Roxanne Garcia, the market manager at Heirloom Farmers Markets, became interested in policy change when the Pima County Health Department began enforcing sanitation policies at the farmers’ markets. Although the sale of whole produce is not regulated, once food is cut or prepared in any way, certain rules must be followed.
Garcia said, “They were applying Costco rules to small vendors. We needed to redefine this for microbusinesses, not huge conglomerates.” After discussions with the Pima County Health Department, Garcia and other farmers’ market representatives were invited to help devise reasonable rules that protect public health in a way that is appropriate for small-scale operations. Jeff Terrell, the program manager for Consumer Health and Food Safety at the health department, explained that “safety is our number one interest, [but] we see ourselves as partners in this process.”
Working hand-in-hand with policy makers, as Garcia is doing, is one way to be involved in policy making, but there as many ways to be involved as there are policies—which is to say, many. Individuals and organizations that make an effort to participate in the policy conversation can be very effective. Call me a sucker for democracy, but I believe that governance is not a spectator sport, and that when ordinary citizens show up in the policy making process, their voices are heard.
Everyone who eats has a vested interest in public policies related to food. For policies made at the federal level, it is difficult for individual citizens to have a say—at least directly. But the process is more accessible at the local and state levels, where policy makers are literally closer to the voters who elect them than are their federal counterparts. They are also less influenced by lobbying from corporate interests than those who work at the federal level—so they are more likely to be influenced by you. The deliberation process that leads to policy change is open to the public. Indeed, many public policy issues are required to be informed by citizen input before policy makers vote on them.
One way to affect policy is to take an issue directly to the voters. A grassroots organization, Right to Know AZ, is developing a statewide ballot initiative for the 2014 election to require labeling of products that contain GMOs in Arizona. In Baja Arizona, Right to Know AZ is working closely with GMO-Free Tucson to collect signatures for the initiative. Jaime Hall, GMO-Free Tucson’s creative director, is enthusiastic about taking the issue directly to the voters. “We can spend hours and hours talking to local government and only get so far,” Hall said. “But consumer demand is what moves the system. We have to educate first.” To learn more or to help with gathering signatures, sign up for the GMO-Free Tucson mailing list at GmoFreeTucson.org or visit RightToKnowArizona.com.
School food policy is another issue that has been receiving citizen attention. And who better to create policy progress in schools than the people most impacted by the policies—students! Jennifer Reeves, a nutrition scientist at the University of Arizona, has been organizing student advocacy and leadership clubs since 2006. Today, more than 1,000 students in 30 middle and high schools throughout Baja Arizona are participating in policy and advocacy work, working alongside the adult members of school health advisory councils to create policies that promote healthy eating and physical activity in the school setting. In some schools, they are working on changing lunchroom design to make healthier food choices more visible and convenient. After identifying the healthy snacks students are interested in, some clubs have worked with vending machine operators to replace the less healthy choices. If you would like to start a club in your school, contact Jennifer Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, citizens who support or oppose the Tucson urban agriculture zoning code revision have been involved in drafting new rules, and a full public participation process is unfolding, giving all Tucson residents an opportunity to make their opinions known. You can email Adam Smith from Tucson Planning and Development Services at email@example.com to get on the mailing list to receive updates and announcements about upcoming opportunities to participate. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in working with other urban agriculture proponents to support the amendments to the code. Also, check in with the Pima County Food Alliance to see what projects they’re working on and how you can get involved at PimaFoodAlliance.org.
There is a role for citizens in just about every type of local policy development. Your level of participation can range from active—engaging in the development of policy ideas or organizing support or opposition to policies that are being proposed—to supportive—signing petitions, contacting your elected officials directly, or attending public hearings that precede votes.
The key to effective advocacy is knowing your issue, showing up in the process, and being willing to compromise with folks who may have a different opinion on the issue. Remember, democracy is not a spectator sport. There is opportunity for us all to get in the game. ✜
Merrill Eisenberg is an applied anthropologist who is retired from the University of Arizona Zuckerman College of Public Health. Her interest in food policy comes from her commitment to community empowerment and participation in policy development.