Local Food System Policy

By Lindsey Day Farnsworth, University of Wisconsin-Madison


General description

Food policy consists of laws, regulations, decisions and actions by governments and other institutions that affect food production, distribution, consumption and disposal. Local (municipal, county, township) public policies — such as land use controls, zoning ordinances, health codes, and regulation of food processing and transport—have a great impact on community food system practice. Public policy is also critical to the development of food systems infrastructure, which it shapes through a combination of incentives, direct investment, research funding, and training. Finally, failure to fund public programs, or the omission of activities, such as agricultural uses in a municipal zoning code, can have policy implications just as specific actions do.


Food Policy Councils

Most local governments do not have departments that oversee the full spectrum of agri-food activities. Instead, policies and regulations that affect food systems are determined and implemented across variety of departments, which sometimes results in contradictory policy outcomes.  For example, an economic development agency might promote mobile food vending as strategy to spur small business development only to discover that the public health department’s requirements for mobile vendors make such businesses cost-prohibitive. By convening actors from across the food system in a city, county, region or state, food policy councils can help facilitate coordination and communication within and between local government agencies and foster increased collaboration between government and members of the community and private sector, such as institutional food service operators, farmers, food business entrepreneurs, public health professionals, food security and food justice advocates, and others.
Food policy councils can be integrated into municipal government or can exist independent of government bodies. Councils initiated by and located within government agencies often benefit from the support of government staff and tend to have more clearly defined mechanisms for developing and promoting local food policy and programing. However, some food policy councils have chosen to remain independent of local government because bureaucratic processes can sometimes delay community-driven initiatives while changes in local political leadership can disrupt the resources allocated to food policy councils. Regardless of where food policy councils are seated, they generally include representatives of local government to assure access to government for the development of policies that support community and regional food systems. 


Local Policy Interventions across the Food Supply Chain

The chart below provides examples of local level policy interventions designed to promote sustainable community and regional food systems by increasing the production, processing, consumption and disposal of local and nutritious food.


Table 1: Local Policy Interventions to Promote Vibrant Community and Regional Food Systems

Phase of Food System

Land-Use Controls

Economic Development Incentives

Licensing & Regulation

Programs & Services


Institute urban agriculture ordinances that designate appropriate types of agriculture as approved land uses

Institute local food procurement policies for city departments

Permit on-site produce sales at urban commercial/market gardens

Provide vegetable gardening classes and resources through municipal Parks and Recreation departments


Industrial retention through zoning & comprehensive planning to preserve sites for food manufacturing in metro areas

Establish agricultural processing renaissance zones


Offer incentives to certified commercial kitchens that make their space available to schools and food business entrepreneurs for food

Publicize state-level cottage industry laws that permit limited sales of home-processed foods


Provide cooking and food preservation classes through municipal Parks and Recreation Departments

Distribution and Retailing

Make farmers’ markets approved land uses and relax zoning codes to allow them to locate in a wider range of sites in residential zones and in commercial zones without public hearings


Provide flexible  zoning regulations (e.g. set-backs, parking requirements, and height  restrictions) for grocery stores locating in under-served areas

Leverage municipal /county resources to fund or conduct feasibility studies  of metro-area food hubs

Leverage CDBG funding to increase produce offerings at bodegas and corners stores in underserved neighborhoods

Provide grocery store attraction incentives  for underserved areas (e.g. fast-track permitting for full-service grocery stores)

Promote the establishment of farmers markets on city-owned land including parks and public schools


Provide long-term lease options for community gardens on city-owned land


Public school food service directors can increase  local food offerings through the USDA’s “geographic preference” option

Ease/streamline licensing requirements for new farm stands, farmers markets, and healthy food carts

Provide EBT machines to make farmers’ markets accessible to WIC and SNAP recipients

Resources & Waste Management

Define yard waste and food scrap composting as an agricultural not industrial land use  to reduce the regulatory burden on urban agricultural composters


Align state and municipal composting land use regulations to streamline permitting process

Institute mandatory recycling and composting

Differentiate regulation and permitting requirements for agricultural (e.g. yard waste and food scraps) and solid waste composting operations



Implement a municipal household composting program

Provide composting bins to residents and businesses



Change Lab Solutions: Has a great number of resources focusing primarily on creating healthier urban food environments and reducing childhood obesity. Change Lab Solutions was a partner is the development of the Healthy Food Access Portal, a resource portal with links to a wide variety of food access materials.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance: Has a section of the web site dedicated to policy ‘rules’ – examples of municipal rules that have been enacted to support a local and regional food system (and other efforts).

Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health,  Food System Policy Program: The Center’s Food System Policy programs advance federal, state and local agriculture and food policies that protect the public’s health and the environment by supporting a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system.

Policy Link: Policy Link has a wealth of resources on strategies to improve access to healthy food. Some of the strategies are policy related, others are business or community-initiated strategies. A good place to start looking for resources is at the “Health Equity and Place Tool Group”. You can also search for publications using the search feature.

Union of Concerned Scientists, Food & Agriculture: The Union of Concerned Scientists has published a report entitled Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems. This manual recommends policies that support local and regional food systems, and analyzes the economic effects of policy changes.

University of Missouri Extension Food Systems, Urban Agriculture web site: This site features a searchable database of urban agriculture policies, ordinances and articles. The document, Urban Agriculture – Best Practices and Possibilities, provides an overview of urban agriculture and local food system resources and practices based on a survey of cities.

Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic: This initiative has developed two compilations of food policy interventions; one focuses on state-level food policy and programming while the other is devoted to local food policy. The Good Laws, Good Food: Putting Local Food Policy to Work for Our Communities toolkit provides general information and advice about several major focus areas, including food system infrastructure, land use regulation, urban agriculture, consumer access, school food and nutrition education, and environmental sustainability. 

This article is contributed by a Sponsoring Partner: The Community and Regional Food Systems (CRFS) Project is a coordinated research, outreach, education, advocacy and community engagement effort promoting the development of equitable, sustainable and just community and regional food systems that provide healthy food for all community members.  The CRFS Project is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a partnership of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Extension, Growing Power, and the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. The project works with community-based organizations in the cities of Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Cedar Rapids and Madison. The Community and Regional Food Systems Project is supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture; USDA Award 2011-68004-30044.

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