Cities Can Tackle Hunger and Food Waste Through Collaboration

This is a guest post by NLC Board Member Priscilla Tyson, council president pro tempore, Columbus, Ohio.

In this day and age, everyone should have access to healthy food. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Columbus and Franklin County, Ohio.

Nearly one-in-five children in my city of Columbus, Ohio, is food insecure. This mirrors statistics we find across the nation. In 2016, 12.3 percent (15.6 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some point, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Twenty-five percent of Franklin County, Ohio, adults say they don’t eat five servings of foods and vegetables each day.

While our fellow residents don’t have access to nutritious food, we have tons of food entering the food waste system. Food waste makes up 13 percent of our county landfill in Franklin County, Ohio. These trends are consistent across the country. Food waste is estimated to be between 30-40 percent of the food supply, according to USDA.

As we all know, food insecurity and lack of access to healthy foods can lead to long-term health consequences. Thirty percent of pre-k students and 28 percent of kindergarten students in Columbus City Schools in 2015 had Body Mass Index (BMI) measurements that put them at risk for health-related challenges.

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We wanted to understand why so many people in Central Ohio do not have access to affordable and nutritious food, and we wanted to know how local government could work to improve their access. Working in conjunction with city and county leaders, I knew there had to be a way to get healthy foods on the tables of our residents, prevent the food from entering the landfills, and stimulate the economy while doing so.

In Columbus and Franklin County, Ohio, we tapped the energies of residents, schools, community organizations, businesses and local government to support a healthy, strong and resilient local food system. It took two years, but the result is the Columbus & Franklin County Local Food Action Plan.

The plan consists of four goals and 27 recommendations. We are confident that the plan will expand food access by establishing a fair and sustainable food system that benefits our economy, our environment, and all people.  Our plan calls for more coordination among farmers markets, education programs, using vacant real estate for the local food system and providing assistance to neighborhood food businesses. We also seek to revise zoning codes and permit requirements to allow for more food production in our region.

A year into implementation, we’ve seen a number of successes.

  • Local school districts have started “Ohio Days” on which they integrate locally produced foods into their menus.
  • Columbus City Schools received USDA funding for equipment that will allow them to peel and slice 53,000 apples a day for lunches. The school district committed to ordering 3 million apples from a  local farmer
  • Three community partners have secured $1.149 million in federal and private foundation funding for projects that will allow local food suppliers to feed residents while supporting jobs.
  • A non-profit grocery store opened in a neighborhood that’s considered a food desert.
  • The Veggie SNAPs program expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits so they can be used at farmers markets for a match of up to $10 on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Our work continues, but here are five strategies we have used to ensure early success:

  1. We shared power. The city and county worked with partners to create the plan, including the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, Franklin County Economic Development and Planning, Columbus Public Health, non-profit organizations and business owners.
  2. We conducted broad outreach. We talked with more than 1,000 residents through interviews, surveys, and public meetings.
  3. We attacked the problem from all angles. For our plan to be sustainable, we needed to address underlying social issues of poverty, underemployment, and unemployment that contribute to food inequality. We did that by looking at the entire food distribution ecosystem, all the way from growing food to consuming food, and disposing it.
  4. We focused on cultural competency and equity.  Franklin County and the City of Columbus are home to more than one million people, but not everyone has the same opportunities to be healthy. We see differences in health based on race, ethnicity, sex, neighborhood, income, education, sexual orientation, and other factors. Each of the plan’s goals has been developed with a commitment to cultural competency, race, age, ethnicity, language, nationality, religious diversity, and literacy levels to ensure we help people in the ways that are relevant to them.
  5. We share ownership.  Implementation of the plan is the charge of Columbus Public Health and Franklin County Economic Development and Planning, but a city-county Joint Local Food Board, who is made up of experts from all sectors of the food system, meet regularly to offer guidance.

Our food plan is an ambitious effort, and we still have work to do to ensure no one in Columbus and Franklin County is concerned about finding a nutritious meal. It can be done with the city and county taking the lead to drive solutions. What we learned from our public-private partnership shows cities can achieve great things when we share power and collaborate to put our best solutions forward for our citizens.

Priscilla Tyson head shot.jpgPriscilla R. Tyson is a board member of the National League of Cities (NLC). A lifelong resident of Columbus, Ohio, she joined Columbus City Council in 2007 and currently serves as President Pro Tem and Chair of the Finance Committee.