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Engage Local Government Leaders

Closeup of pomegranate seeds

The second step in the seed phase of food council development is to engage local government leaders such as county or city managers, elected officials, and department heads.

Why engage local government leaders?

Food councils are intended to bring people from across the whole food system together. Local government intersects food in many, many ways, from planning and zoning  to senior centers.  The county or city manager, as CEO of the local government organization, can encourage or discourage engagement of local government staff in the food council conversation.  Therefore, it is important to engage this key stakeholder early on in the process, to help garner support for the effort down the road.

Managers can provide a sense of how the food council idea might be received, both organizationally and politically.  In our experience,  one county manager took hold of the food council idea and worked with elected officials to authorize a food council as an official advisory board.  In other counties, managers state that they are trying to cut back on official advisory boards…therefore, organizing groups are encouraged to seek a hybrid structure.   In another county, the manager pointed the organizing group toward another organization, suggesting that if the work of the group was sanctioned by this stakeholder, it would likely be well-received by the local government.

What does engaging look like?

What has proven very effective in several communities is simply setting up a meeting with the city or county manager.  Sometimes the manager will invite others to attend, such as the chair of the county commissioners or mayor.   Usually it is a very small meeting, intended to inform the local government leaders and get their reaction to how a food council might be received within local government.

How do you engage them?

When the organizing group includes county or city staff, the group has inside knowledge of how to navigate the organizational structure to get a meeting with the manager.  In cases where this is not present, or where additional support is desired, groups have asked the Community Food Strategies team for assistance in arranging communication with managers or elected officials through one of our public administration experts.

Once a group arranges it’s first local government meeting, the organizing group representative presents a high level informational overview of a food council, the context in which food councils are emerging across the country, and specifically the community where you are focused, and shares examples of how other councils have involved local government.   The manager may ask clarifying questions.  The organizing group representative asks for the manager’s reaction based on current community and organizational context.  Finally, the organizing group shares their intention to hold a public meeting to gauge public interest.

In an ideal situation, the manager sees the potential benefit of a food council.  The group would then have an open door for reporting on their work and getting additional feedback as they move through the start-up phase of council development.

In situations where the city or county manager is either indifferent or objects to the food council idea, the group will have to decide how to proceed.  For example,  it might be appropriate to ask where the point of objection is and if there are any stakeholders whose support might change the manager’s view.

While it is possible to form a food council without local government support, it creates an uphill struggle for the council to achieve its aims.

Tools & Resources

The following tools and resources translate community food systems and food council concepts for a local government audience.