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Conference of Mayors Convenes First Meeting of Food Policy Task Force

By Crystal Swann
January 30, 2012

The U.S. Conference of Mayors convened the first meeting of the Food Policy Task Force during the 80th Winter Meeting in Washington (DC). Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino is Chair of the task force, along with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings'Blake as Vice Chair. Both mayors applauded mayors for embracing the idea that local food policy is a key step to getting healthy, affordable food into their cities and accessibility is key to the most vulnerable populations.

"All across our cities, a local food revolution is taking place we see it at our farmer's markets, in community gardens, in our schools and in small and growing businesses from food trucks to incubators for new food producers and caterers," said Menino.

In Boston, Menino created the Boston Bounty Bucks Program, which doubles the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits used to buy fruits and vegetables at Boston farmers markets. He also banned soda in Boston public school vending machines and on all city-owned property.

In an earlier presentation to the entire body of the Conference of Mayors, Menino expressed the economic, employment and community revitalization opportunities presented as cities embrace local urban and rural farm collaborations. "Since I've been mayor, we have opened 26 new supermarkets in our city. I'm especially proud of the Stop and Shops in Grove Hall and Jackson Square because people said that full service supermarkets wouldn't come to the inner city. Well, look at them now and you will see that they are thriving and contributing to the revitalization of those neighborhoods. They came here and succeeded, now everyone wants in," stated Menino.

With over 15 mayors in attendance, the chairs laid out the goals of the task force's work that include addressing issues related to reducing obesity, increasing access to healthy, affordable food in low-income communities, and increasing local food procurement in cities and sharing best policies and practices, and encouraging support for farmer's markets, food desert mapping and healthy food retail.

Baltimore is one of a handful of cities, along with New York City and Louisville that have crafted their own local food policy initiatives. Rawlings'Blake's effort started in 2009 and involves the city departments of health, planning, sustainability and development, as well as an advisory group. The city's food priorities include a customized map of food deserts that includes corner stores and convenience markets, which play a big role in the city's food scene. About 20 percent of the city's residents live in food deserts, without access to fresh food. That map is being used to guide the growth of projects like the Virtual Supermarkets which lets low-income residents order groceries online and pick them up at their neighborhood library.

The mayors recognize that the next farm bill will be an important step to addressing the policy challenging facing this urban farm movement to promote locally grown food economies. Mayors shared the policy barriers as well as resource and administrative barriers that sometimes stymie their efforts. USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was on hand to address some of their concerns. Merrigan spoke about the many USDA programs that are available for to help cities as they overcome problems related to nutrition, diet and poverty. Some of the programs she highlighted included those that will help cities support urban food systems.

Merrigan also highlighted the "Know Your Farmer" initiative to strengthening local and regional food systems, pointing out at there are over 7,000 farmers markets across the country and that 48 states now have farm-to-school programs helping to create easier access to affordable, healthy foods in neighbors most in need. These are dollars that stay in communities to help revitalize neighbors and support locally grown products.