Food councils bring people together, help food systems thrive
Chances are your eating habits are shaped by a wide variety of people: the farmer who grows your favorite McIntosh Reds, your dietitian friend who doles out nutrition advice, the city planner who decides your neighborhood needs a grocery store, and many more.
Others include growers, chefs and entrepreneurs, to be sure, and also health care professionals, distributors, social workers, educators, agricultural experts and economists. To ensure that a local food system truly nourishes its community, collaboration among these individuals and organizations is essential.
That’s where food councils come in. During the past five years, recognizing a need to connect various stakeholders within local food systems, several food councils have formed throughout the Michiana region. While specific priorities and projects vary, the councils are united in a common goal: to support food access and health for all members of their communities.
“There are a lot of advantages to having diverse organizations and people from the community working together,” said Heather Cole, director of Be Healthy Berrien, an initiative focused on healthy living, who is forming a food council in Berrien County. “They can see how their actions affect other parts of a food system and work together to make improvements.”
In Berrien County, for example, 46% of the land is agricultural, yet food deserts—areas in which it is difficult to buy fresh, high-quality food—still exist.
“We have a great variety of healthy food that is grown here, and we need to link it to the people who need it,” Cole said.
In some cases, bringing together individuals from disparate groups can provide an opportunity to secure funding for particular projects. Members of the Northeastern Indiana Food Council, which includes representatives from a food bank, a hospital, a community foundation and local businesses, recently joined forces to apply for a USDA grant to create a food hub—a local site where growers’ surplus food can be aggregated and purchased by grocery stores, said the council’s facilitator, Vickie Hadley, county extension director with the Purdue Extension Service in Allen County.
Despite their youth, some food councils are reporting early successes. In Elkhart County, for example, the local food council brought together the Amish grower cooperative Horn of Plenty and Beacon Health System, coordinating a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program that provided more than 100 food baskets to employees at two local hospitals, said council coordinator Phyllis Miller. Another recent initiative led by the food council was an on-site “learning garden” at Elkhart General Hospital. With vegetables carefully marked to indicate nutritional value, the garden is incorporated into a health curriculum for those served by the outpatient clinic.
In Marshall County, council members were recently awarded a grant for a farm-to-school pilot program that will create a pipeline between farmers and breakfast and lunch programs in schools.
“Farm-to-school programs help create a steady market for local farmers and provide fresh, nutritious food for our kids,” said Angela Rupchock-Schafer, a founding member of the Marshall County Food Council. “Good nutrition is essential to help our students thrive—especially those who may face hunger at home.”
The newly formed St. Joseph County Food Access Council has focused on education and outreach, coordinating obesity prevention programs with local businesses and other groups. At a new Martin’s Super Market in South Bend, for example, the council provided a series of free cooking classes that focused on basic cooking skills and healthy meals. The classes regularly drew 15 families from the area, said Robin Vida, director of health education for the St. Joseph County Health Department. The council also sponsored a toddler snacks program during story time at the St. Joseph County Public Library, which provided examples of healthy snacks along with recipe cards.
As most food councils are in the early stages, they are run primarily by volunteers. If you’re interested in helping your local food system thrive, council leaders encourage anyone interested in any aspect of food to get involved.
“Sometimes it feels like there are other problems more urgent than working on the food system,” said Sarah Highlen, a founding board member of the Northwest Indiana Food Council. “But food issues are deeply interwoven with all critical issues—health care, education, generational poverty. The food system can play a role in building a better society overall.”
Find Your Local Food Council
Food councils in the Michiana region are either newly formed or just getting off the ground. In other words, they need volunteers. If you’re passionate about food—any aspect of it—contact your council to see how you can help your local food system flourish.