Ten years ago, professional planners and nutritionists rarely sat at the same table, let alone shared a common vision. The recent release of the Growing Food Connections (GFC) Policy Database symbolizes the great strides that have occurred from collaborations across the planning and food/nutrition sectors to achieve policy and practice changes that support healthy communities. The size and scope of the GFC Policy Database is remarkable, considering that there were few cross-sector policy efforts and achievements less than a decade ago.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) launched one of its first investments in integrated healthy community efforts, Healthy Eating by Design (HEbD), in 2005. HEbD supported 12 community-based partnerships that served as “learning labs” for integrated healthy eating and active living strategies in schools and communities. It was also ALBD’s first opportunity to field test its Community Action Model and community change approach outside of the active living arena.
I first met Dr. Samina Raja, the Principal Investigator of GFC, during a trip to Buffalo, NY, as the partnership prepared to start its HEbD project work in 2005. That early site visit was one of the most impactful experiences of my career. Samina and Mike Ball (formerly with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus), both of whom are planners, led that groundbreaking work in integrated healthy community efforts. Spending time with them, listening to the language they used and seeing how they viewed their community gave me a new and broader lens to complement my background in nutrition and public health. After touring neighborhoods with Samina and Mike, I saw that a crosswalk is more than painted stripes, that there is an important purpose to the road medians, and that not all apples sold in the “local” markets are from Western New York.
Back then, Samina and a small group of planners wanted to encourage their professional organization, the American Planning Association (APA), to fill the gap that existed between planning and food systems. Her vision and efforts resulted in the publication of the APA’s first Planning and Advisory Service Report addressing food systems and healthy communities, titled A Planner’s Guide to Community and Regional Food Planning: Transforming Food Environments, Facilitating Healthy Eating, which was supported by HEbD and RWJF. The report provides best practices to engage practicing planners in supporting a healthy, sustainable community and regional food system.
Since 2007, the APA has made a strong commitment in the area of food systems planning, including the establishment of its Food Systems Planning Interest Group, and has provided member support to influence practice and policy. During the same time, a similar practice change occurred within my profession, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) established a Hunger and Environmental Nutrition practice group that focuses on a sustainable food systems approach.
It’s been exciting to see this type of cross-sector collaboration occur across other fields such as public health, economic development, community and development. Another tangible outcome is the rise of dual graduate programs which have produced practitioners that are making significant contributions to the field. Kimberly Hodgson, who is a co-investigator of GFC and led the collection of policies for the database, holds master’s degrees in both planning and nutrition.
These types of policy and professional practice changes provide an important foundation, with the aim that they will bolster actual implementation and transformation at the community level. Policy is only one part of a system of supports needed to embed a culture of health, and systems change is won gradually, one institutional or community context at a time. We’re fortunate to now have the GFC food policy database as a tool to assist local governments and partnerships in providing better access to healthy, local foods in communities.