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Minneapolis 2040 was a victory — for food policy activists

community garden
MinnPost file photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
While Minneapolis is destined for higher density, food policy workers will lean on a number of policies in the 2040 plan that call for equitable access to food, healthy soil, and opportunities for urban agriculture to demand to be part of city development conversations.

While density and affordable housing took over much of the public discourse in the weeks and months leading up to the Minneapolis City Council’s adoption of the Minneapolis 2040 plan, a smaller cluster of residents homed in on another policy: what moves the city will make over the next 10 years to set aside land for urban farming.

And while the plan doesn’t go beyond saying the city should be “exploring” programs that would preserve space for growing food within its boundaries, the fact there was a policy to nitpick at all was seen as a victory in the eyes of food policy pros around the metro.

The 2040 plan rolls food and agriculture into its goals to eliminate disparities, attract new businesses, mitigate climate change, and promote resilience, touching everything from soil to food waste. Yet it represents the first time Minneapolis included any food policy in a comprehensive plan and signals that officials recognize their role in influencing what, where, how, and by whom food is grown, processed, sold, and consumed. “People have barriers to getting food and being able to profit from it,” said Tamara Downs Schwei, the Minneapolis local food policy coordinator.

“I think we’ve got a lot of great breadth and substance in all these areas we talked about,” Downs Schwei sad. But she awaits the next phase, when the city will actually implement new policies. Zoning and city code changes will make plans “feel more concrete.”

‘Cross-cutting topics’

In the years leading up to the 2040 plan’s passage on Dec. 7, representatives from the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Access Council joined city staff, including Downs Schwei, in researching groups that worked on different policies. Their task involved showing food’s connections to the rest of city life.

“Food was definitely one of those cross-cutting topics that came up in those conversations,” Downs Schwei said. “We knew in our previous work and our most current conversations that there’s a health component, but also a land use and business and environment [component], and a number of other dimensions in the way people experience and interact with food.”

But it isn’t just Minneapolis. Of the local governments in the seven-county region that are required to submit comprehensive plans to the Metropolitan Council, more than 30 included some kind of food policy, said Nadja Berneche, a consultant who has spent the last three years on a project funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention to convince governments in the Twin Cities metro area to include food access policies in their long-term plans.

Planners have shown more awareness of the link between food and other community systems, Bernache said. Job opportunities, wages, and housing costs affect residents’ food budgets, while transportation presents “one of the biggest barriers” to food access.

Such thinking is in line with how cities throughout the world are increasingly approaching food policy, said Anu Ramaswami, a University of Minnesota professor of engineering and public policy and director of the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network, which includes scientists, city planners, policymakers, and others to study ways to improve city infrastructure. She said cities are looking at their residents’ diets, capacity for producing and distributing food locally, waste, and carbon emissions linked to agriculture and food transport. “You can’t advance well-being unless you look at food systems in urban areas along with other infrastructure,” she said.

Advocates look for leverage

The extent to which food shows up in Twin Cities metro area comprehensive plans varies. As Downs Schwei attended meetings throughout the region, it was clear to her that Minneapolis’ efforts were the most advanced. But anything is better than plans written a decade ago, Berneche said, when there were zero references to food.

Since then, Minnesota put together a food charter to help make policy that improves access to healthy food people can afford, and Minneapolis has used the accompanying guide that offers policy language and other resources to help cities working on comprehensive plans.

And even slight hints at prioritizing food access gives advocates something to build on. And when it comes to bigger potential fights over city resources and land use, comprehensive plans offer leverage.

Take land use as an example. While Minneapolis is destined for higher density, food policy workers will lean on a number of policies in the 2040 plan that call for equitable access to food, healthy soil, and opportunities for urban agriculture to demand to be part of city development conversations.

“That’s a reason why it’s important that even if there’s something small that mentions it, we consider it a win,” Berneche said. “That gives a toe-hold for a community to go back and say, ‘You said this is a priority and this is how it needs to happen.’”

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