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Would a DC "food czar" help urban farmers?

Gail Taylor says her urban farming is a "hobby" because current laws can't support it as a business

A basket of local foods from online grocery business Relay Foods

School lunches served by D.C. Central Kitchen. Clockwise from top:  local beef burger w/Brussels sprouts,  local beef burger w/ sweet potatoes, beef and macaroni bake w/salad, and arroz con pollo

D.C. council mulls adding a "food czar"--which could mean more urban farms, local food, and green initiatives for all.
There’s no shortage of food-minded nonprofits, farmers markets or restaurants located in the District, yet healthful food remains out of reach for many residents. In response, the District government could soon hire a food policy director, or “czar,” to address food disparities — mostly by getting all the groups that already do so seated at the same table.
Councilmember Mary Cheh chaired a hearing in late March on the proposed position, which already garnered eager support from stakeholders in the room. Their testimonies seemed to broadly agree that the District should hire someone who can unite disparate groups and government agencies, make local food accessible and find where D.C. can do more.
What does a food policy director do?
There are almost 200 food policy councils across the country, all with slightly different goals. What they have in common is an aim to gather stakeholders around a common mission of improving local or regional food systems, whether that means making urban farming more financially viable or getting more fruits and vegetables onto corner-store shelves.
The director, which would most likely be a paid position in the D.C. government, would act as a point person to unite the many government agencies, nonprofits and businesses working to address issues in the city’s food system.
“They should be our guides to D.C.’s gatekeepers,” said Alexander Moore, director of development and communications at DC Central Kitchen, in his testimony. If a nonprofit wants to try a new, innovative program, the food czar should know who in the government could help make it happen.
The food czar and council could help establish a better business and tax structure for small farms like Gail Taylor’s Three Part Harmony Farm in the city. Taylor says she considers her business more of a hobby right now because it’s not a 501(c)(3) and, therefore, she can’t afford the D.C. taxes or apply for grants that would help pay her bills.
“I have another job to pay my bills and buy supplies,” Taylor testified at the hearing. “The city has not developed the necessary laws to support [urban] farms outside of that nonprofit framework.”
Another issue facing District residents is a lack of access--in many parts of the city--to fresh produce. Yes, community gardens and farmers markets are sprinkled throughout the city, but “getting a farmers market isn’t enough, because farmers markets aren’t always cheap,” says Celeste James, director of community health initiatives for Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States, which has helped fund several food councils in the region. One of the food czar’s missions would have to be to bring the cost of fresh produce down—so it’s affordable to everyone.

Further, the council will certainly get its hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of D.C.’s regulations.
“What we’ve discovered is that food policy is not just a set of lofty ideals,” said Baltimore's food policy director, Holly Freishtat, noting that understanding — and sometimes changing — zoning regulations and government ordinances has been key to paving the way for new food initiatives in her city.
When Baltimore’s health department was finalizing its animal regulations, for example, Freishtat was able to quickly react and add some language to the laws that would allow for sustainable animal husbandry — raising chickens, goats, bees, ducks or rabbits — in the city. (“We omitted sheep by accident,” Freishtat added.) Her committee of 65 member organizations has also helped Baltimore adopt an urban agriculture plan, identify 20 acres of land in the city for farmers, and collected data to map and better address the city’s food deserts.
There’s also a public relations angle. Moore and others pointed out that, while the District is a leader in some food policies, the city’s efforts have not been recognized nationally, in part because the city lacks a centralized point person to tell its story.
The District is not, for example, represented on the national food policy taskforce that the U.S. Conference of Mayors established in 2012. 
What will make D.C.’s council successful—or not?
This isn’t the first effort to form some sort of food council in D.C. to unite those who are working in this space.
Kaiser Permanente provided a $55,000 yearlong grant to Bread for the City in 2012 to start one that ended up focusing on food justice and access as opposed to the broader approach now being discussed. Organizational members of the Healthy Affordable Food for All (HAFA) coalition, which includes several nonprofits that address hunger in the city, launched DC Food For All that year, a grassroots effort that aimed to garner solutions from those who are most affected by food injustice.
The groups remain but have been less active since their funding for that first year dried up. 
Who is already working on these issues?
Work like this is already ongoing in many corners of the District, even if there isn’t a central hub or point-person to unite them.
The Arcadia Center for Food & Sustainable Agriculture drives mobile farmers market busses into the city’s food deserts to improve access while DCCK’s Healthy Corners initiative partners with corner stores to get healthier food on the shelves in these neighborhoods.
Nonprofits like DC Greens and City Blossoms focus on getting food from local farms into D.C. schools or getting students into school gardens to learn about where their lunch comes from. Businesses like Relay Foods and nonprofits alike are innovating to streamline the food distribution process from farms to tables.
Where are the food policy councils in the area?
Nearby municipalities like Montgomery County and Prince George’s County recently launched their own food councils to address similar problems impacting residents’ access to healthful food.
Kaiser Permanente’s James says the Prince George’s County Food Equity Council will be worth watching for cues, because the effort follows a comprehensive food study to discern needs in the county.
Will it work?
Anne Palmer, program director at the Baltimore-based Center for a Livable Future, testified at the D.C. hearing about food councils nationwide and what such a coalition with a director could accomplish here.
Food policy directors “can share the D.C. story and keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening around the country,” Palmer said. “This position will not solve childhood obesity or eliminate food deserts, but it will bring together people to address those problems in a more coherent and substantive way.”

Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist who covers food, agriculture, and the environment and lives in Alexandria, Va. She writes about food, etc. at thinkabouteat.com.
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