For discussion

August 2016

Cass Clay Food Systems Advisory Commission: A Multijurisdictional Food Policy Council

Abby Gold is Vice Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health at North Dakota State University (NDSU). She received her doctoral degree in Communication from NDSU and her Master of Public Health from the University of Minnesota. Her research areas include: nutrition and health education, food access, health promotion, and health communication.  In this article, she describes the founding of the Cass Clay Food Systems Advisory Commission, which is a joint effort between six government jurisdictions intended to impact all levels of the food system to assure area residents have access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food.


Both Cass and Clay counties lie in the fertile area of the Red River Valley where food is abundant, but there are still individuals who have difficulty accessing healthy food. Those individuals who live under the pressures of food insecurity are especially susceptible to purchasing readily available, low cost, highly processed foods. When purchasing a value meal at the local fast food restaurant is less than the cost of preparing a healthy meal, a disproportionate level of poor health decisions emerge, which leads to poor health outcomes, in economically disadvantaged individuals. Low income individuals often have a more difficult time accessing healthy food leading to a phenomenon known as “food poverty,” defined as having enough calories but not enough nutrients to support health and development.

Equitable access to healthy food within a community improves health behaviors as well as addresses issues of food insecurity. Enhancing access to locally grown food is one strategy that will strengthen our food system. Currently a large “local/good food” movement is taking place across the nation; our region is at the very beginning stages of this movement. A region of this size can easily support more farmers markets, community gardens, local producers, and community supported agriculture (CSAs), and would benefit from a strengthened local food system. Some of our local ordinances, as well as the current distribution of resources, prevent many of these activities from taking place. Cass and Clay Counties, as well as the cities and towns within our area, have few, if any, policies or ordinances addressing access to healthy food, urban agriculture, or local foods. As an agricultural mecca, we can readily increase the amount of food grown and processed in the Red River Valley, thereby helping ALL citizens gain access to healthy food.

The Cass Clay Food Systems Advisory Commission (CCFSC) is the first ever food policy council in North Dakota and one of a handful of food networks in Minnesota.

Members of the Cass Clay Food Systems Advisory Commission
Members of the Cass Clay Food Systems Advisory Commission.

Organized to address the burgeoning food system concerns, CCFSC was formed through a Joint Power Agreement between the City of Fargo and Clay County in the fall of 2014. The CCFSC serves as a model for North Dakota by advising jurisdictions on policies and initiatives that address access to healthy foods for all citizens in Cass County, North Dakota and Clay County, Minnesota. The goal of the CCFSC is to impact all levels of our community’s food system to assure that residents of Cass and Clay Counties have access to safe, nutritious, and affordable foods. The five year process to form the CCFSC has brought together many food systems stakeholders and community members. Numerous opportunities for members of the community have taken place for citizens to provide their feedback through events, surveys, and opportunities to serve on task forces. CCFSC membership includes five at-large members and six county commissioners or city council members, one from each entity: Fargo, ND; Moorhead, MN; Dilworth, MN; West Fargo, ND; Clay County, MN; Cass County, ND.

The CCFSC emerged from the Cass Clay Food Systems Initiative, which was formed in early 2011 through a collaboration between Clay County, MN and Cass County, ND public health agencies, and the University of Minnesota Extension and North Dakota State University Extension Service. The CCFSC has effectively sponsored and branded several projects in the Fargo-Moorhead (FM) area such as:

    • One Vegetable One Community FM
    • Growing Communities and Together Gardening Workshops
    • Ongoing Grower/Producer Convenings
    • The Mobile Garden
    • The Cooper House Community Garden
    • One Million Square Feet of Garden Challenge (with Dakota Medical Foundation)

Shanoa Marie, proud owner of this Little Free Garden
Little Free Garden is a project of Ugly Food of the North, an organization dedicated to creating a more sustainable food system in Fargo-Moorhead. The goal of the project is to foster communities committed to growing, sharing and cultivating food in small, raised-bed gardens designed to fit in residential spaces. Pictured in this photo is Shanoa Marie, the proud owner of this Little Free Garden.

Ross and Amber Lockhart of Heart & soil Farm
Pictured is Ross and Amber Lockhart of Heart & Soil Farm near Grandin, N.D. The first Ugly Food of the North event was in conjunction with the Red River Market, the downtown Fargo farmers market. The Ugly Food Market encouraged producers to bring their ugly food to the Market and patrons were encouraged to buy ugly food, make something delicious with their bounty and bring it to a community potluck.

A repackaging of "ugly" grade 2 potatoes.
Ugly Food of the North regularly volunteers with the Great Plains Food Bank. The food bank provides Ugly Food volunteers a tour of their facility and education about charitable feeding. The group then repackages foods that are donated to the food bank because they don't meet cosmetic standards. This photo was following a repackaging of "ugly" grade 2 potatoes.

Core members of the network (e.g., current CCFSC Steering Committee members) drafted language and recommendations related to healthy food access and local food systems adopted in the Fargo Comprehensive Plan that was approved in May of 2012. At the end of 2013, CCFSC finalized the Metropolitan Food Systems Plan in partnership with the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments (MetroCOG). From this planning document, core members began to engage in more policy focused work by supporting the formation of the CCFSC that directly advises municipal and county officials to address the following key issues:

  • Food insecurity: The number of residents accessing local food shelves and participating in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has increased over the past few years indicating there are many opportunities to increase local food consumption.
  • Food access: Food deserts are emerging within the FM area, which indicates that some neighborhoods are isolated from grocery stores, community gardens, and other market places that sell and distribute healthy food alternatives. 
  • Local food interest:
    • Perform market analysis and research regarding the local food system within the FM area.
    • Reduce barriers for institutions that want to incorporate local foods.
    • Foster local cooperation and a local food distribution network.
    • Foster the recognition of the local food system by local governments for improved land use, zoning regulations, and community planning that supports access to healthy and local food.

The CCFSC meets every two months since forming in early 2014. The commission approved several policy documents, called blueprints, which lay the groundwork for ordinance and policy development for things such as community gardens, backyard beekeeping, backyard chickens, hoop houses and backyard composting. Commissioners are engaged in the process and work of the commission, and there is growing attention and understanding in the community about urban agriculture. The work of policy, systems, and environment change is a long term commitment. The CCFSC is a fully engaged, multijurisdictional advising body intended to create sustained food systems change in the community, and increase access to healthy food for all residents.

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