A conversation with Emily Broad Leib of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Emily Broad Leib is the co-founder and director of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic. The clinic pairs Harvard law students with nonprofits and government agencies working to increase access to healthy food and assist farmers engaged in sustainable agriculture.
Emily’s work began in Mississippi, which has one of the highest rates of poverty and obesity in the country. While a fellow in the Mississippi Delta, Emily worked on simplifying and clarifying laws that prevented small-scale farmers from selling their produce in farmers’ markets and helped start the Mississippi Food Policy Council. I spoke with her about food-policy councils, small farmers, food waste, and using food as a lens for understanding a community’s wider health problems.
Why do you focus on food?
When I was in law school, my main focus was in human rights. I didn’t know anything about food, really, before I went on my fellowship to Mississippi. There, I realized that there are two major social issues facing this country where food is closely linked. One is health. We have a huge issue with obesity and diet-related disease.
The other is environment and climate change. We know that food and agriculture both contribute to climate change and we will need to have really clear mitigation plans for how to address this.
How does a food-policy council address those issues?
A food-policy council is a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds—government officials, parents, doctors, teachers, and nonprofit organizations—coming together to try to figure out how they can make local food laws better for local food systems, health, or environment. There are actually more than two hundred in North America now.
Most of them are formed when people come together and say, Our government isn’t prioritizing this but we have a lot of ideas about what needs to change. If we come together as a coalition to make decisions and set our priorities, then we can have an impact. With theMississippi Food Policy Council, for example, we changed six laws in four years . We were able to work with a food-policy council and other nonprofits to get the sales tax eliminated at farmers’ markets. Most states have eliminated sales tax on groceries, but Mississippi still has that tax. At a grocery store, it’s easy to collect that sales tax, but for farmers it was a huge barrier to entry.
Beyond Mississippi, we’ve worked with the Navajo Nation, which has a host of food-related issues: diabetes, diet-related diseases, and minimal access to healthy food. As lawyers, the project is interesting because finding a solution requires navigating legal challenges related to Navajo sovereignty. There’s been a push for a Navajo farm-to-school program, for example, but it’s been held up by the different agencies—state governments, the federal government, and the Board of Indian Affairs—that run different schools. That makes it is hard to set one general policy.