Stakeholder engagement is a vital tool NGOs use to influence policy

By Kaley Necessary, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

At the end of an intense week of learning, networking, and immersing ourselves in food policy work in Washington, D.C., my graduate cohort had the opportunity to hear from a panel of non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders who shared their valuable experiences in advocating for farm and food policy change.

The panel included the Executive Director of the Agua Fund, Ann C. Mills, founding director of the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (AAAS EPI Center), Dr. Michael Fernandez, and Swette Center Senior Fellow and well-known Washington, D.C. based federal farm, food, and environmental policy consultant, Ferd Hoefner. These three leaders have participated in panel discussions with Swette Center students in the past and more detailed information about their work can be found in a previous student blog. Brian Ronholm and Doug O’Brien also joined the panel discussion. Brian Ronholm serves as the Director of Food Policy for Consumer Reports, leading the organization’s food system advocacy efforts. Doug O’Brien is the President and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International where he empowers businesses and communities to embrace the cooperative business model.

Michael Fernandez kicked off the discussion by sharing that AAAS EPI Center exists to build trusted partnerships and relationships between scientists and decision-makers at all government levels. Michael’s group focuses primarily on state and local policy change, providing scientific evidence to support decision-making, and increasing the ability of those decision-makers to access scientific information. Fernandez noted that at state and local levels, decision-makers have a more difficult time accessing information compared to federal decision-makers. While AAAS EPI Center doesn’t advocate for any particular policy outcome, the group acts as a convener of information to translate science into policy change. Because their team is small, Michael’s group approaches relationship building in a unique way by mediating engagement between scientific experts and civic-intermediary organizations (e.g., national associations) who have access to decision-makers of interest. AAAS EPI Center works on a variety of issues including election security and voting technology, PFAS chemicals, green infrastructure and nature-based solutions, and water management.

Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports is well known for its review of cars and electronics. Formerly referred to as Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports promotes food safety and nutrition issues including threats from pathogens, chemicals, and nutrition-related information that faces the consumer. They also work on sustainability issues related to food waste. As Director of Food Policy, Brian Ronholm works to advocate for a fair and just marketplace for consumers. At the state level, Ronholm is currently engaged with California to ban certain chemicals in processed foods. He also shared that at a federal level, he and his team have been involved with a coalition of consumer groups and industry leaders to encourage transparency and reform for the FDA’s human foods program.  When asked how he manages issues, Brian said that he prioritizes policy issues by engaging with members and staying in the know about political issues of interest.

Panelist Ann Mills runs the philanthropic organization, Agua Fund, which focuses on the environment, social services, and civic engagement. The organization funds national groups, Native American and Indigenous serving groups, and provides placed-based funding including in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Colorado. Ann shared about the differences between her previous work at the USDA and her current work, stating that “philanthropic work is one step removed from action.” Striving to make the biggest impact proves difficult when working with donors with different interests. To make a more efficient and effective impact, the Agua Fund works in affinity groups with other philanthropic organizations and mission-based investors. One such group is the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF). Comprised of over 100 philanthropic organizations and mission-based businesses, SAFSF members invest over $3 billion dollars annually, including more than $264 million to support work that advances food equity, small and mid-sized farm operations, environmental sustainability, and other aspects of a just and sustainable food system. Ann also shared about their effort to move equity investments into ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) portfolios to ensure that their investments are mission-based and match the organization’s priorities. Ann explained that there is currently a large amount of federal money available to support food and farm initiatives, but these funds are often inaccessible and difficult for small organizations to apply for given their lack of staff capacity and experience applying for federal grants. The philanthropic community is working to identify how they can fill the capacity gaps to enable small, minority-led organizations to successfully compete for this funding.

Doug O’Brien is known for shifting the conversation around rural America and challenging people to consider the power of the cooperative business model. His organization, the National Cooperative Business Association, serves as the apex for cooperatives in the US, including food, farm, credit, electric, and housing cooperatives. Cooperatives are corporations that have unique ownership and control structures and are owned by the people who use the cooperative business. For example, most agricultural cooperatives are owned and controlled by farmers on a one-person, one-vote basis. In turn, the patronage dividends generated by the business go back to the farmers. This model ensures that money from the business isn’t extracted from rural places, which often happens with traditional, investor-owned large corporations. O’Brien shared with us what he believes to be the role of cooperatives in the US moving forward. There is a new value set being created today around sustainable, climate-smart practices. Doug explained that climate is the new proposition focus for rural America, citing an increased availability of federal funds for climate-smart initiatives. Small farmers are often at a disadvantage to access funding available for these climate-smart practices. Doug suggests that cooperatives can provide sophistication, a trusted intermediary, and at-scale resources for these farmers.

In his humble demeanor, longtime former leader of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, panelist Ferd Hoefner, shared that the upcoming Farm Bill was his tenth and final Farm Bill. Ferd has had the opportunity to watch the legislation evolve over the years, noting that his first Farm Bill did not have funding directly invested in conservation- a stark difference from the funding allocated for conservation in present-day Farm Bill titles. Ferd’s current consulting work around the Farm Bill includes working with groups like the National Center for Appropriate Technology, organizations working with agrivoltaics, the Savannah Institute doing agroforestry work, and the dairy co-op, Organic Valley. Ferd has worked with regional, local, state, and national coalitions of various sizes and scopes to develop coalition-based advocacy with a shared vision and strategy around food and agricultural policy. Perhaps one of the common topics of conversation throughout our cohort’s week in D.C was the upcoming Farm Bill. While Ferd is doubtful that there will be a Farm Bill this year, he is still advocating for his partner organization’s Farm Bill priorities.

NGOs play a critical role in advocating for food system change. A common theme from our panel of NGO leaders was the importance of engaging with community stakeholders, sharing a common vision with partners, and being able to effectively communicate the needs of community partners to political constituents.

This blog is part of a series from the May 2023 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.