From the 10th to the 12th of November 2017, over 100 people from more than 40 cities came together in Essen, Germany to exchange ideas and experiences about food policy councils (FPCs, in German: Ernährungsräte). This was the first networking congress of recently created food policy councils and initiatives planning to do so in the near future in German-speaking countries and regions (Austria, Germany, South Tirol and Switzerland).
FPCs bring together diverse actors within the food system; they are often initiated by civil society and they try to shape food policies at different levels. As FPCs have been in existence in other countries for several decades, the congress organizers invited international guests from the United States, Canada, Brazil and the United Kingdom to learn from their experiences. In Germany, FPCs are a fairly new phenomenon with the first ones founded in Cologne and Berlin in 2016, followed by Frankfurt, Dresden and Oldenburg in 2017.
Being part of this rapid expansion as an accompanying researcher is quite an exciting journey. In my PhD, I´m investigating the potential of food policy councils to serve as levers for sustainability transformation. As part of my empirical research on FPCs in Germany, I have been accompanying the emergence of a FPC in the city of Oldenburg in Lower Saxony since April 2016. Just a few weeks ago, after one and a half years of preparation, the council “Ernährungsrat Oldenburg” was officially founded (21st of October). Three people from Oldenburg also joined the networking congress in Essen. Amongst them, Nina Gmeiner, member of the coordinating group of the council, very much appreciated the open atmosphere: “One thing was quite obvious: All of us have a common goal and want to support each other so that the experiment of FPCs in Germany will be successful”.
The network congress took place in the “Alte Lohnhalle”, the former wages hall of the colliery “Bonifacius”, which is part of the Industrial Heritage Trail in the Ruhr area. With its special flair, this historical building provided ample space for the large number of participants and enough rooms and corners for the numerous interactive sessions taking place over the weekend.
As a pre-event of the congress, on Friday there was a film screening of “10 Milliarden – Wie werden wir alle satt?”, a documentary by Valentin Thurn on how to feed the world in the future. The subsequent panel discussion was a great opportunity to learn from the experienced pioneers of the first FPCs in Germany (Valentin Thurn from Cologne and Christine Pohl from Berlin) and from the international guests: Mark Winne (US), Wayne Roberts (Canada), Bruno Prado (Brazil) and Leon Ballin (UK). On Saturday, the participants could deepen their knowledge in parallel sessions led by these pioneers. A take-home message for many participants in the session led by Mark Winne was “start with the doable” referring to the advice of rather starting with small projects than hard policy work in the beginning. To influence government food policies that promote justice, health, and sustainability is, however, a key purpose of FPCs that should not be forgotten over project work as the pioneer from the US pointed out.
“Do it yourself” was the motto in the afternoon sessions. The participants discussed twelve different topics around the development of FPCs, for example how to raise interest for FPCs or how to get financial support. Every group documented their main thoughts on a wall before switching to another topic. After four rounds of discussions, the walls were packed with colorful cards of ideas. In a plenary, the moderators of the sessions gave an overview of each topic. I summed up the results of the working group on success factors for FPCs: Basically, the collected aspects can be grouped as internal and external factors. In terms of external factors, participants emphasized, for example, the importance of being visible via a professional homepage and through a broad network. Internal success factors include the thoughtful integration of new members into the team and the creation of opportunities for informal exchange, e. g. after-work sessions. This latter idea linked to a topic discussed in more depth in another group: How can our work be at the same time successful and joyful? As one participant said on Sunday: “The organizers did really well. The party on Saturday night was a perfect answer to that question”.
The leading question on Sunday was how to move on from here. In the morning, several topics that came up during the previous sessions were discussed in small groups in more detail, e.g. how to pursue common action. After the official end of the congress, still about 30 people gathered in the afternoon to talk about meaningful ways of exchange in the future. Anna Wissmann from FPC Cologne and coordinator of the congress summarized: “There was so much need and willingness for exchange, so the interactive format we chose worked out pretty well. With all the interested people coming to Essen, we now know: A network of FPCs in German-speaking countries is willing to emerge from here”.
For their work in Oldenburg, Nina Gmeiner stated that they were able to learn a lot over the weekend, especially from the more experienced internationals: “After the congress, we now know much more about best practices. As a result, we can more easily decide where to invest our capacities in the future”.
For me, the networking congress in Essen was very inspiring as it proved that my ongoing research on FPCs as potential levers for sustainability transformation in the Leverage Points project is immediately relevant in a real world context. I was deeply impressed by the huge number of people united in their fascination for FPCs. Over the weekend, participants repeatedly expressed that this networking congress is the beginning of a new food movement. I am curious to see how the expansion of FPCs in Germany and elsewhere will evolve in the future.