The Food Law and Policy Clinic of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation was established in 2010 to link Harvard Law students with opportunities to work with clients and communities on various food law and policy issues. The Initiative aims to increase access to healthy foods, prevent diet-related diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, and assist small farmers and producers in participating in food markets.
Food Policy Initiative projects will help students to hone a number of skills, including research and writing of legal and policy documents, reports, and training materials; statutory interpretation, as well as drafting of legislation and regulations; conducting interviews and fact-finding with clients, stakeholders, and governmental agencies; and public speaking through conducting presentations and training. Clinic clients are located around the United States, and some students will have the opportunity to travel to the southeastern states, as we work closely with partners in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama.
The Food Law and Policy Clinic works on a range of projects each semester and during the summer. Some of our representative current projects include:
Food policy councils (FPCs) have been springing up around the country, bringing together various stakeholders such as farmers, food industry representatives, educators, advocates, and health professionals to analyze the food system and work to forge improved food policies. The Food Policy Initiative is putting together toolkits - one for local-level FPCs and the other for state-level FPCs – that describe some of the major legal and policy issues that FPCs might want to tackle in their own region. The toolkits will categorize areas of interest including local vs. state vs. federal authority over food; zoning and land use planning; school food procurement; food safety regulations and inspections; and food access. We will lay out the issues and then describe some best practices from around the country. These toolkits will be shared online and through our client, the Food Policy Council division of the Community Food Security Coalition.
The Food Law and Policy Clinic is working with the Mississippi Food Policy Council and other stakeholders in Mississippi to recommend ways to foster farm to school programs in Mississippi. Farm to school programs take many different forms, but the primary goal is to connect local producers with schools so that the schools can have access to fresh, local food and can also help to support local growers. As of now, there are no real farm to school programs operating in Mississippi. Our initial work was a report on barriers to expanding farm to school in Mississippi, written in spring 2011. This year we are preparing specific legislative recommendations that the Mississippi Food Policy Council and the Mississippi Legislative Task Force on Healthy Food Access can use for advocacy for farm to school legislation in 2012. We will next prepare a detailed guide for school food service directors regarding the legal and business aspects of purchasing from local growers in Mississippi. This project is jointly operated by clinical students in the Food Policy Initiative and volunteer students in the Harvard Law School Mississippi Delta Project.
The USDA foods program is a federal program, administered by USDA in conjunction with state distributing agencies, which purchases excess food from farmers and provides it to schools free of charge in order to supplement their food supply for the school lunch program. This year, we are preparing a report for Project Bread, a leading anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts focused on ending hunger through developing and scaling impactful solutions to the root causes of hunger, regarding administration of the USDA foods program. Our report will include benchmarks from around the country as to how states manage the USDA foods program and best practices for ways that Massachusetts and other states could improve program operation as well as the quality of school meals generally. The USDA foods program is of primary concern for two primary reasons: 1) it is responsible for a majority of protein content of school meals (and thus overall meal quality) and 2) the program is a critical financial support for local districts that can free up resources to be invested elsewhere in nutritional improvements.
Due to the growth in the number of farmers markets over recent years, many states are now looking to update their food laws and regulations to better promote food safety at farmers markets and other direct-marketing outlets. However, many farmers market managers and vendors complain that these increased regulations impede the development and expansion of markets. Farmers markets offer a great benefit to local communities, as they offer low-cost avenues for economic development and help to get healthy, fresh food out to local communities. The Food Policy Initiative is currently analyzing the food safety regulations that pertain to farmers markets in a state in the northeastern U.S. in which markets have been complaining about over-regulation. Our client, Keep Food Legal, is a membership-based nonprofit organization located in Washington, DC that works with state and local groups around the U.S., including in the state at issue, to forge food laws that make it possible for food producers and consumers to have more opportunities to grow, raise, buy, sell, cook, and eat the foods of their own choosing–including foods available at farmers’ markets.
These days, most food products we buy are produced or packaged by a company that stamps on the food items a “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by” date. These dates are solely managed by industry with no federal or state laws setting the length of time between when a food can be produced/packaged and the date placed on the package. These dates are not necessarily linked to the time by which the food must be eaten in order to be safe; however, these dates can have a major impact, as states and municipalities regulate the sale or use of food after its code date. This project aims to analyze the laws in Massachusetts and around the nation regarding the use of food items past their code date. Our client for this project is the former president of a major national food retailer who now wants to use his knowledge of the retail food industry to reduce food waste and bring high quality, excess food into food deserts through a new type of retail store that would utilize these food items. This project is jointly operated by clinical students in the Food Policy Initiative and volunteer students in the Harvard Food Law Society.
The Mississippi Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC program) is the only state program that still utilizes direct distribution of food at food distribution centers. This distribution method may be more cost-effective for the state of Mississippi, but it leads to some negative outcomes for individuals and communities with regard to access, economic development, and nutrition. During the 2011-2012 year, the Food Policy Initiative prepared recommendations for updating the Mississippi WIC program. Following publication of the report, Mississippi WIC has decided to take steps to change its distribution system from direct distribution to retail EBT distribution. The Food Policy Initiative is now working with Mississippi WIC to lay out the process of changing the system, including analyzing the steps they will need to take and recommending best practices for some of the legal and policy decisions that need to be made, particularly with regard to vendor criteria and contracts.
For updates, reports, and more information about the Food Law & Policy Clinic, visit our blog or contact Emily Broad Leib.