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Where Are You Reading This?

That’s Where Food System Transformation Is Happening

Columns 2024-03-29, 12:18am

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Danielle Nierenberg



Danielle Nierenberg

Here’s a trivia question:

Where are the most important transformations in the food system taking place right now? 

a. The United Nations headquarters

b. In the U.S. Congress

c. At a high-level dialogue in Europe or the Middle East

d. Within a few miles of where you’re reading this letter

If you answered (d), you’re correct! 

When we talk about food system transformation, we’re not talking about a sudden metamorphosis in some far-off place at some indeterminate point in the future. 

Rebuilding the food system in a more resilient, sustainable, equitable way is happening right now, as we speak, in neighborhoods and cities across the world.

And it’s not like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly or a tadpole becoming a frog. It’s a gradual process—sometimes it can feel slow, as many of us probably know!—that moves forward sometimes in big leaps but much more often in small steps.

But because of tireless advocates at the local level, we are indeed moving forward. Every step forward is a win: a win for producers, a win for eaters, a win for the planet. 

And as Food Tankers know, we don’t just do this work for ourselves. A stronger, more just food system is vital toward nourishing future generations too, which is what we’ll be discussing at our next Summit in a couple weeks.

When I look out at the state of the food system, I see so much that’s going well. 

Just take food waste, for example. Last year, the city of Chicago launched a composting program that allows residents to drop off food scraps at 15 locations around the city, where they’re collected and turned into compost for soil. And in Maryland, where I live, policymakers created a food residual diversion law in 2021, which requires any company, store, school, organization, or agency that handles food and is located within 30 miles of a compost facility to divert food scraps away from landfills.

Or look at school meals. Maine and California passed laws in 2021 that guaranteed free lunches for all school students, and several other states including Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Michigan, Connecticut, and Vermont have also done so since then.

And that’s just the beginning! Here are some other food policy wins we’re tracking on the local level around the country:

Minimum wage protections are being strengthened. In Chicago, the subminimum wage for tipped workers is being phased out following city council action last year, so employees including many food service workers will eventually be paid the standard hourly minimum wage rather than significantly less. First-of-its-kind legislation in New York City last year increased the minimum wage for app-based delivery workers, and in California, effective next month, the minimum wage will be raised to $20 for fast food workers at large franchises. Plus, the state created a Fast Food Council with workers, union members, and companies to set standards for workplace safety and wages.

Small-scale food producers are getting the rights they’re due. In Arkansas, a variety of laws passed in 2021 allow for homegrown or homemade food and drink to be sold at farmers markets, farm stands, homes, and even online to help boost local economies. A program called New Mexico Grown helps schools, educational institutions, and organizations serving elderly populations in that state to source food from local producers. And in Nevada, a 2023 law expands sidewalk vendors’ rights to sell food on the street.

Urban agriculture is getting official. In Detroit, the mayor appointed Tepfirah Rushdan as the city’s first Director of Urban Agriculture last fall to encourage and support urban farmers and streamline the use of abandoned lots as farms and gardens. And a couple years ago in Boston, mayor Michelle Wu created GrowBoston, the city’s office of urban agriculture, to work alongside the Mayor’s Office of Food Justice to fund and develop urban ag projects.

States are hearing the needs of rural communities, too. In Colorado, the Consumer Right to Repair Agriculture Equipment Act, which went into effect in January, means that owners of agricultural equipment can repair their machinery independently, rather than being required to go through the manufacturer. And in Missouri, a broad ag law signed last summer includes tax credits for farmers who help new farmers get started, plus programs to boost flood resilience along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

As I mentioned, the list goes on. Recent laws passed in Colorado and Rhode Island limit the sale and use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which harm bees and other pollinators. The city council of Perris, California, recently passed an ordinance that requires grocery stores in the city to stock healthy food and drink items at check-out counters instead of junk food, following the lead of Berkeley’s similar 2020 regulation.

Municipal food policy councils and neighborhood advocates are making even more advances toward a better food system, too. At the end of the day, progress in the food system comes down to empowering eaters, today and for generations to come. 

So I hope you’ll CLICK HERE to grab your spot at our upcoming Summit in partnership with Emory University and Spelman College—in person or via livestream on Sunday, April 14—where we’ll all be inspired by 35+ amazing speakers discussing how food policy can build accessibility and affordability in the food system. 

And I hope, too, that you’ll commit to creating more food policy wins in your communities! Again, transforming the food system is not a one-and-done process, nor is it one that only takes place in Capitol buildings and meeting rooms. Building a better food system requires effort from all of us—right where we live.

Let’s chat about how to make that happen. Email me at danielle@foodtank.com to share what’s going well where you live, and let me know how I can connect you with Food Tank’s resources to boost your efforts. 

(Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank and can be reached at danielle@foodtank.com)