From our favorite bag of chips to grandma’s recipes, we are surrounded by foods that bring us joy, comfort and make our mouths water. Yet, good food is more than just a tasty treat; it’s also about how it gets to our plate.
A lot happens to our food before it reaches us and most of what happens is invisible to the end consumer. Do you know how that chocolate in your cookie was grown? Probably not. We exist in a highly industrialized food chain, where we don’t know where our food comes from. It’s grown, sourced, processed, packaged and transported elsewhere. Somehow, it then ends up at the store or on our restaurant plate. Over time, we have become alienated to the intricate processes that bring food to our tables. Food consumers often ask, “Is it good, affordable, and can I easily find it?” But from a “good food” system perspective, the question then becomes: “How do these consumer expectations influence our environment, health and workforce?”
A “good food” system is about us being aware of where our food comes from; this is the space where Food Policy Councils operate. A “good food” system allows us eaters to keep the rest of the food chain accountable. This accountability takes the form of fair labor standards for workers and prices for producers, all while maintaining high food quality and environmentally-safe practices. Many food advocates are hoping to achieve this by building a food democracy — helping people become more aware of how and what they consume. According to Dr. Neva Hassanein, Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, “At the core of food democracy is the idea that people can and should be actively participating in shaping the food system, rather than remaining passive spectators on the sidelines.”
Food Policy Councils help connect the dots between the fields and our forks. They are convening diverse people across the food chain to discuss good food practices and policies. Across the country, there are over 300 Food Policy Councils that doing just that. Each council is different due to population sizes, geography, local government and community priorities.
The Need for Good Food in L.A.
In a county of over 10 million people, the L.A. Food Policy Council is the largest of the Food Policy Councils in the country. They are a hub for over 400 organizations and agencies that include farmers, small business owners, restaurant workers, and other food advocates. To guide their efforts, the L.A. Food Policy Council works with its network to develop a “Good Food for All Agenda” and prioritize needs across diverse sectors in the county. From the latest 2017 Agenda, here are the top priorities:
- Healthy & Affordable Food Access. L.A. County ranks as the most food insecure county in the country with an estimated 1,683,000 residents with difficult access to food. There are also large wealth gaps, which are clear when we compare community realities. For instance, West L.A. residents have twice as many grocery stores available to its residents compared to South L.A.
- Sustainable Food Systems. To protect the environment and land use, food sustainability focuses on how land is used for good food production. About 35 percent of waste in landfills is made up of food and other organic materials. This waste is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Also, there has been a drastic decrease of farmland over the years with rising costs of housing and the reduction of small-scale farming.
- Fair & Equitable Food Work. Food labor is disproportionately made up of people of color and low-income populations. A typical food worker (non-supervisory role) earns an average hourly wage of $12.59. This is less than 50 percent of a living wage for a family of three.
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The Purchasing Power of L.A.
L.A. County is also geographically large and economically powerful. At 4,083 square miles, we are larger than the combined areas of Delaware and Rhode Island. Our gross domestic product of over $700 billion is larger than whole countries like Belgium, Poland, Sweden and Norway. The county is also home to over 80 school districts. One of these districts is the L.A. Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation serving nearly 700,000 students with a budget of $7.49 billion for 2018-19. Clare Fox, executive director of the L.A. Food Policy Council, says, “LAUSD serves over 600,000 meals a day, purchasing $150-million worth of food. Imagine the immense footprint on farms, jobs, the environment and the health of our children that this has. We have worked with the school district to use that purchasing power responsibly by providing nutritious meals sourced from regional farmers, employing animal welfare, sustainability and fair labor practices through the Good Food Purchasing Policy.”
Food is Equity Work
Eating is a political and economic act, whether or not we realize it. César Chávez once said, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.” At the heart of the L.A. Food Policy Council’s work is building relationships between people within our food system. To date, here are some of the ways the L.A. Food Policy Council has catalyzed and convened diverse partners to engage in good food work:
- Legalizing street vending. It is no longer a crime to be a street vendor. Effective January 1, 2019, SB 946 regulates street vending practices, requiring cities and counties to end the criminalization of street food vending and provide rules and regulations that vendors can follow as small businesses.
- Practicing good food purchases. From the school lunch apple to a hospital salad bar, to leverage food purchasing power, they directly work with many public institutions to develop a transparent and equitable food system through the Good Food Purchasing Program. Foundational are five core values: local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
- Transforming “food deserts” by investing in local stores. For many low-income communities of color, the corner store is the only place to access convenient foods. Through their Healthy Neighborhood Market Network, they provide small business owners with training and technical assistance to increase the availability of healthy foods in local communities.
- Turning “food waste” into a resource. Food in landfills is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and unnecessary when over a million Angelenos experience food insecurity. The L.A. Food Policy Council helps local governments create programs to prevent food from being wasted, either recovering edible food for people or sending scraps to compost and regenerate farmland.
- Cultivating food justice leaders. The Food Leaders Lab is being piloted to train local advocates and residents on the histories of food justice movements and political leadership. This intergenerational and multilingual program will support the development of strategies for a healthy, resilient and just food system in L.A.
There is still a long way to go, and Food Policy Councils across the country are facilitating the changes in our food systems. Yet, you don’t have to be a business owner or institution to make a difference in good food practices. Everyday Angelenos play a big role in the good food movement. The dollars that we spend on food matters. Whether it is the bacon-wrapped street dog or that dinner you ate at that special occasion restaurant, the food scene in L.A. is deliciously diverse. Our money goes to pay for the food we eat and the many people who made it possible for us to have it in the first place.
“We all eat, so there is a role for everyone in making good food for all a reality,” says Fox. “We may not be able to always source from perfectly ethical, sustainable producers or be involved in food policy campaigns. But by being in relationship to our food — investigating its source, caring about food workers, practicing composting, buying from local entrepreneurs in low-income communities — you are changing the nature of the food system.”
Hassanein, N. (2012). Practicing Food Democracy: A Pragmatic Politics of Transformation. In P. Williams-Forson & C. Counihan (Eds.), Taking Food Public: Redefining Foodways in a Changing World (pp. 461-474). New York: Routledge.
Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. (n.d.). Explore the Regions and Cities of Los Angeles County. Retrieved from https://laedc.org/wtc/chooselacounty/regions-of-la-county/
Los Angeles Unified School District. (2018). Fingertip Facts 2018-19. Retrieved from https://achieve.lausd.net/
Top Image: #GoodFoodLACounty Summer Lunch Program | Linus Shentu