Finding Common Ground to Protect Public Health: Convening Town Board of Health Officials and Local Farmers to Support Direct Marketing and Value-added Production

Final Report for CNE12-094

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2012: $14,999.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kelly Coleman
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture
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Project Information

Summary:

The recent increase in local food sales exacerbates a tension between farmers’ efforts to grow, make, and market their products and town-by-town Board of Health regulations. In Massachusetts, Board of Health commissions and staff have broad regulatory leeway at the town level. As a result, local food safety regulations vary widely within the region, impacting profitability and ease of operation for local farms. This project pulled together best practices for regulating the safety of value-added processing and direct marketing, supported conversations with local Board of Health officials, and provided guidance and feedback to farmers.

Project Objectives:

1) Compile information about best practices and model regulation that protects public health and is appropriate to diverse local food and farm businesses.
Completed.

2) Host conversations between local Boards of Health, health officials, farmers, and value-added producers.
Adapted. Staff held one-on-one conversations with health officials and with farmers and local food producers, and functioned as a liaison in addressing areas of confusion or conflict. It became clear that a gentle touch, rather than formal meetings, is a more effective technique for managing farmer/health department relationships. We also learned that Health Department staff, rather than the Board of Health members, often lead policy decisions within their towns and are the people enforcing policy, so our work focused on them.

3) Update best practice and model regulations based on conversations, disseminate documents to local communities.
Completed.

4) Develop and share lessons learned on hosting conversations and building rapport between Boards of Health and farmers/value-added producers.
Ongoing.

Introduction:

Massachusetts uses “home rule,” a policy under which local Boards and Departments of Health have broad authority. Therefore, the regulations and policies governing direct sale of farm products at farmers’ markets varies widely from town to town. The state Food Protection Program (FPP) has released a useful document that provides local Boards of Health with guidelines for regulating farmers’ markets, but how those guidelines are applied continues to vary significantly between towns. One example of this is in the handwashing requirement: vendors that are handling prepared food are required to have access to a handwashing station. A Board of Health could interpret that requirement to mean that farmers’ markets with prepared food vendors must be situated within a certain number of feet to a bathroom with running water, which would pose a serious obstacle to many markets. CISA’s document encourages Boards of Health to allow prepared food vendors to use a mobile handwashing station with an insulated water container, soap, and bucket to catch the runoff. This is the sort of solution that has been implemented on the ground by local Boards of Health, is friendly to farmers’ markets, and requires only education of other Boards of Health in order to be implemented widely.

Research

Materials and methods:

1.      Research challenges on local level CISA staff surveyed farmers’ markets managers and vendors in order to identify towns with challenging Board of Health/farmer relationships, and to identify particular areas of concern for farmers. The survey was conducted online, and a .pdf pf the questions asked is attached to this report. We received feedback from thirty-seven managers and vendors from this survey, which was sent to over 250 people, and we had conversations with many more vendors and managers as the project progressed. The primary areas of concern were: the inconsistency between different towns’ regulations and enforcement; communication challenges around requirements; widely varying permitting processes and costs; and rules related to food sampling and cooking demonstrations. 2.      Research best practices and model regulations We conducted outreach to partner organizations, including the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers’ Market, Farm Bureau, and the MA Department of Agriculture. Several entities are also working on developing materials focused on relationships between Health Departments and farmers, and although none of those resources are complete, it was useful to learn about the issues that other organizations have identified, and other work that is being done. This outreach highlighted the gap between the norms among more urban eastern Massachusetts Health Departments and the smaller town western Massachusetts Health Departments. The Health Departments in our target area tend to be less formal and more willing to adapt policies in partnership with farmers and farmers’ markets. We also did a national search for educational materials developed by organizations around the country.  This material informed how CISA’s final material would be presented, because although the content tended to be unique to each state, the type of information that other organizations have provided and the structure of how that information was presented was useful. See attached document for examples of these resources. 3.      Development of materials Our material development focused on providing best practice guidance to accompany the state’s existing policy guidelines.  It became clear through conversations with vendors, market managers, and Health Department officials that no entity wanted to adopt additional formal policies where the current relationship is working, and where the relationship is tense, adopting new comprehensive policies would be difficult. By providing an annotated guide to the state farmers’ market guidelines (see attached document), our work will inform implementation of those guidelines and provide both Boards of Health and farmers with more resources and information on best practices. This document also includes a list of state and federal permit requirements for different products sold at farmers’ markets, and pulls together detailed policy guidelines from the state on specific products (such as shellfish and wine). 4.      Outreach Through our initial farmer and market manager survey, we identified five target communities in which to build relationships with Health Department staff. Through one-on-one meetings with that staff, we identified issues specific to those communities and were able to provide Health Departments with information on how other entities have addressed similar issues.  We also attended the regional Ag Commission Annual meeting to educate Ag Commission members about the existence of our resources.

Research results and discussion:

1.      Troubleshooting specific issues Through one-on-one conversations with farmers and Health Department officials, CISA staff was able to address specific issues or areas of confusion that had arisen between the two. In one case, a simple miscommunication left a value-added food producer believing that her town’s Health Department prohibited food production in residential kitchens. CISA staff was able to reach out to the Health Department staff to clarify the requirements. Other specific issues that CISA staff helped address included labeling requirements on processed foods, the sale of mushrooms, and the sale of milled grains. 2.      Development of new policies One of the target Health Departments that we have worked with has developed a new policy that allows the sale of food cooked outdoors at the farmers’ market. This town has three farmers’ markets, so this new policy has the potential to have a significant positive effect on individual vendors at those markets and on the markets as a whole. The development of this new policy, developed in partnership with market managers and market steering committee members, also signals a newfound willingness on the part of the Health Department to work with farmers’ market staff and vendors. CISA staff referred that Health Department staff to nearby towns which have successfully adopted and implemented similar policies. 3.      Ongoing impact of materials The impact of our printed materials is ongoing, and we will continue to spread the word about their availability throughout the spring. Thus far, we have disseminated the document to our target Health Department partners and to organizational partners, and it is available as a resource on our website (www.buylocalfood.org/resources-for-farmers/tipsheets/farmers-markets-and-health-departments/). During the coming months, we will spread the word more broadly through our email newsletter, regional and national listservs, our organizational partners, and through direct outreach to Health Departments.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Because one of our main activities was to develop a publication, this section has been covered under the above Methods and Outcomes sections.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The shift towards more farmers being able to sell more types of foods at more farmers’ markets will be a gradual one, since policies are slow to change and it takes time for markets and vendors to adapt to shifts in the rules. However, as the summer markets open up in Amherst in April, we may see hot food for sale for the first time at those markets as a result of this project. These sorts of changes will make farmers’ markets more viable entities, and will give individual farmers and food vendors more options as they consider their offerings at farmers’ markets.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

The materials developed as a result of this project can continue to be useful to communities around Massachusetts as new farmers’ markets start up, or as communities with existing farmers’ markets begin to formalize their food safety requirements. Organizations in other parts of the state could adapt our recommendations so that they are more relevant to the culture of Health Departments in their region. Because the authority extended to local Boards of Health varies widely from state to state, this project may be a useful model for other “home-rule” states.

Future Recommendations

Because local Boards of Health do have extensive control within their communities, most of the policies that cause problems for farmers at farmers’ markets are within the boundaries of the BOH’s authority. Their willingness to work with farmers, farmers’ market managers, or CISA can only be based on strong relationships. If CISA can continue to establish itself as a trustworthy and knowledgeable partner for Health Department staff, our recommendations may become normalized and widely accepted locally. There are specific types of products or preparation methods that still have unclear regulations surrounding them, including grains and wild-foraged mushrooms. CISA could work with the state Food Protection Program to develop clear policies about these products, as that department has done for shellfish and wine.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.