Beyond Policy: Growing Networks in the RI Food Policy Council
Rhode Island is full of engaged food stakeholders, like eaters, farmers, fishers and nonprofits that help with the food insecure. I sat with Dawn King to discuss an engaged, conscious and enthusiastic organization in Rhode Island, another essential stakeholder in the Rhody food system: the Rhode Island Food Policy Council (RIFPC).
“We’re engaged stakeholders, and we try to act as a network,” Dawn began, settling into her office lined with cookbooks and food-related academia. An Environment & Society professor at Brown University, King chairs the Data and Evaluation Committee for the RIFPC, engaging with her love for Rhode Island, food and research across disciplines.
The Rhode Island Food Policy Council originated from the first food policy councils across the country, founded in the 1980s, in order to connect communities and neighborhoods to policy initiatives, ultimately in the hope of enacting state-level policy. (As an example, work could include policies to address food insecurity.) Those food policy councils acted as a connection between communities and policymakers to synthesize and present information, propose innovative solutions, and to ultimately advocate for local food stakeholders.
The RIFPC originally existed in the traditional food policy council role, with the aim of connecting local and state actors for food policy-related decisions. However, the new RIFPC is moving beyond policy decisions, and now acts as a facilitator for communication and action between the various food stakeholders across the state.
King explained, with the diverse networks that exist in Rhode Island, various individuals and communities across the state inevitably hold different opinions on the same issues. For example, there are advocates for food deregulation versus advocates for food safety. Various organizations, on both state and local levels, hold a diverse array of opinions that may not be reconcilable on a state policy level. Therefore, King continued, the RIFPC decided it would best serve the role not in reconciling those differences through governmental statewide policies, but instead through offering resources, networks, and communication strategies to facilitate communities in developing solutions themselves that are inclusive and considerate of all parties involved.
“That’s the great thing,” she said. “We’re trying to connect people.” State-level policy inevitably encounters red tape and obstacles—perhaps issues regarding food that directly affects various community members and stakeholders are best resolved on a local and independent level, with resources, communication strategies offered by the RIFPC.
King’s passion for the state and the work she does on the Data and Evaluation Committee was clear throughout our talk. The Council consists of a combination of committees and work groups, who work to ensure that dialogue and concrete action occur in the areas specifically related to economy, environment, health, production and, most prominently, food accessibility.
King described her position as the chair of the Data and Evaluation Committee. She works to identify resources and to collect data that Rhode Islanders can use to develop a more sustainable and food-secure system that works in favor of every citizen. For example, King’s team developed an online system that narrows data for Rhode Island from the national agricultural census. The data she downloads ensures an updated an accurate vision of data points across the state. The national census records the number of farm jobs statewide, the number of available farm jobs, amounts of particular food produced, and other similar statistics. On a local level, this information can be used by small-scale farmers to large-scale policymakers; King’s team follows the RIFPC’s vision for a networked and connected state that encourages food security throughout.
RIFPC’s long-term goal is to further develop and connect Rhode Island’s food network: reduce redundancy by building on what exists, what works, and to connect individuals to fix current food policies that might not be not working.
“It’s about forming networks, it’s about helping where help is needed, it’s about giving expert advice in different areas when asked for,” Dawn explained. The Rhode Island Food Policy Council is forming people-to-people connections in a people-to-people industry. Imagine the potential, when engaged and passionate stakeholders partner with food producers and consumers in communities across Rhode Island.