The Hunger Action Network of NYS said that the NYS Food Policy Council needs to adopt a state plan for food policy as directed by the Executive Order establishing it six years ago. The plan is supposed to include benchmarks and criteria for measuring state progress in achieving such food policy objectives.

The group said that the pending departure of the Council Chair, Commissioner Darrel Aubertine of NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets, provided Governor Cuomo with an opportunity to refocus the work of the Council.

“Recent Governors have been supportive of building a stronger local food economy that provides New Yorkers with healthy food choices. Better coordination and increased resources are needed to fulfill that vision however. The leadership has to come from the top. The Council has spent too much time just treading water,” said Mark Dunlea, Executive Director of the Hunger Action Network of NYS.

The Report, A Performance Review of the First Six Years of the NYS Food Policy Council (report here) , surveyed and interviewed members of the Food Policy Council, agency staff, and community food advocates. The minutes of the public Food Policy Council meetings were reviewed, as well as the annual reports and written testimony from a series of hearings the Council held in 2008. Food Policy Councils in other states were also interviewed and reviewed. The report also examined the work of the first Food Policy Council in NYS during the administration of Mario Cuomo that was chaired by NYS DOH Commissioner David Axelrod.

The report found that the Council itself had few initiatives it could point to as success stories over six years. The report did acknowledge that the Governors (Spitzer, Paterson, Cuomo) and individuals agencies had taken a number of positive steps on food policy such as expanding access to food stamps (including a limited match at farmers markets) and working to address the lack of supermarkets in low-income neighborhoods in NYC.

Hunger Action Network expressed frustration in the slow progress in improving government purchases of local food despite apparently strong bipartisan support for such efforts. State health officials often fail to include local food preferences in their procurement policies, and state agencies have resisted both administrative and legislative initiatives to increase the purchase of local foods. Some changes were included in the recently passed state budget to give agencies more discretion for small food contracts (up to $200,000).

Hunger Action Network said that there were many issues that Council needed to address: the rapid loss of farmland; growing problem of hunger; need for increased investment in agriculture infrastructure; health problems associated with unhealthy food choices; more support for family and beginning farmers; and impact of climate change.

Hunger advocates hope that the Council and the Governor’s office will follow through on a Task Force on Hunger that was announced in the Governor’s State of the State in January 2013. Legislation that was drafted back in 2005 by the Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy and the Senate Agriculture Committee went much further than Spitzer’s Executive Order in directing the Council to help reduce hunger in the state.

“There is a large and growing food policy movement throughout New York State. The Council needs to tap into that energy and vision. The state needs to do more to help family and beginning farmers thrive,” stated Dunlea.

“Hunger and obesity have been shown to have a paradoxical link. With obesity rates rising in a country where millions are starving something clearly needs to be done to expand regular accessibility to adequate food amounts. Such a problem is a task the NYS Food Policy Council could work towards by pushing for expansion of the SNAP program as well as other food assistance programs,” stated Emily Manez, one of the co-authors of the report.

Dunlea also noted that Food Policy Councils are rapidly expanding throughout the country, with nearly 200 in existence. Many have begun creating Food Policy plans. Fourteen states now have state level Councils. More law schools and universities, including several in NYC, are now offering academic programs on food policy and could be tapped into for research.

Dunlea noted that the problems often lie with the follow through. “A key role of the Council is to bring together state agencies to work across program lines to resolve barriers. The devil is often in the details. It is not enough to state support for a goal. There is a lot of agreement over where we need to head. Leadership and problem solving are needed to achieve those goals,” added Dunlea.

Hunger Action Network said that the Council needed more staff support. The needs in the state always exceeds the state resources, so the Council needs to be more vocal in building support for investments in food policy and agriculture issues. An additional change to improve coordination among agencies would be to place the Council under the direct control of the Governor’ s office rather than Ag and Markets.

Hunger Action Network has also long advocated for the Council to establish a strong advisory council to provide a mechanism for a wide range of stakeholders to provide input into the Council and to assist with things such as research. The Council recently said it would create a subcommittee to allow local Food Policy Council groups to interact with the state, a positive development.