Food Democracy Now! The Second Networking Congress of German Food Policy Councils

By Annelie Sieveking

This blog post reports back from the second networking congress of German food policy councils, which was held this year, between 23rd and 25th of November, in Frankfurt, Hesse. This event brought together food policy council (FPC) initiatives from all Germany and its neighbor countries Austria, Luxemburg, Netherlands and Switzerland. The FPC initiatives from the German-speaking countries and regions met for the first time in 2017 (for more details see my blog on “The beginning of a new food movement in Essen” from November 2017). In the meantime, more FPCs were established, e.g. in the cities of Munich or Freiburg, and the number continues to rise. Currently we can talk about around 40 different FPC initiatives that are emerging in German-speaking countries and regions.

About 150 participants joined this event in Frankfurt with the aim of (1) exchanging experiences that they gathered in the early stages of formation of FPCs, and (2) learning from more experienced experts, while (3) strengthening their networking activities. Having accompanied the emergence of one of the first German FPCs in the city of Oldenburg, Lower Saxony as part of my PhD work in the Leverage Points project for 2,5 years now, it was interesting to see the ongoing dynamic as regards new initiatives, but also to hear participants raising concerns about internal challenges and the initiatives´ real-word impact on policymaking.

As a pre-event to the congress, the organizers invited everyone to the Museum für Kochkunst und Tafelkultur (Museum for Culinary Art and Dining Culture), where the attendees were offered locally produced food and drinks such as Ebbelwoi und Handkäs (apple wine and a specific cheese). This evening wasn´t only about getting a sense of local food culture, but also about discussing food production and consumption patterns with Nik Hampel, a farmer from the region.

The congress, taking place at Frankfurt´s Dominican Monastery, officially started on Saturday morning, with two rousing welcoming speeches by two policymakers. First, Priska Hinz, the state of Hessen’s Minster of Environment, Climate Protection, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, summarized the activities at state level related to transforming the current food system, such as strong promotion of organic farming (which currently represents 14,5 percent of all agricultural land in Hesse) or long-term funding for the Vernetzungsstelle Schulverpflegung, a network on school catering. The second speech was by Rosemarie Heilig, head of the Department for Environment and Women in Frankfurt, who stressed the importance of cities to be involved in the formation of FPCs. As patroness of the FPC Frankfurt, she is very in favour of the initiative´s goals and tries to support them as much as she can, e.g. in the current budget negotiations at city level. Both policymakers referred to an emerging trend that motivates them to take action: More and more citizens seem to be concerned about food and would like to know how their food is produced and where it comes from.

In a keynote speech, Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food (2008-2014) and Co-Chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) also welcomed the congress´ participants. He expressed his fascination for seeing the FPC movement now reaching the European continent. From his point of view, there are three presumed dichotomies/challenges that seem to be relevant for FPCs: The one between invented and invited spaces, the one between representative and participatory democracy, and the one between non-profit logic and economic logic. De Schutter recommended the initiatives to “make an exercise in political imagination”: Building on the combined knowledge of the different actors involved in FPCs, this exercise might lead to new forms that benefit from the coexistence of the three dichotomies. The moderators of the congress tried to relate de Schutter´s input to the initiatives present at the congress. Referring to the dichotomy between invented and invited spaces, they asked for a show of hands indicating who initiated the council´s formation: The majority indicated being initiated by civil society instead of being invited by policymakers.

This grassroots spirit became even more apparent when individuals from 38 FPC initiatives briefly summarized their current work and their local experiences in a two-hour storytelling session. This presentation confirmed my overall observation that – since the first congress in Essen last year – on the one hand many initiatives intensified their activities and several new initiatives started their work. On the other hand, some initiatives are facing struggles with regard to the acquisition of funding or internal structures. As one member of the initiative in Gießen put it: “We are now trying a second start”.  Also in my case study on the FPC in Oldenburg, the structures created roughly a year ago when they established the council are currently under reconsideration and just a week ago, the council representatives agreed on some changes to facilitate the workflow within the council. For these initiatives, the Beratungsmodul (consulting module), provided by the Institut für Welternährung (World Nutrition Institute), might be a supporting tool. Based on the initiatives´ individual needs, the project team offers workshops in the next months to come, e.g. on internal communication or recruitment of new members.

Open space discussion on Saturday.jpg

Open space discussion on Saturday. copyright: Ernährungsrat Frankfurt

 

As the FPC movement in Germany is still comparably young, learning from international experts remains an important source of knowledge and guidance for the initiatives. Lori Stahlbrand from FPC Toronto, Canada, illustrated how FPCs can have an impact at city level and, reversely, what food can do for cities. In Toronto, they don´t only run a number of community projects but also launched a comprehensive food strategy. Despite all success, Lori also gave a warning to the newcomers on the European continent: It might be difficult to change existing structures and not all favoured policies might be implemented in the end. She stressed the importance of pursuing different strategies at the same time: Striving for changing structures and promoting pilot projects. Kenneth Heigaard from Copenhagen House of Food in Denmark presented one impressive flagship project on promoting organic food in public canteens.

How to shape public catering, especially in schools and kindergartens was also one of the manifold topics that were discussed during the open-space sessions on Saturday and Sunday. Participants from about ten FPC initiatives discussed their local approaches, for example the Bio-Regio-Woche, recently launched by the FPC Berlin, where local caterers served about 250.000 meals based on organic food from the region at schools in the city of Berlin. Having the inspiring experiences from Denmark in mind, the participants of the open-space session wondered if they should also pursue a more radical approach instead of slowly adapting existing school food requirements, which can be frustrating as some participants reported. Among them, there was consensus that it is not only necessary to change the canteen food as such. They consider education and raising awareness as key elements to initiating a transformation. Here, FPCs could potentially help bringing different stakeholders together. Also in my case study in Oldenburg, improving school food came up as an issue during the emergence of the council. Currently, they participate in the development of a new concept for school catering the city of Oldenburg.

Closing plenary on Sunday.jpg

Final plenary on Sunday. copyright: Ernährungsrat Frankfurt

 

After having discussed many more topics in the open-space sessions, the congress participants gathered for a last plenary to adopt the Frankfurter Erklärung (Frankfurt´s declaration). For Jörg Weber from the hosting FPC in Frankfurt the congress was a big success: First, “because the networking between the existing initiatives could be strengthened”, and second, “because we raised some public awareness for our concerns through our first common declaration entitled Ernährungsdemokratie jetzt (Food Democracy Now)”. This title also speaks to the existing academic discourse on food democracy: Hassanein, one important representative, sees FPCs as “a concrete example of a deliberate attempt to develop the practice of food democracy” (2003, p. 79). In my PhD research on FPCs, I am currently investigating how food democracy played out in the emergence of the FPC in Oldenburg.

 

Reference:

Hassanein, N. (2003). Practicing food democracy: A pragmatic politics of transformation. Journal of Rural Studies, 19(1), 77–86.

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