New Haven is known for its clam pizza and Foxon Park soda. But the city is not just an innovator when it comes to food itself: it has also taken a singular approach to food policy.

The Food System Policy Division was founded in 2016 as a result of local advocacy. Since hiring Director of Food System Policy Latha Swamy ENV ’16 in 2018, the department has expanded steadily, receiving nearly a million dollars in grant funding in the past year and taking on a variety of projects. This year, the division’s goals include mapping the possibilities for local urban agriculture, helping New Haven institutions improve their food procurement practices and expanding composting services. 

“Our mission is to support and help manifest community-led efforts that envision and create an environmentally sustainable and socially just food system,” Swamy said.

Although the FSPD is small — it has three full-time employees — it is unique that it exists at all. Swamy said that only 20 or so cities in the United States have a food policy director. 

Despite the lack of broad public recognition, advocates see food systems as a crucial and multifaceted area of local policy.

“Food is central to life, and the economic and racial and geographic systems of our country are inherently built with inequities in place that make it so that people don’t have equitable access to food, to funding,” said Tagan Engel, a community organizer who advocated for the establishment of the FSPD. “We need somebody in a leadership role to help create new systems to address the systemic inequities that exist in our city. There’s only so much we can ask of nonprofits.” 

The department takes a broad approach which highlights how food is connected to health, poverty, the environment and systemic injustice. Emergency food services are important, especially since COVID-19 increased food insecurity in New Haven, and the FSPD has played an active role in supporting them. For example, the division’s Square Meals program partnered with local restaurants to provide food to residents in quarantine or experiencing homelessness.

But Swamy noted that the division wants to do more than create “downstream solutions” that center on emergency food services. Instead, its members aim to focus on the root causes of food injustice and push for systemic change. Key to that work is the active engagement of community members in food policy work. 

From opaque bureaucratic processes to outdated zoning policies, “there are several municipal and systemic barriers that exist that prevent residents from fully benefiting from a just and thriving food system in New Haven,” Swamy said. “Throughout all of our projects, we aim to shift decision making power and resources directly to community members in an effort to increase community ownership, protect against displacement and gentrification and to support antiracist, people-driven policymaking that is clear and easy to navigate.” 

One example of that people-driven policymaking is the division’s urban agriculture plan. In 2020, the FSPD received a USDA grant to support the creation of the plan, which will explore the barriers to and opportunities for local food production.

Food Policy Analyst Kimberly Acosta said that the division recently organized a diverse community advisory board in which nearly 60 paid members are co-leading the creation of the plan. This year, board members will also start canvassing neighborhoods to ensure all New Haven residents can contribute to the process. 

In this and other projects, the FSPD has made language justice a priority. Outreach and application materials for the board were available in eight languages. Moving forward, the division plans to create multi-format and multilingual urban agriculture toolkits that are digestible for all audiences. Acosta noted that urban agriculture has historically been a catalyst for gentrification and displacement. She said she hopes that in New Haven, local food production can instead be a force for “diverse and representative leadership, community ownership and equitable access to benefits.”

“I think the work that [the FSPD is] doing with the urban agriculture planning process really manifests a lot of the practices and values that our whole community that set up their division has, which is to actually engage with people who are directly impacted by issues like hunger or lack of green space,” Engel said. She added that the FSPD has continued to regularly meet with local organizations like Witnesses to Hunger and CitySeed. 

Although the plan is still in its early stages, Acosta told the News that it will contain three “thematic pathways”: addressing policy and zoning barriers to local agriculture, analyzing New Haven’s economic ability to support urban agriculture businesses and identifying resources for urban farmers. The FSPD is also exploring urban agriculture policies in other cities, from Boston’s freight container farming to Cleveland, Ohio’s urban agriculture innovation zone. 

In addition to supporting local growers, the FSPD aims to assist small food entrepreneurs. The department has multiple projects in the works related to “equitable food-oriented development,” which Food Policy Analyst Lexi Basile described as “a development strategy that uses food and agriculture to create economic opportunities, healthy neighborhoods and explicitly seeks to build community assets, pride and power.”

One piece of that equitable development involves helping residents navigate the process of starting a food-related business. In addition to responding to requests for guidance about licensing and permitting, Basile said the division is working on a set of interactive resources to help aspiring entrepreneurs as well as planning community roundtables to gather input on current policies related to food businesses. 

The division also wants local institutions to support these small businesses. Basile said the FSPD’s Good Food Purchasing Program promotes values-based procurement, in which institutions use their purchasing power to support local businesses, environmental sustainability, ethical labor practices, animal welfare and good nutrition. 

As a first step, Basile said the FSPD has partnered with New Haven Public Schools to assess their procurement practices. 

“There’s a lot of stuff going on as far as attempting to source locally and things like that,” Swamy told the News. “We think that we are probably doing better than many people may believe. We just don’t have the data and the nice graphics to show where we’re at.” 

The FSPD is also working with local groups to expand municipal composting infrastructure. 

Prior to the creation of the FSPD, New Haven had a volunteer-based Food Policy Council. 

Correction, Feb. 4: This article was updated to accurately state Lexi Basile’s title. 

Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.