Nationwide, public institutions spend about $150 billion annually on food with little to no oversight over the conditions under which food is produced. A lack of transparency denies communities the right to shape how to spend their tax dollars and enshrine community values in the production of their food. The lack of oversight has a particularly significant impact on low-income students who get their meals at school—meals which are often procured through public contracts with large corporate supplies. Companies that receive substantial contracts funded by public dollars often cut corners. These economizing measures negatively impact labor rights, local economies, the environment, and animal welfare.
The New Haven Food System Policy Division (FSPD) was established in 2016, in response to advocacy efforts by the New Haven Food Policy Council (FPC) and other community food system advocates. The FSPD is led by the Director of Food System Policy and housed in the Community Services Administration (CSA).
The effort began in 2012 when the FPC put out a food action plan. This plan consisted of a series of recommendations for a framework on what a food system is and what that plan means for the community, food security, and nutritional health. The plan was derived from an extended community engagement process based on multiple meetings in a diverse set of neighborhoods. The council also worked with the Director of the CSA. The FPC approached the Mayor to secure support for the division and FSPD director position, having secured two years of funding support from the Kendall Foundation. In addition to approving the initiative, the Mayor and staff team offered guidance on strategy.
As a result, the FPC made two crucial strategic decisions. First, they made addressing food insecurity and developing a vision for a director for the food system their top priority. This was to help secure approval and support from the Board of Alders as food insecurity is a major issue citywide. It took a few more years for these advocates to define what the position would look like, and attract funding from the broader food system network. Second, they requested a one-dollar general fund earmark in the 2014 city budget to create a future line item. Over 40 residents showed up to advocate at a budget hearing, an unusually high turnout. The Board of Alders supported the efforts and the earmark, and in 2015, as the foundation funding phased out, the Mayor was easily able to fully fund the FSPD position.
Currently, there are only approximately 20 other Food Policy Directors housed in municipal government throughout the United States. Without this dedicated role, there is often no one to think about food and agriculture on a systems level. Instead, they focus primarily on program-level food initiatives. This type of systems thinking, which aims to address root causes, is often lacking in municipal government. These Policy Director positions vary in scope and structure across the US. For example, in most other cities the position is housed in planning or sustainability departments.
Under new leadership, the FSPD expanded its mission and values to go beyond food charity and emergency food access to also include broader systems thinking in food policy. The mission is to “support and help manifest community-led efforts that envision and create an environmentally sustainable and socially just food system.” Therefore, New Haven has a unique opportunity to establish itself as a regional, national, and world leader in urban food policy.
In addition to providing support for crucial social safety net programs, the Division also focuses on addressing root causes and upstream factors that impact food access and quality, such as secure urban land ownership, economic security through thriving and equitable wages, workers’ rights, and increasing availability and access to multilingual, multimodal resources related to food and agriculture. The Division relies on three primary themes to guide its work: health equity, socio-economic justice, and environmental justice. The office works on a wide range of issue areas from composting to food business development and streamlining permitting and licensing of vacant land acquisition for community gardens. In mid-2020, the office received a USDA grant to develop New Haven’s first urban agriculture master plan to guide its food systems planning work.
The Division has also begun to explore values-based food procurement frameworks, like the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP). The GFPP is a metric-based, but flexible, framework that provides tools for greater transparency and accountability. The framework encourages buying power centered on five core values: local economics, environmental sustainability, valued workforce, nutritional health, and animal welfare. Other cities using the GFPP include Austin, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston.
The effort will improve the quality of food in school meals, which absorb $300 million in local taxpayer dollars annually. Recently the office used CARES Act dollars to hire an additional staffer to assist with Covid-19 food relief efforts; the director is now actively trying to secure funding to keep them on staff to focus on procurement policies.
The FPC, a volunteer-led city commission, convinced the former mayor to establish the FSPD using external funding from a foundation. The city eventually folded the funding for the Division Director position into the general budget.
The Division collaborates closely with grassroots and community organizations to ensure that the public food procurement process is for the people and by the people. In addition to developing a community-driven engagement process, the office is also focused on establishing citywide equitable sugar reduction policies that do not disproportionately negatively impact low-income communities. The research on reducing sugar consumption at the population level focuses on working with grocery stores and restaurants rather than trying to influence individual behavior.
All of the FSPD’s work is developed in close collaboration with coalitions, community members, and residents. The Division prioritizes supporting BIPOC voices since they are often the ones with the least power and the greatest need. For example, the Division collaborates with New Haven’s chapter of Witnesses to Hunger, and also works directly with residents who may not have organizational affiliations.
The FSPD also works to build and strengthen partnerships with institutions such as hospitals, school districts, and universities to create more sustainable and equitable food procurement practices that involve shorter local regional supply chains and stronger rural-urban linkages.
The new urban agriculture master plan is more specific and dynamic than a comprehensive plan and will be directly informed by a community advisory board composed of four groups—neighborhood experts, community health experts, farming experts (both urban and peri-urban), and youth experts. The plan focuses on three primary pathways: 1) creating an enabling policy environment by updating zoning and land use policies related to urban agriculture, 2) assessing and investing in the socio-economic viability of agricultural-related businesses, and 3) conducting an inventory on training and workforce development opportunities.
The master plan will likely include healthy food priority zones, guidance for creating an environment conducive to more small urban farms and community gardens, and methods to improve infrastructure for food sovereignty. These priorities will help increase local food resiliency, which is particularly important during the pandemic when it is harder for some communities to access food. The Division is also addressing food deserts, another long-lasting impact of racist redlining in which communities of color often lack access to fresh food in their neighborhoods.
The FSPD is aware that urban agricultural efforts often seed displacement, and they want to ensure that their efforts won’t contribute to this outcome. To this end, they have committed to a master plan development process that focuses on anti-gentrification and anti-displacement strategies in partnership with the community. The new master plan aims to realize how urban agricultural efforts can help foster community cohesion and well-being in addition to stimulating local economic activity.
Food procurement directly addresses the quality of peoples’ food and is responsive to the cultural and nutritional needs of families. Procurement in New Haven is still in the early stages as a pitch for major entities to shift their institutional values by committing to values-based purchasing and listening to what consumers need to thrive. The FSPD is collaborating with the New Haven Public School district in an initial pilot program. Finally, the division is exploring how they can prioritize resources and job training for BIPOC communities and BIPOC-led organizations as part of an effort to shift power away from predominantly white-led organizations which generally dominate the urban agricultural space. For example, the Division is interested in exploring the power of procurement bids and how they can better support women and minority-owned businesses.
- Preemption: Cities tend to have wide authority to create departments within their government structure.
- Local government dynamics: The mayor was a strong initial supporter and the council approved of the initial focus on food insecurity prior to establishing a line item in the city budget.
- Policy strength: Without a dedicated role within city government, there is often no one thinking about food systems as a whole, but rather only programmatic-related food initiatives, which are always lacking and do not address root causes. This is a strong administrative funding priority that local governments can make that can have a system wide impact.
This case study was last updated: January 19, 2021.