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Rochester seeks ideas for new citizen-led food policy council

Beth Adams/WXXI News

The concept of a citizen-led council to inform the community's approach to health and food equity has been discussed in Rochester for decades, according to City Councilman Mitch Gruber.

Now, Foodlink, Common Ground Health and the city of Rochester say it's time to create a food policy council.

"We do not have any designs around what this should be," said Gruber, who is also Foodlink's chief strategy officer. "We're going to use experts and consultants from places like Johns Hopkins to help us figure out makes sense here."

A food policy council, explained Gruber, is a way to engage residents around food policy in a way local municipalities don't often consider.

For instance, he said, a council in Oklahoma proposed changes to zoning laws to improve people's access to healthy food. Another approach could be requiring corner stores to offer more healthy options.

For more than a decade, there have been several attempts to create a food policy council in Rochester that were derailed. Gruber said one of the barriers has been determining the geographic scope for such a body.

"For me, the city of Rochester, a place where we have the most people and the most people who are experiencing the most health disparities, that is my focus," said Gruber. "But it's very difficult to focus exclusively on an urban area when most of our food is produced in rural communities."

This time, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down -- but not stalled -- efforts to create a food policy council.

Those efforts are getting a boost from a $100,000 grant from the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge.

The money might be used to bring experts to Rochester to help with the formation of a council and to send local council members to other cities to learn how their councils work.

Gruber doesn't think there will be any lack of citizen engagement locally. Last December, Foodlink screened the film "A Place at the Table" at The Little Theatre to gauge how much people cared about the issues of health and food equity.

"In fact, it was one of the snowiest nights of the winter and we got 150-plus people coming to The Little for this film," he said. "We know the interest is there."

Those interested in learning more about a Rochester food policy council can attend a virtual info session. Three Zoom meetings are scheduled this month:

Thursday, August 20 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Wednesday, August 26 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Thursday, August 27 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

The agenda for the meetings will include a discussion of what food policy councils have looked like in other cities, what has and has not worked, and how people can get involved.

Gruber said he wants "many, many people to show up so that when we talk about next steps, we have a big group of people coming with us every step of the way."