Missty Lechner has been spending all her time with the American Heart Association in Kansas advocating for policies that increase access to healthy food. But she knows the health advocates can’t do it by themselves.
“People take food very seriously in Kansas,” Lechner said. “We can’t effectively impact healthy food access unless we engage more people. The American Heart Association can provide tools to help, but there are consumers, community groups, farmers, retailers, nonprofits and health departments in those counties that can and should lead this work.”
To engage those stakeholders, Lechner has focused on food policy councils, which are groups that can examine how the local food systems operate, and provide policy recommendations to improve those systems. In Kansas, they call them “food and farm councils.”
Many of the councils have to be established by a public resolution or proclamation, which is where the Public Health Law Center comes in. Bylaws that determine the purpose and structure of the council need to be written by stakeholders, and when resolutions are used, they need to be drafted so counties can officially form the councils.
“I am not a lawyer,” Lechner said. “The Public Health Law Center has developed a starting point and a language that communities across the state can use.”
Center attorneys have created resources on local government options to increase access to healthy food, and specifically, on creating food policy councils. “Those are the two documents I come prepared with, and have been particularly helpful,” said Lechner. “They have a credibility with stakeholders and elected officials because they are developed by legal professionals.”
Center attorneys have also attended local and statewide meetings to help build awareness and develop this knowledge in Kansas. “The Center presentations have helped elevate this policy option. I don’t have to go out and approach communities, now they are approaching me,” Lechner said.
In 2012, one council had been established in Kansas, and two more were just getting started. In 2016, ten counties had appointed councils, with efforts underway in 20 more counties. One third of the state either has a council or is working toward one.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Lechner said. “I would not be as far as I am with food and farm councils today if it wasn’t for these resources. I feel like I’m in debt to the Public Health Law Center.”