When it came to building a just, equitable and sustainable food system, the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council opted for a collaborative approach. 

The council partnered with the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Health Department, American Heart Association-Greater Pittsburgh and One Pennsylvania to create the PghFoodTeam, which launched the Pittsburgh Food Equity Ambassador Program in June. The grassroots effort helps develop community connections, leadership and advocacy skills, and partnerships with local government to find food policy solutions together. 

The Pittsburgh Food Policy Council is being supported in its work through the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge. Funded by the Aetna Foundation, the challenge is a partnership between APHA, the National Association of Counties and Healthy Places by Design that supports 20 community groups in 11 states as they address local health challenges.

"With this program, we've created a space to listen to residents, a way for them to chart their own understanding of solutions to the problems they’ve faced or seen happening around them,” said Dawn Plummer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, who spoke with Public Health Newswire about the group’s work.

What problems are the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council and its partners trying to address, and how does the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge further the work?
We’re reimagining our region’s food system with community-led solutions and policies that promote access to foods that support healthy eating patterns. Redlining, historical disinvestment and housing policies have led to very segregated communities. If you lay down maps of poverty, vehicle access, racial segregation, you’ll see that often our communities most impacted by food apartheid conditions are African American, even though those residents make up only 23% of the city’s population. 

There may not be a grocery store, or healthy food access, but there's a Dollar Store and access to fast food or convenience foods with low nutritional value or to low-cost groceries that are maybe not the most nutritious. We need to think about our food system not only as crucial for healthy people, but also for healthy communities. Food creates connections between people. The corner store, the local co-op, community garden, farmers market — these make up the fabric of our neighborhoods. Farmer Rafael Vencio speaks to council members

The council worked to develop new direct channels for resident engagement, leadership and coordination on food systems issues in partnership with local government to engage residents more directly in identifying the problems and finding solutions, especially people who have first-hand experience with food insecurity. When the challenge grant opportunity came up, it was kind of beautiful. We could create a pilot program that offered compensated learning opportunities and action steps for residents.

Where did you start?
We got together the members of the PghFoodTeam and thought about what we wanted the new program to be, what the goals were and how we were going to pull it all together. Then we determined the criteria for selecting 14 members for the first cohort of the Pittsburgh Food Equity Ambassadors program, put out applications, conducted interviews. We got a great response.

We wanted people who live in the city’s Healthy Food Priority Areas — where residents lack consistent access to healthy food — who were open to this idea of coming together with other residents to tackle food and health equity questions. And we wanted all nine Pittsburgh City Council districts to be represented to create a racially and economically diverse group covering a range of ages. 

What was the game plan, and did it go smoothly?
We knew we wanted an actionable outcome that people felt good about. We didn't want to just sit around and do a focus group and write a report. We were in discussions still when the variables changed just before the launch. The incumbent mayor lost the primary election in May, so the city partnership we were working to build with this program was suddenly gone, and a whole new administration would be coming in. 

We started to ask, how do we work more closely with this new administration to center food not just as an afterthought, but as a public policy question? We decided to really focus our efforts on developing a list of priority recommendations, putting as much detail into that as we could and then presenting it to city decisionmakers.

How did the recommendations come about and where do they stand now?
We met every three weeks on Zoom, and visited an urban farm together, to talk about what a healthy food environment looks like and brainstorm topics that were really important. We heard a lot about emergency food access. Many of our ambassadors were either themselves impacted by food insecurity during the pandemic, or they saw their neighbors in need. 

It was humbling to hear those stories and understand what the needs are, but also to hear community members come up with solutions. We're pretty far down the road on the final recommendations list, though it’s still in draft form. 

What are the next steps?
Pittsburgh recently elected a new mayor, Ed Gainey, who we are very excited to work with, as we see a lot of potential for collaboration. He actually ran on a platform that puts public health at the center, and we’re hoping the ambassadors will be able to meet with him once he's inaugurated in January. 

We plan to present the final recommendations later this month to the city council, so we’re conducting advocacy training sessions with the ambassadors now, in year two of the grant, to prepare them. We’re hoping a lot of them will continue on in the second cohort of ambassadors and that we can increase our number of in-person activities. We want to build a community of people who are dedicated to these issues and come at them from different points of view. 

The Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge is designed to accelerate systems-level approaches to improving community health. Find out more and read the challenge blog.

Farmer Rafael Vencio speaks to Pittsburgh Food Policy Council members and others during Pennsylvania Urban Agriculture Week in July. Courtesy Pittsburgh Food Policy Council