Why Food Policy?

From Pepper Bowen

As implausible as it may seem, nearly all of my conversations somehow involve food. The subject can be as complex as environmental injustice subtly depriving people of color of ready access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Or it may be as simple as the weather that will affect the next crop of grapes for wine. I talk about food a lot.

Thing is that I am often met with quizzical expressions and a skosh of confusion when I tell people that Culinaria is a food law and policy center. Frequently that puzzled facial expression precedes the body language to say clearly that food policy makes no sense, never mind that most people don’t even understand what food law actually is. I can feel the low-key judgment of how dare I waste a law degree on something so needless. I should do something useful! I should pick a real issue, where there are real problems, and can accomplish a real solution. However, I would disagree that crafting food policy is pointless – and not for purely subjective reasons.

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To start at the beginning, Merriam-Webster defines policy as “an overall plan, principle, or guideline; especially one formulated outside of the judiciary.” And although that is a succinct assessment of what policy is, it does little to adequately express what it actually means. Policy is more of an overarching process to accomplish major efforts. It may even be more accessible to think of it as a set of decisions that formulate a coherent plan to accomplish a long term objective. So let’s unpack that.

Most of us will remember the iconic and ever educational “I’m Just a Bill” song of Schoolhouse Rock fame. That sad little scrap of paper spoke truth to power when he announced that his goal was to become a law.

When I started, I wasn’t even a bill, I was just an idea. Some folks back home decided they wanted a law passed, so they called their local Congressman and he said, “You’re right, there oughta be a law.” Then he sat down and wrote me out and introduced me to Congress. And I became a bill, and I’ll remain a bill until they decide to make me a law.

Policy, in this example, comes right after the idea and before the local Congressman sat down to write the bill. But it can just as easily come after the writing of the bill if the Representative and his constituents see that a new law can be the foundation to create a new style of doing old things. In that way, policy is more fluid a concept that uses laws to realize a bigger, more systemic resolution to a problem.

Think of the game of UNO. It’s super simple to play. The rules are easy enough for a 7-year old to understand. That part is equivalent to the law – straightforward on its face and likely with a clear intention.

However, playing the game is never uncomplicated. Recall, the objective is to get out of the game by playing your last card before anyone can stop you. And every time you get hit with a Draw 4, use a Wild Card, or play a Reverse card defensively to keep someone else from winning before you can, those tactics are all feeding into the overarching strategy, if you will. You undertake a process and execute a plan to win. Those are the things akin to policy.

Consider the far more complicated objective of reducing preventable diseases in school-aged children. A noble aspiration to be sure, but it objectively sounds like the responsibility of individuals and families. Reasonable minds would conclude that as a people we can only rely upon education to ensure the citizenry know of right and wrong choices to improve the health and well-being of their children, nothing more. However, the policy approach to this issue is reflective of the immortal words of Neil Degrasse Tyson “it may be easier to engineer solutions to problems than to get a hundred million people to change their behavior.”

So let’s start with the problem. We know that preventable diseases are caused in part by a diet high in salt, sugar, and fat and with not enough fresh whole fruits and vegetables. We might decide that we need to increase the availability of fresh whole fruit and vegetables in public school lunches because most school-aged children spend the majority of their days in schools; but also to compensate for the possibility that kids won’t get enough at home.  Armed with the demand; we focus on the supply.

Photo by JJ Thompson on Unsplash

Photo by JJ Thompson on Unsplash

The decision to provide more fresh fruit and vegetables might become part of an initiative whereby local growers provide the supply because that not only accomplishes the goal, but injects more money into our local economy. However, if the school system has restrictions on how much can be spent and with which vendors because of a bidding process, then the schools might not be able to buy direct from local growers. Now we have to find a way to bridge the gap between knowing what needs to be done and making it happen.

In finding a way to engineer that solution, we may decide to change the state or parish regulations around how schools obtain fresh fruit and vegetables for lunches. It follows that if we make it possible for the schools to buy direct from the grower, then they can get the children the fresh fruit and vegetables that are better for them than sugary and salty foods. Thus we have made it possible for children at school to get healthier foods.

Secondarily, we might anticipate that parents work until after school hours. If after-school programs provide salty, sugary, and fatty snacks, it defeats the work we have did to improve lunch. Therefore, more fresh fruit and vegetables are necessary. We might even need sandwiches to hold the kids over until dinner since they would have last eaten several hours prior. But if an after-school program has a different set of guidelines than the school to provide food for the kids because it is privately held, we might try another approach. We might seek out larger commercial providers or restaurants with whom the program can partner or contract directly thereby engineering a solution to the problem. So seeking non-profits to investigate grants and other donation based means of funding to ensure the program has a way to get the food necessary becomes the second way to get healthier foods to children at school.

At the end of the proverbial day, we have made several decisions that formulate the coherent plan to accomplish the long term goal of reducing preventable diseases in school-aged children. And that, my friends, is policy and it works pretty much the same for every change we want to see happen in government.

Changes can manifest in new regulations, executive orders, and even laws on a federal, state, and local government levels. Still, all that is to say, is next time you want to see a change in the way the laws and our world work, remember that “how” is policy.