City Governments And Plant-Based Food Policies
Climate action is a growing priority for governments across the world. And as we recognize the environmental toll of industrial animal agriculture, policies that support plant-based food are receiving more attention. Even local governments can push back against the global threat of climate change through food policy intervention.
But what does food policy look like at the city level, and what do city officials working in sustainability roles think of these policies? These are the questions explored by Mercy For Animals in their 2022 survey on food policy interventions.
Mercy For Animals conducted a survey with 50 respondents from sustainability offices, sustainability food councils, and other municipal contacts in cities across the United States. The survey included open-ended questions about how their sustainability programs related to food. Participants described (1) the practices they already pursued, (2) what stakeholders think of different plant-based food policies, and (3) what barriers exist to these policies.
Most respondents said that their offices include food activities in their sustainability programs. This usually involved promoting sustainable food choices (70%), but it sometimes entailed programs for growing food (33%), reducing food waste (22%), and promoting plant-based food (28%). Most considered sustainability in terms of food growth and food waste instead of food consumption. When food consumption was the focus, they considered the production location over the types of food consumed or a food’s carbon emissions across its lifecycle. Most offices have sustainability programs in one form or another but aren’t at the stage of pursuing policy yet.
That said, respondents listed several additional programs that they believe would be both possible and popular—like incentivizing vendors to offer more plant-based options. These incentives received the most enthusiasm. The runner-up involved taking part in specific purchasing programs like the Green Purchasing Program or the Good Food Purchasing Program. About 6 in 10 believed the public would support these policies and were confident that the office could carry them out.
Other programs were non-starters. Most respondents found outreach promoting plant-based products to be unacceptable — especially when it was framed as an animal welfare issue. And the least popular policy was a meat tax.
About 3 in 10 believed structural and sociopolitical factors create obstacles to plant-based policy. Structurally, municipal sustainability offices have limited power. They can’t tax and often don’t hold the power necessary to carry out a purchasing program. And, unfortunately, local offices don’t see sustainable food plans as a policy priority among politicians. There’s also sociopolitical friction. Conservatives may be wary of government efforts to influence buyer decisions, and liberals may find the programs culturally tone deaf or blind to the underlying inequities that lead to food insecurity.
However, many noted that plant-based food programs have their place in addressing these structural inequities. The programs could make nutritious produce available in food deserts or provide healthier, culturally relevant choices where those choices are limited. Respondents suggested food programs that celebrate the cultural contributions of differing traditions by framing food sustainability around history, inclusion, and culture.
The authors provided six broad recommendations from their findings:
- City-level decision-makers are interested in plant-based food initiatives. Advocates should talk with them about the benefits of these programs.
- Start with progressive municipalities before reaching out to conservative ones. Based on the research, progressive municipalities may be more open to discussing plant-based policies.
- Make a strong, locally tailored case about why food should be a higher policy priority. Food isn’t a top priority for many sustainability offices, so advocates need to convince them to take it seriously.
- Equip offices with resources that help reduce the capacity constraints of different programs. This includes plant-based guides and methods of tracking the emissions of different food products.
- Tie plant-based eating to local food economies the offices already support.
- Tailor suggestions to residents; there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
City governments are in the very early phases of plant-based food policymaking, but many already see the connection between our food choices and the environment. Some even have ideas about what future food programs would be most successful. With the help of civic engagement, these offices can help create a more just, sustainable, and nutritious food system for their residents.