A belated eulogy for Michigan's food policy council

Dec 21, 2014 at 11:40 am

Only the most committed policy wonks noticed when it happened last week, but, by executive order, Gov. Rick Snyder abolished Michigan Food Policy Council Dec. 12. The duties of the group were to be absorbed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

What was the Michigan Food Policy Council? It was created in 2005 by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to help foster the growth and interaction of local food policy councils, with aims of creating a thriving economy, equity, and sustainability in local food networks.

What does that mean and why should we mourn the group? Well, to put it in layman's terms, our industrial food system has some problems. And that "food systems" involves everything from planting to retail sales to the management of food waste, and it's riddled with problems. Its critics have included MIchael Pollan (author of The Omnivore's Dilemma), Tracie McMillan (of The American Way of Eating fame), and Eric Schlosser (writer of Fast Food Nation), and a chorus of other activists and policy advocates. It's the subject of a spate of recent films, such as King Corn, Super Size Me, and Food, Inc. In short, this stuff is on a lot of people's minds.

The criticisms are that you have a system that revolves first and foremost around making a profit. Along the way, it damages the environment, gives its workers the shaft, and sells a product that hurts the health of those who consume it. 

Worries about the industrial food system have become widespread enough for a kind of revolution in the way many of us eat, or at the very least, giving a boost to popularity of the farm-to-table movement, locavorism, urban farming, heirloom plants, and many other of the dining and cooking trends so hot today.

Of course, as critics have pointed out, though the tastes and buying habits of individual people may change, such hot trends will not change the overarching food policy that makes people sick, damages the land, and everyone from pickers to stockers a fair wage. 

So that's how we arrive at such dowdy phrases as "food policy council," which, admittedly, sounds about as exciting as the Classic Accounting Book Club. Despite the boring name, the group did much to help other, nascent food policy groups come up with recommendations to the governor, often based on experience in the state's big cities. It resulted in voices being heard that your typical, rural-based Michigan official wouldn't have known about. Instead of people toiling alone, the council allowed them a state-level agency where they might work together.

Of course, that's history now. It was subsumed into the "Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development," an agency that certainly doesn't sound tilted toward cities like Detroit. Certainly, some saw it as the governor flipping Detroit the bird while the lame duck legislature roared out of session, with the outstate politicos whacking down a few left-leaning, urban-favoring mailboxes along the way. The wording of the actual executive order was especially weaselly, implying that the group had done such a good job that it wasn't needed anymore. Or that we aren't killing the organization, we're just consolidating its duties within an organization that sounds more or less completely inhospitable to their goals. 

The move stung Detroit's local food activists. The idea that the government may be unsympathetic to your goals is just politics, but the idea that the government doesn't even want to hear your voice on matters of public policy suggests a more hostile attitude. Activist and educator Malik Yakini has been honored by none other than the James Beard Foundation, and his group, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, runs D-town Farm in Rouge Park. Yakini told us, "Gov. Synder's elimination of the Michigan Food Policy Council seems to be a backwards move that will minimize the public voice in the creation of public policy. States and municipalities throughout the nation are creating food policy councils while the Governor of Michigan eliminates ours. In so many ways, Michigan republicans have created a template of how to cripple democracy."

Yakini's words ring true. If the right-wing machine running Lansing feels that they don't even have to listen to the opposition, let alone make deals, is that healthy for good public policy? We imagine the though must even give some conservatives pause.

And, finally, since nobody at the state level seems to speak for them, what about the millennials? What about that multiracial generation of educated, bright, capitalized young people who are remaking cities across the country by bringing their energy to them. Study after study has proved, they are intensely interested in buying local, supporting area businesses, and demand more integrity from the companies providing their food. Though Snyder and his ultra-right cronies will fall all over you declaring their love for educated, young professionals, they just couldn't resist one last chance to show you they're completely hostile to that vital cohort's values.