Local food advocates expand vision, work together on Healthy Food for All project

Last fall, two programs began to unite local players in the Madison food system. This summer, the Dane County Food Coalition and the Healthy Food for All project are fully functioning and have come to work together.

The launch of the Dane County Food Coalition was announced in October 2011 and members started meeting in January 2012, bringing together farmers and food advocates from around the county to collaborate and to minimize duplicate programming.

Around that same time, the Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin (CAC) and the United Way of Dane County applied for grant funding to expand efforts to collect and redistribute healthy, fresh food to low-income families. Instead of providing a grant immediately, the Irwin A. & Robert D. Goodman Foundation asked these groups to develop a broad, cooperative plan with agencies throughout the city.

“[The Foundation] came back and said, ‘We’d love to help you out, but before we do that, can you help us out? Can you map out the current system, identify strengths and weaknesses, identify the players, and then come up with a ten year plan to improve access to healthy food?,’” recalled Chris Brockel, manager of the CAC Food and Gardens Division .

From that request, Healthy Food for All was born. Community Action Coalition and United Way will take the leadership role on this project to assess and improve access to healthy food for low-income children. The project will also identify problems and opportunities for growth in the local food system and facilitate cooperation between food-oriented groups in the county.

“In general, interest in the food system is moving at a rapid pace: interest in access, and how to improve this thing, and how to work together,” said Brockel. 

The Dane County Food Coalition hosted the Healthy Food for All kick-off meeting in June. The Food Coalition focuses on all populations in Dane County and promotes networking within the food system, while the Healthy Food for All project focuses on low-income populations and has a plan to improve food access for those populations.

Brockel presented the goals of the program at the kick-off meeting, discussing how they’d like to draw on the expertise of coalition participants to further explore the current food system and improve it, especially with low-income children in mind.

“I think it was really well received. People were excited about it,” said Brockel. “As we talked, people were nodding in agreement… We need to put some action behind what we say.”

Healthy Food for All will go forward with a steering committee populated by representatives from UW-Madison Urban and Regional Planning, Community GroundWorks, and Second Harvest among other groups. They will meet Monday, August 27 to focus on children's food consumption in the county.

“We’re going to look at it in terms of a child’s day,” said Brockel, “from the moment he wakes up to when he goes to bed at night: what his food choices are, why those are his choices, what programs drive those choices, what [effect] personal preferences and even mass media influences [have] on those choices.”

Beyond these steering committee meetings, Healthy Food for All representatives will soon begin conducting focus groups with low-income families and children “to find out what their perceptions are and what their needs are,” said Brockel.

CAC already received $28,000 from the Goodman Foundation to get this program off the ground. Brockel hopes to receive the grant they initially requested too -- $80,000 a year for three years -- to expand their capacity to receive and distribute produce.

But the Healthy Food for All project has a different scope than Brockel’s usual work with local food and food pantries.

“We [usually] deal with food pantries and agencies and the direct selection of produce and the distribution of produce,” said Brockel. “Through this [Healthy Food for All] project we’re going to be looking at all ways that healthy foods can get into households…. If you’re [in] a low income household: What options do you have? How does food get to your table or into your belly?”