How local authorities can engage with food citizens

With rising global crises and shrinking funding pots, local authorities have their work cut out to help and support their communities. Thankfully, there is a new narrative of the role of public sector emerging from these uncertain times. Rather than being the overstretched service provider and answer to all our problems, local authorities are increasingly stepping into their role as facilitators and conveners of change.

So what can local authorities in the UK learn from examples in Oklahoma (USA), Reykjavik (Iceland), or Madrid (Spain)?

1. Start with a small tangible problem

How do people experience food in your area? What is their top priority when it comes to food, rather than your top priority as a local authority? How does their problem link up to your broader objectives?

For example, Oklahoma’s mayor used the fact that obesity was taboo and yet a key problem faced by its citizens. Starting conversations among people, including the mayor himself, unlocked ideas and brought food to the fore even in departments that don’t normally factor in food and health. Which leads to…

2. Connect the dots

You can integrate food in practically everything you do. Every department will have a link to food, from land ownership and planning to infrastructure support, education, and health. The real question is: is this integration happening and, if not, how can you make it happen? A hook will naturally emerge from the health and education departments, but it is worth having someone in charge of overseeing any food activities. And if you don’t have capacity to have a dedicated person with food on her/his radar, seek help among external initiatives. Is there a food partnership that can support you with that role, such as a Sustainable Food Cities board? Or is there a Food Charter in your constituency that you can support? Which leads to…

3. Ask for help

You can give a voice and platform to your citizens so they can help you with your food vision. How do you currently engage with citizens?

The Rural Youth Project engages with 18- to 28-year-olds in rural places throughout the UK (and abroad) to draw comparisons, share learnings and co-create solutions to facilitate the involvement of young people in agricultural and rural activities. Young people can talk about their aspirations, opportunities and challenges through online surveys, vlogs and at an annual Youth Ideas Festival.

Crowdsourcing isn’t just for investment – it’s for ideas too. You can tap into the collective brain. For example, Foodchain provides an online forum for its members to exchange ideas and collaborate on specific issues, for example how they can collectively tackle food waste.

There are various digital democracy solutions available for free, including CONSUL and Active Citizen. Or replicate what the Scottish Food Coalition did with its Table Talks and subsequent Good Food Nation Ambassadors. Whether it is setting up a consultation clinic or tapping into existing networks to co-create responses to your questions, there is already a lot out there to be inspired by. Make sure that whatever platform you choose, it is accessible to everyone though.

And finally… Help us!

We have spoken to many individuals and organisations that want to engage with local authorities and who believe change can begin within their local communities. However, it is often hard to know who to speak to, what the challenges that you face within your departments are, and how your particular local authority functions. Help us help you. Who is interested in food? Shout it loud and clear and citizens will come and help!