September 8, 2014

Food Policy: A Community Effort

by Kelly McGlynn '15

Kelly McGlynn is a rising senior From Philadelphia. Kelly is a Healthy Food Access TRI-Lab participant, and is concentrating in Environmental Studies with a focus on food access, public health, and nutrition.

Throughout this summer I have been working with food policy in two capacities: as a research assistant with Professor Dawn King researching food governance, and as an advocacy intern with MANNA, a non-profit in Philadelphia that provides free nutrition counseling and home-delivered medically-tailored meals to people who are suffering from life threatening illnesses.

Both projects have been extremely rewarding, and have brought me to a singular realization about successful food policy: it’s about community building.

Creating a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system means engaging people. It can’t just be done with behind the scenes policies that move money around to the right places – while those are necessary, the root of the change we need is cultural, and it needs to be done within the community.

For the latter half of this summer I have been working on a case study on food policy Philadelphia, which is remarkable place to study. On one hand, the numbers are depressing. Of the 10 biggest cities in the US, Philadelphia has the deepest level of poverty, the highest obesity rate, and some of the worst food access.

However, on the other hand, Philadelphia is also one of the only cities in which obesity levels are going down. Yes, the problem is huge. But while in the rest of the country it is for the most part getting worse, Philly is on an upward trend, showing that the efforts put in by the city government and the local communities are truly paying off.

It wasn’t until I sat down with Gabriella Mora from The Food Trust, a local nonprofit that has partnered with the government on many initiatives, that I realized what was special about the city’s “Get Healthy Philly” program.

On the surface, I saw the host of great policies and goals that many other cities are implementing. Farmers’ markets, healthy corner store initiatives, double buck SNAP programs, and nutrition education, were all important pieces. However, they aren’t unique to Philadelphia, so they don’t explain why the city’s efforts are showing such unique success.

In my interview with Gabriella, she talked about how the city went about implementing those policy efforts, and emphasized that there weren’t a bunch of government workers trying to organize farmers’ markets or tell people how to stock corner stores. Rather, the city gave support to local community organizations that were already doing that work, enabling them to expand their operations. The government tapped into the existing community, and the policy efforts were really able to take hold.

When Gabriella talked about how the Food Trust’s corner store initiative took off with city funding, I came to understand Philadelphia’s success reflective of the partnership between the top-down policy approach and the grassroots efforts initiated by non-profits. The days I spend at MANNA consistently solidify my appreciation for the deep and active fabric of the Philadelphia food community, as a never-ending stream of volunteers works preparing meals for the critically-ill. 

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