing operating procedures.” It’s “democracy in action,” she says. It’s freakin’ exciting, I say.

Once the operational procedures are in order, the group aims to expand and tailor membership to include representation of seven geographical regions (Laytonville, North Coast, South Coast, Anderson Valley, Greater Ukiah Valley, Willits, Round Valley) and eleven demographic sectors (Food Industry/Distributors, Producers/Farmers, Health, Institutional Food Prep, Educators, Government, Safety Net Providers Environment/Resources, Labor, Tribal, Economic Development).

On February 16th, the Ukiah City Council unanimously passed a resolution recognizing and supporting the establishment of the FPC. In the near future, Fort Bragg and Point Arena City Councils are slated to do the same.

On March 1st, after hearing from veterans protesting cuts to veteran services, and after touching upon how unfortunate it is to cut family planning services in Mendocino County, the Board of Supervisors made a point to read the FPC resolution, a laundry list of WHEREAS’s enumerating the many reasons local food makes is so abundantly sensible. Supervisor Kendall Smith called it an “important issue of great value to the local economy.”

The FPC is going to advise the Board of Supervisors on food and farming matters at least twice yearly and City Councils at least once yearly. They intend to present research and best practices on food and farming issues, and make suggestions that make economic sense for Mendocino County.

Most initial members are attending meetings on their time card, but Linda mentions the current economic situation is putting a squeeze on members’ resources. Linda says the group’s collective experience has seen that “things don’t tend to last without long term staff”, so the goal of the FPC is to secure funding for part-time staff. Linda adds that the current economic squeeze “also adds urgency to the mission of the Food Policy Council, to keep our money local.”

As I walked out of Public Health, feeling like my feet were treading a chopping block, I concluded that, right now, nothing is more appropriate for Mendocino County than a Food Policy Council. Bill Mollison said: “We’re only truly secure when we can look out our kitchen window and see our food growing and our friends working nearby.” Witnessing the chaos and insecurity this budget debacle is wreaking on people’s lives, it seems like a better time than ever to work together and create something fundamental and enduring; something not so sensitive to the currents of digital finance: a local food economy that will nourish this community through recessions and depressions, through cuts and booms. I hope this Food Policy Council will endure.