GMOs, trans-fats, and buying local. Food retail in underserved communities, farmland protection, and kicking soda out of public schools. That’s just a partial list of the cutting edge food and agriculture issues seizing the attention of lawmakers and advocates across the country. While hot policy topics like these are heating up everywhere, the places where they are currently burning the brightest are in the nation’s state capitols.
Though the federal government passes mega-legislation like the farm and child nutrition bills once every five years, the spirit of local innovation and the relative flexibility of state governments – to say nothing of the incessant tug of war between Washington and the states – means there’s always something daring being cooked up in state policy kitchens. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state food and farm legislation, 41 states enacted 77 laws during the 2009 and 2010 sessions related to school nutrition, food access, and direct marketing. If one were to add in a host of legislation related to food security, food safety, and farmland protection, the numbers would be far into the hundreds every year.
Whether it’s a World Wrestling Smack Down event like California’s GMO-labeling Proposition 37, the abolition of sugary soft drinks from public schools in Connecticut and New Mexico, or one small step for local food like Vermont financing a mobile poultry slaughtering facility, state-level food policy may be serving up some of the most exciting dishes in town.
As a minor partner in a major league effort, I’m proud to announce that stirring the policy pot at the state level just got a little easier thanks to the legal eagles and eaglets at the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic. Emily Broad Leib, the Clinic’s Director, and a sizeable flock of law students have assembled Good Laws, Good Food: Putting State Food Policy to Work for Our Communities which, if I do say so myself, may be the best “how-to” document out there on the subject of state food policy. This toolkit will be particularly helpful to state food policy councils, of which, according to a 2012 census, there are now 25. (The Good Laws, Good Food toolkits, including the local policy version, the Food Policy Council Directory, and the food policy council “how-to” manual Doing Food Policy Councils Right can be found here.
As anyone who enters the state policy arena for the first time quickly learns, you need more than a state capital floor plan to navigate the labyrinth of statutes, regulations, and administrative actions that constitute state policy. Good Laws, Good Food (State) gives you a quick refresher course on federalism and what the respective roles of the federal, state, and local governments are. Why the political and legal theory? Well, if you want to radically change SNAP, for instance, you’ll need to go to Washington. But if you want to increase participation and tweak its implementation to help the local food movement, there are plenty of opportunities at the state level.
The central feature of the guide is the way it unpacks seven areas of the food system that are heavily influenced by state government: Food system infrastructure, land use and planning, food assistance programs, consumer access and consumer demand, farm to institution, school food and education, and food safety and processing. And as an added bonus, the toolkit provides a generous helping of information about local, state, and regional food systems including great examples of state food policies in action. In other words, you have a conceptual framework, a context for change and action, and the practice itself, all neatly packed into 112 pages.
If you’re a government major or policy-wonk and, like me, just can’t get enough of this stuff, you may be motivated to consume this document in one sitting. But for the general practitioner and those feeling their way to and through the policy world, you may want to take small bites because there’s a lot here. But whatever your current interests and involvements in policy making are, you’ll definitely want to use this toolkit as a handy reference guide.
There is no lack of ways to manipulate the public policy levers to affect change. But the smarter we are about how they work, the sooner that change will come.