One of the major initiatives of the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition in 2012 was helping bring together cross-sector meetings in nine states, including Minnesota, Texas, Illinois, Montana, Oregon, New York, Kansas, Mississippi and Iowa. While the purpose of the meetings was to begin building bridges between the health and agriculture sectors, many of the meetings included representatives from the anti-hunger, culinary and philanthropic sectors, among others, as well.
The nine state meetings mirrored the national health-agriculture convening hosted by the coalition in May 2011 in Washington, DC. Participants across all the meetings were energized by the opportunity to learn about key issues from new perspectives and the prospect of new partnerships between the health and farming communities. The hope is that working across sectors will bring more innovative food system policy to support public health goals for healthier eating, but also support our farmers’ ability to make a living producing fruits, vegetables, commodity crops such as wheat and rice, as well as food animals that serve those goals.
The coalition provided financial support for seven of the nine one-day meetings via a competitive application process that produced 61 proposals. The Minnesota and Illinois meetings also received support from local funders. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) provided technical assistance for all nine meetings on a state-by-state basis, as well as by working with the National Network of Public Health Institutes to convene state meeting organizers to share ideas.
The year kicked off in Minnesota with a meeting in early January and ended with meetings in Iowa and Kansas in mid-November. The meetings ranged in size from 42 participants in the less populated state of Montana to more than 335 participants in Minnesota, with most of the remaining meetings engaging approximately 75-100 health and agriculture stakeholders.
More than one of the meetings opened with a panel of speakers sharing their diverse perspectives on key food system issues. Others opened with a keynote speakers, including Dr. Kelly Brownell of Yale’s Rudd Center who spoke to the Minnesota audience about the need to make healthy food the “optimal default” through policy and environment changes; Bob Martin, senior policy advisor at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health made the case to the Kansas audience for a public health perspective on agriculture, particularly the linkages between the growing number of human antibiotic-resistant infections and the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture; and Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center described the political economy of the food system in central Illinois and outlined an opportunity to reverse the trend of food and farm dollars flowing out of the region to distant corporations rather than supporting local producers and businesses.
Discussion of local and regional food system issues were prominent at all the meetings, from the Mississippi meeting which focused on building farm to institution programs in the state, to New York where food business owners participated in discussions about ways to expand consumer access to state products. In Oregon, a state law prohibiting undocumented workers from having driver’s licenses threatens to hurt local farms and food businesses across the state, as well as worsen poverty among that population of workers and their families.
Other key issues discussed included the need for better public incentives and crop insurance for producers of fruits and vegetables, the need for scale-appropriate food safety laws that support development of local food systems, the need to reform state procurement laws to allow for more local sourcing and increasing access to federal nutrition programs at farmers markets.
It is our hope that work will continue on these and other key policy issues within the states and through creation of a national community of practice made up of leaders from each of the nine states, as well as additional states that hold cross-sector meetings in 2013. A multi-year community of practice would allow for shared learning about key issues and foster policy development in multiple states, as well as drive creation of healthier national food and farming systems policy.