When Jerry Van Leeuwen, Director of Housing and Neighborhood Services in Escondido, California, went to the planning department with an idea for a progressive policy that had potential to increase fresh food access, he wasn't thinking about eating behaviors or health. "It started with the specific and went more global. We were trying to remove unsightly properties and, at the same time, there was a growing interest in community gardening. This led to the idea that you could put community gardens in a vacant lot."

Van Leeuwen had been attending trainings on using policy to create healthier cities. "Through these trainings I had heard about a similar policy in Park City, Utah." At the same time, a successful community gardens program was gaining momentum and master gardeners and residents alike were calling for additional community gardens.

The policy allows owners of vacant land to allow community use through a mutual agreement between the land owner, community groups, and the city. In essence, it provides a loophole by waiving traditional zoning requirements and expediting a no-fee permit process; the city absorbs the liability. "We want it to be a tool that groups have in their back pocket when they've already made the decision to do the right thing. The big advantage is that there are less hoops to jump through," says Van Leeuwen.

The policy was used by one Vietnam Veterans group who donated their property to create thirty-five garden plots for community use. The neighborhood is multi-ethnic and predominately Latino. "These residents have gained access to fresh produce," says Van Leeuwen.Keys to Success: Adopting and Implementing Local Food Systems PolicyA key to success: frame the policy in a way that ties in with local elected officials' agendas. In Escondido, where there wasn't strong initiative by local elected officials, Van Leeuwen took a different approach. He recommends working with the decision makers to find common ground on issues that are important to them. Van Leeuwen approached the policy from a neighborhood beautification standpoint - which was important to the city council. The policy also had visible support from community residents and the local gardens committee. By working with the council's priorities and gaining residents' support, projects that were important to the community - like community gardens - were able to emerge under the protection of the policy.

Van Leeuwen commented that there is still more that can be done within the policies. "Sometimes there is initial enthusiasm [among land owners and user groups], but no follow through," says Van Leeuwen. Despite this concern, the policy represents promising land-use strategies that local communities can use to support urban agriculture, increasing access to fresh food and creating a community that supports healthy eating.

From: ENACT Local Policy Database