A team of leading food lawyers and legal scholars in the United States (U.S.) is launching the Healthy Food Policy Project (HFPP), a collaborative initiative working to identify and elevate effective local food laws as examples for advocates in communities across the country. The website features a searchable database of local laws that seek to promote access to healthy food while contributing to strong local economies, an improved environment, and health equity.
“We built [the database] to provide a starting point for local communities to understand the variety of healthy eating policy options,” said Julie Ralston Aoki, director of Healthy Eating and Active Living at the Public Health Law Center, one of the project partners. “To our knowledge, our policy database is a first of its kind in this area, combining a substantive analysis and a legal drafting analysis to a wide range of laws relating to healthy food access.”
The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Library and represents a four-year collaboration between Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS), the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, and the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
The project is designed to serve food advocates with a wide range of levels of technical expertise, regardless of their professional background. “In the quest to champion healthy food access in their communities, this website can help local policymakers, food policy councils, public health agencies, researchers, advocates, planners, state policymakers, and community organizations,” says Lihlani Nelson, Assistant Director of CAFS.
The site contains a curated, searchable database of 198 local healthy food policies, analyzed by HFPP; a “crosswalk” of local laws and policies, organized by food system category and type of law; and a set of four case studies that showcase healthy food policy initiatives around the country.
“The case studies complement the searchable database by telling the stories behind selected local laws,” says Sally Mancini, Director of Advocacy Resources at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “They highlight the policy development process and especially the ways in which local communities emphasize equitable access to healthy food not only in the policies they’ve passed but also through engaging traditionally underserved and marginalized communities in the policy change process.”
The project focuses on local policies in part because they are substantially less visible than national policies and therefore less likely to be appreciated as examples by advocates and policymakers. However, local decision-making bodies can also play defining roles in the accessibility of healthy food by, for example, delimiting local land use classifications and allocating spending for food system infrastructure.
“In a globalized food system, local laws and policies are an important leverage point because they can be used to directly increase access to healthy food at the local level in a way that state law and federal law cannot,” says Nelson.
For example, Nelson explains that routine local-level planning tools such as zoning ordinances directly affect a community’s access to healthy food because they can prohibit or allow distinct classes of food retail outlets, such as grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, or convenience stores. They also have bearing on whether specific forms of food production are allowed, such as the raising of chickens and bees in urban areas or the family-level commercial production of vegetables in suburbs.
The HFPP’s mission also includes a central strategic focus on highlighting food policies that affect socially disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
“We hope that this project will support communities in thinking about access to healthy food and health holistically,” says Ralston Aoki. “Because when everyone in a community has easy access to healthy food, this not only helps to reduce health inequities but also can strengthen a community’s economy and foster a healthier environment.”