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Food Policy Amnesia
“I am quite sure that people only have the kind of government that their bellies crave.”
– From Paterson by William Carlos Williams
“Florida Lawns Are Being Transformed into Edible Farms,” gushed the Huffington Post story (June 1) that described how a dozen Orlando, Florida, homeowners had converted their manicured yards into tidy vegetable patches. The story explained how suburban sod had given way to salads planted and tended by a project called Fleet Farming. Homeowners mothballed their lawnmowers while getting a cut of the greens from their yards; earnest gardener volunteers had an outlet for their horticultural energy; and Fleet sold most of the food at farmers’ markets, returning the proceeds to finance future gardens.
Great idea, I thought, but why did it sound so familiar? Then I remembered I had read about a homeowner in Orlando who had been fined by the city for degrading that most sacred of American institutions, the front yard, by ripping out his grass and planting a 25-by-25-foot vegetable garden. As reported in The New York Times (“The Battlefront in the Front Yard,” Dec. 19, 2012), one Jason Helvenston was apparently in violation of section 60.207 of Orlando’s Land Development Code (not maintaining proper ground cover). He had gotten away with this vile deed for several months when a neighbor decided to bust him. Since the Huffington Post made no reference to Mr. Helvenston or any history prior to Fleet Farming, I wondered: What had transpired over three-and-a-half years to transform Orlando from a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah of home landscaping into a Garden of Eden?
Mary-Stewart Droege is a planner for the City of Orlando. I asked her why an activity that was previously illegal had found expression as a full-fledged and legally “out-there” program. “The updated Landscape Code ordinance that addressed front yard gardens came out of this [Helvenston] episode,” she told me. It’s this ordinance that explicitly allows home food production and cleared the way for Fleet Farming. Droege went on to say that, “We just submitted a USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program grant application to expand Fleet Farming into a low-moderate [income] community as part of a CSA [community supported agriculture] model and to add more farmers’ markets.”
Orlando, like other cities, didn’t stop with efforts to revise outdated ordinances that had placed turf before turnips. Droege said a chicken ordinance is poised to pass, fashioned after similar regulations that now treat microbreweries and small-scale food processing as home occupations.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the point of this little Orlando food history is to reassert the primacy of public policy in allowing good and creative food projects to take wing. Either the Huffington Post ran out of room or they simply didn’t get it. Cool stuff like Fleet Farming doesn’t just spring forth fully formed without a considerable amount of skid-greasing from city hall, usually aided and abetted by savvy food advocates and planners, and sometimes food revolutionaries like Jason Helvenston.
Here in New Mexico, cities and counties have partnered with local food policy councils and community organizations to consider programs and policies focused on local food security and preserving farming and ranching. The Santa Fe Food Policy Council and the city and county are working on robust urban agriculture and county agriculture revitalization policies, while the City of Las Cruces just passed its first-ever urban agriculture ordinance.
One would never know how important policy was strolling through the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market on a clear, sweet Saturday morning. But the fact is that the health, vigor and happiness so abundantly on display were purchased with the blood of a thousand policy skirmishes. Most were small and never saw the light of day. They were paper cuts that came in the form of a steady stream of city and state inspectors and bureaucrats hell-bent on shutting the market down with petty interpretations of regulations. Farmers’ market organizers were chased annually from one junk-strewn dirt lot to the next by over-eager developers and public authorities. When the city and private foundations finally realized that the market could be as big a tourist attraction as Georgia O’Keeffe’s erotic flowers, they raised the money to build what became a gorgeous market shed at the old railyard. Socially minded private entrepreneurship watered by good public policy leads to prosperity for all.
As thousands of food projects across the country began to soar, public policy actors who had once been foes were reborn as friends. In New Mexico’s case, Farm to Table and partnering agencies and organizations organized the N.M. Food and Agriculture Policy Council to focus on intersections among health, food, farming and the economy through state and federal public policy. This helped engage public policy makers in investing in an array of programs such as farmers’ market nutrition programs and farm-to-school initiatives. Once these officials recognized that farmers’ markets provide multiple benefits, funding by the New Mexico Legislature supported a robust Double-Up Food Bucks program for the state’s farmers markets. And continuing the policy progression from local to state to federal, the New Mexico Association of Farmers’ Markets further enhanced the experience with a multi-year, multi-million-dollar federal Food Insecurity Nutrition Initiative (FINI) grant.
Just to be clear, a federal program, often administered by a state agency, can benefit more people with healthier food and provide additional farm income when city food policy kicks in. Yes, making these connections, doing the research and advocating for changes can be difficult, complex work—“transparency” and “government” are not necessarily synonymous. So when local food coalitions and councils tell me they don’t want to do food policy work, I can understand their frustration. That is when I urge them not to forget the food movement’s history or dismiss the critical role public policy plays, particularly at local and state levels. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” is the quote famously ascribed to Edmund Burke. I would add that those who don’t even know that history exists are doomed to ride stationary bicycles going nowhere.
Mark Winne, a Santa Fe resident, co-chairs the Santa Fe Food Policy Council. He is also a senior advisor at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
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