What do food policy councils do?

Local Food Northland is exploring how a food policy council might work for Northland. In 2015, there were 282 food policy councils in the U.S. and Canada. We anticipate that a food policy council will complement the grass roots initiatives supporting the shift to sustainable food systems.

So what do food policy councils do? The  Center for a Livable Future Food Policy Network project, run out of John Hopkins university monitor the performance of food policy councils through an annual survey.

The image below reveals the range of achievements by food policy councils.

Food Policy Council activity.png

Activities include:

  • Food production including action plans, input into legislation and the retention of farm land.
  • Food procurement  with most of the activity focusing on measures to ensure increasing proportions of food for schools is healthy and locally sourced. An important initiative was promoting legislation to give preference to locally grown, processed and prepared foods. This is relevant to Northland where our DHB resisted Ministry of Health policy to have packaged meals delivered from out of region kitchens.
  • Environmental sustainability including bans on bee killing neonicotinoids, zero waste initiatives and purchasing policy supporting recycled, reusable or compostable packaging.
  • Economic development including financial incentives for local food initiatives and the provision of tax credits to support grocery stores in “food desert”locations.
  • Food access initiatives support better health.  Examples are the promotion of healthy mobile food vending legislation, promotion of the North Carolina Healthy Corner Stores Act and funding to support access to healthy food in New Orleans.
  • Food processing initiatives generally focussed on ensuring that legislation didn’t disadvantage smaller producers.
  • Food recovery initiatives support composting, food recovery and better waste reduction practices.
  • Labour initiatives focussed on raising minimum wages.

You can access the report here and its infographic here.

The United States has an advantage that legislation can be passed at local, state and federal government levels. This enables the emergence of innovative policy and regulation that can be observed and replicated by others. This contrasts with our much more centrally controlled system. So for us the solution could include keeping a close eye on international initiatives and establishing a network of food policy councils throughout New Zealand.


Our food story

Our Food Story

Today Our Food Story, an investigation into Northland’s food system is being published. It surfaces a compelling vision of the benefits accruing from a more connected and local food system. The executive summary from the document is reproduced below.

Thank you to my co-researcher Eloise Neeley for her superb work over summer to enable this report to happen.

Executive summary

We all eat it, and food has been fundamental to our economies for millennia. This report reveals opportunities to reshape our local food system with strong economic and social benefits. It is difficult to think of another industry as pervasive as the food industry. On the production side, it provides an economic base across our region, rather than being concentrated in Whangarei and Northland’s towns. On the consumption side it feeds whanau, but also patients in health facilities and customers in cafes, restaurants and hotels.

We are currently far from optimising the potential of the food system. Food distribution is dominated by corporations who primarily operate here to extract dividends for their shareholders, rather than support a “sticky economy”. Fast Food chains (also here to extract dividends) and supermarkets sell food that is often nutritionally deficient generating a plethora of diet based disease. The average weekly spend of New Zealand households is $61.90 on alcoholic beverages, tobacco and ready to eat foods, but only $22.60 on fruit and vegetables. Shifting this equation even minimally will have positive impacts.

This report focuses on food produced for local consumption. It integrates data from desktop research and interviews of 32 people involved in food production, consumption and outlets. It reveals opportunities to improve returns to growers while creating a stronger value proposition for food outlets. There are also exciting opportunities for added value processing. Data from two U.S. locations identify actual and potential new jobs generated by a re-invigorated local food system equating to between 233 and 477 jobs for Northland. The economic benefit of substituting 20% of produce imported into the region with local food sold through local food distributors and outlets, this would equate to additional economic benefits of $27.7 to $55.4 million annually for Northland.

The synergies between employment and enterprise generation, social cohesion and the potential to revolutionise positive health outcomes remain largely unexplored in Northland centres. We offer this report as a platform to generate momentum towards a more robust food system.

Our recommendations are:

  1. Investigate the feasibility of food hubs in Whangarei and other Northland Centres.
  2. Convene a regional discussion on the local food economy.
  3. Promote local food.

You can access a copy of the report here. Our Food Story: Understanding the market dynamics of fruit and vegetable production, distribution and produce outlets in Northland

Stevia – sweet as

Stevia (Stevia rebaudia) is a great addition to any Northland garden. Although the plant is of tropical South American origins, it grows well here. It is a perennial that dies back in Winter, but in my garden, regrows every spring. The plants can handle some frost, so most Northland sites are okay. In these situations the Stevia.net website recommends recommends cutting the plants back to 100mm of stem to set them up for next season’s growth.

bee on stevia
Bees love the white flowers that appear in mid-Autumn.

Health benefits

Refined white stevioside, extracted from leaves is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. The leaves contain about 10% stevioside. This level intensifies as the growing season progresses.

Remarkably, stevia not only is free from the downsides of sugar, it can also remediate some of the problems associated with sugar. This page from the Greenmedinfo website references studies that reveal the efficacy of stevia in treating type 1 and 2 diabetes, hypertension and other health issues. One study identifies anti-inflammatory and antitumor properties.

This article, advises that green leaf stevia is the best option. As products become more processed, there is more potential to reduce benefits, or to generate harm. The author ranks stevia as his third preference as a sweetener after raw honey and dates. There are some cautions about side effects from using stevia.

Eating stevia

I use stevia in smoothies and salads. As I forage around the garden for salad ingredients, stevia is a favourite choice. The leaves have a slightly bitter after-taste when consumed alone, but in a salad they provide a sweet burst of flavour that really compliments the bitter flavours from salad greens.
This video explains the harvesting and drying process.

Vegetable tourism, Trojan horses and sticky economies

Pam Warhurst is in New Zealand sharing the message of edible landscapes. In 2009 she and her friend Mary cleaned up a piece of waste land in her Yorkshire Town of Todmorden and planted veggies. This started a movement that is now world-wide.


Food grown in public spaces in Tormorden (image source here)

In her interview with Kim Hill Pam relates how Todmorden has been transformed through the three related sets of action – what Pam calls three plates. The first is community action, manifest in planting food in spaces on berms, in front of shops, anywhere that a plant can take hold. The food is free for others to take – and generally people respect and get engaged to give back.

The second plate is education – reviving the arts of growing, cooking and preserving food. These activities can be integrated into most curriculum areas in schools. The third plate is business. Ironically providing free food for people stimulates food enterprise. Farmers see niches opening up and diversify into, for example, cheese making, cafes start to sell local food. Now Todmorden is benefitting from what Pam calls vegetable tourism. She calls this a “sticky economy” because people chose to spend more money locally.

Pam tells her story and explains the three plates in this Ted Talk.

Pam is a superb communicator and exemplifies an inclusive approach that engenders engagement rather than alienation. There are lots of things that we shouldn’t be doing in this world, but she prefers to focus on the positive things we can do – the small actions all of us can take. “People respond positively to being positive”. Her journey has taught Pam the power of small actions.

If we could believe in the power of small actions… that is the thing that has come out of this, we all have actions that we can do collectively, if we join up the dots, create  something much bigger.

Pam is spending time in Christchurch, a city being recreated after the recent earthquakes. Nearby Geraldine has embraced the edible landscapes kaupapa with locals finding all sorts of spaces to grow food.

running duck cafe garden

Garden’s outside Geraldine’s “Running Duck Cafe”

For Pam, its all about working together to make a better world.

“Growing people’s self belief that they can create a kinder world using the Trojan horse of food.”



Choosing local food

There are restaurants and cafes around Northland that choose to support local producers, but do you know who they are? And if you did know, would you be more likely to choose them to dine with?

There are a surprising number of local restaurants and cafes that are passionate about local food, but they are not communicating their passion to their customers. Perhaps we could initiate an “eat fresh, eat local” certification that local chefs could display to communicate their love for local food. Sean Stanley of the Northland Natural Foods Coop is working on a logo. Conscious Consumer, based in Wellington, has a certification process based on a series of badges including local, recycling, organic, free range etc. But the process is expensive.

To get something going up here, I favour a single qualifier – based on the percentage of food obtained from local producers. Given that there is produce not available in sufficient volumes, such as mushrooms and bananas, what do you think would be a fair threshold to qualify – 80%? When the certification is established perhaps a badge system can be added.

Shiraz restaurants would certainly qualify. Owner Jas Singh can be seen at the Whangarei Growers Markets most Saturdays buying.


He purchases sufficient produce for the whole week and cool stores it back at his restaurant. He knows it will still be in great shape by the end of the week, because it is fresh when he buys it. If he runs short, the growers will top him up during the week.

Judy Wicks, of Philadelphia’s White Dog Café, is a pioneer of local food revival. The food in her café’s comes with a story – she knows the people that produce the veggies, fruit, meat and seafood on the menu. She articulates her vision here? We can do this too. What do you think?


Moving the food system towards sustainability

We are promoting a sustainable food system for Northland.

Sheri Flies… says that three essentials must be considered in order to move the food system towards sustainability. “The first thing is that you have to have a critical mass of benevolent demand on the side of the customers. Then you need full economic, social, and ecological transparency across the entire supply chain. And then you need to give a face to the producers, to the farmers; you need to personalise their connection with the consumers, which in turn will strengthen the benevolent demand for high-quality products and processes”.[1]

Lets look at each of these essentials.

1. Critical mass of benevolent demand

The success of the Whangarei Growers Market (WGM) evidences momentum towards a “critical mass of benevolent demand”. The research report into the WGM revealed strong customer loyalty. Sixty percent of customers identified support for local growers as important. Thus we can extrapolate that perhaps 2,000 to 4,000 of the 3,000 to 6,000 customers that shop at the market every week can be regarded as “benevolent”. Growers and farmers markets are on the rise all around Northland.

Another evidence of customer benevolence is the rise of popularity of Fair Trade movement in Northland and world-wide. The purpose of Fair Trade is to generate more equitable returns for producers.

The distribution systems that have disadvantaged third world producers have the same characteristics as the systems that have driven many Northland producers out of business.

2. Transparency across the entire supply chain

The traditional supply chain is often predatory. Organisations in it battle to gain dominance, and when they do, they exercise power to the disadvantage of others in the chain. At their worst players in predatory supply chains guard knowledge as a competitive knowledge and seek to extract value to their own advantage.

By contrast value chain players seek to create and share value across the chain. Transparency is vital. Tinkering with existing supply chains won’t achieve the aim of delivering value to both producers and consumers. To achieve this, we must use technology to establish transparent distribution systems. Fortunately there are already local models of this in place, including markets, where the producer sells directly to the customer and newer initiatives such as the Northland Natural Food Co-op which enables the producer to determine the sale price with a small cut for the co-op.

In the short term, a social enterprise will be a good vehicle to reform distribution systems and create transparency. Social enterprises are designed to operate commercially, but have mechanisms to ensure surpluses are returned to the enterprise or community stakeholders. Thus profit and purpose are in balance.

3. Personalise connections between producers and consumers

Building richer connections between producers and their customers is happening. Our job is to seek to understand our food systems and promote interventions that enhance these connections. And as Sherie Flies states this “in turn will strengthen the benevolent demand for high-quality products and processes”.

What do you know about the food you consume? Who benefits from your purchases? And how can you use your food dollars to generate more benefits for local producers and consumers?

[1] from Theory U: Leading From the Future as it Emerges. Otto Scharmer http://www.ottoscharmer.com/publications/executive-summaries