Do we need Food Policy Councils?

How involved should government be in our eating habits?

By Paul King, Editorial Director

Part of my weekend reading was an article about the creation of a Food Policy Council for the city of Madison, Wis. According to the article, which appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal, the 23-member council is charged with making “spending recommendations to the mayor and City Council about how to make nutritious food more affordable to low-income residents, boost the local economy and make the city healthier overall.”

Among the council’s agenda items for its next meeting, scheduled for Dec. 10, are reviewing ways to make it easier to create community gardens on city property and an examination of whether the city should restrict the number of fast-food restaurants.

The idea of a food council is taking hold in a number of cities, such as Boston, Charlotte and Portland, Ore., with similar goals in mind. (I’m guessing that New York City doesn’t have one because Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn’t need a committee to ratify his own agenda.)

As I was reading this article, I began to consider the concept. The Madison committee is a quasi-government agency—it’s publicly funded and its members are all volunteers, but it has the ear of the city’s leaders. It would seem to have the best interest of the city at heart, but as a journalist it’s in my nature to be cynical. I am a strong advocate of community gardens, buying local and finding ways to help people eating more healthfully. But I always question to what extent government should be controlling people’s lives. For example, even though I like knowing how many calories are in the food I eat, is it right for local, state or federal agencies to mandate restaurants to provide such information? In other words, how much should government be allowed to save us from ourselves?

I would love to know what our readers think. Do you have anything resembling a food policy council in your town? Whether or not you do, what do you think the role of such an agency should be? Should its role be one solely of promotion, or should it be involved in recommending restrictions?

Please send your responses to me at pking@cspnet.com. I’ll report on your comments in future blogs, and may even print some on the Opinion page of our January issue.