New Missoula food policy board could advise city, county on wide range of issues

Saying the Missoula region needed more control over its food systems and agricultural future, members of the City Council on Wednesday placed their enthusiastic support behind a resolution creating a new Food Policy Advisory Board.

The board, which is also expected to win approval from Missoula County commissioners in the coming weeks, could make policy recommendations to local officials on everything from land use and development to food security and distribution.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like – an advisory board that will advise both city and county government on local agriculture and food-related policy issues,” said council member Heidi West, who introduced the measure. “It’s incredibly broad, looking at both access to agricultural land and the lack thereof, and from development pressure all the way to markets, like local restaurants.”

As designed, the board will include three members appointed by Missoula County commissioners, two by the Missoula City Council, one by the mayor and one by the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition.

The coalition was created through a similar resolution in 2005 but has since morphed into its own nonprofit. The new board would build off the intention of the 2005 resolution and advance it by bringing a formalized structure to local government.

“We know local food is not just a quaint, feel-good concept – it’s essential,” said Abby Huseth, the energy program coordinator with Climate Smart Missoula. “Our community is limited in making these benefits a reality for everyday citizens. It doesn’t have a mechanism to think or plan holistically around this issue.”

Huseth and other supporters said local food and agricultural organizations, including entrepreneurs and farmers, don’t have a pipeline to share recommendations with elected officials. Nor does local government have the expertise or capacity to develop effective food policies, they said.

Establishing the Food Policy Advisory Board could help address both challenges.

“It would create a mechanism for local government to more effectively draw on the expertise of the food and agriculture community,” said Huseth. “It would also create a pathway for local government to partner strategically with the private and public sector to address food related issues.”

Erika Berglund, a masters student in environmental studies at the University of Montana, said the new board would help ensure local governments meet a number of policies included in the city and county growth plans, as well as their new plans around climate change.

She said the nation’s first food policy board was established in 1982, though more than 282 communities have since followed suit. The boards generally address access to healthy food, economic development, anti-hunger, and food waste and recovery.

“The Missoula Food Policy Advisory Board will have a wealth of knowledge to draw upon from these communities while leading Montana in advancing food policy on behalf of a healthy, sustainable and equitable food system,” said Berglund.

While the proposal won praise from members of the City Council, questions over the board’s eventual sway in advising elected officials on growth and development, as well as land use, danced around Wednesday’s discussion.

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick, who partially ran on the issue of agriculture, said the board would be limited to wider recommendations, not specifics on individual development projects.

“The role of this board is to provide policy suggestions to the electeds, not to provide specific comment on specific development issues,” Slotnick said. “I could see this board coming forth with a resolution for the county commissioners, or an ordinance for (City Council), or subdivision regulations – an idea for something general but nothing specific.”

Slotnick said the board would advise on a number of issues, starting with food access.

“How do we make sure everyone who lives in the city and county has relatively equal and good access to the best quality food?” Slotnick said. “The other half of this is around land use. How do we set ourselves up so that in the future we can have a vibrant, local agricultural economy.”

The board will also glean expert advice from the University of Montana, which enjoys a strong environmental studies program. UM professor Neva Hassanein said the board is needed to close gaps in local government, which doesn’t have the tools or expertise to address issues around food, or how climate change will play a role in food security.

“We don’t think about food as a policy issue,” said Hassanein. “We can do a lot here locally to strengthen our local food systems.”

Hassanein credited local nonprofits and entrepreneurs for their work around food, including its growth, distribution and recovery. She said the board would not replace what exists in the community but rather, would look to build off those existing strengths.

“We have seen tremendous success in the private sector,” Hassanein said. “There’s a tremendous economic development opportunity around food. We’ve seen a lot of food-related businesses develop here in the last 20 years. I think it’s time for the government to step up and partner with the private sector.”