The District’s newly created Food Policy Council will have a familiar face as its chair.
On Thursday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that Spike Mendelsohn, the former “Top Chef” contestant turned Washington restaurateur, will spearhead the panel tasked with coordinating citywide efforts to address food access and growing the local food economy.
Legislation passed by the D.C. Council in the fall established the council, which will consist of 13 voting members appointed by the mayor. One will be a food policy director to be hired by the city. There will also be 10 nonvoting members pulled from city agencies.
Mendelsohn said he will advise the mayor in her recruitment efforts and help set the agenda for the council, which will deliver an annual report to the City Council.
The goal is to bring together various groups already working on food issues, Mendelsohn said. Topics will include local food business; access to food and nutrition education; and urban agriculture and food-system education.
Each group will have access to eight nonvoting members of the public for additional expertise. That’s potentially a lot of heads around the table discussing everything from food deserts to food-business regulations.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy,” Mendelsohn said. “I think it’s going to be something very difficult.”
Lauren Shweder Biel, executive director of DC Greens, said the city’s infrastructure of farmers markets, school gardens, nonprofit groups and health clinics provide a foundation for the council. Her group works to connect city residents to healthful food.
“We already have all this very progressive food policy legislation on the books. We already have all these collaborative networks,” Biel said. “The building blocks are here.”
The concept of a civic food policy council and director is still relatively new, and cities take various approaches. Some hire food policy directors who report directly to the mayor; others form food policy councils.
When Holly Freishtat was hired as food policy director for Baltimore in 2010, she was one of several in the country. Now there are about 21 food policy directors and more than 200 food policy councils in cities and states.
Councils “are typically advisory with little to no authority,” Mark Winne, a food policy expert, said in an e-mail.
Freishtat was hired to tackle an agenda already established by the Baltimore City Food Policy Task Force, including ways to promote farmers markets, support community gardens and develop marketing campaigns to encourage healthful eating.
One of the first things she did was to create an advisory committee of all the people involved in the local food system. They meet several times a year.
“There’s a tremendous amount that we’ve accomplished in five years,” Freishtat said.
First lady Michelle Obama is widely credited for urging cities to adopt food policy positions and councils. In 2011, just a year after she launched her Let’s Move campaign, she spoke at the Mayor’s Summit on Food Deserts in Chicago.
“I’m not just talking about how you, as mayors, can help with things like zoning and permitting and public safety — and all that’s critical,” she said then. “I’m also talking about how you can use your bully pulpit — your platform as mayors.”
By January 2012, the U.S. Conference of Mayors formed its first food policy task force. The group advises mayors on food policy and how they can better manage the people and organizations involved in their local food systems.
But it’s up to each mayor whether to accept the recommendations of the task force.
“It’s a brand-new field,” said Freishtat, who testified to support the District’s move toward a food policy council. “But it’s a new growing field.”