Melanie Pugh

Melanie PughHarvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Melanie Pugh is working at Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC). The FLPC is part of the Harvard Law School's Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain, Mass., which trains law students and assists underrepresented communities.

July 1, 2013

The Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (Clinic) helps community organizations develop their own policy priorities by providing legal research and analysis on food policy. My projects at the clinic address comprehensive food policy in the Navajo Nation, proposed FDA rules stemming from the Food Safety Modernization Act, and land loss among African American farmers in the Mississippi Delta due to "heirs' property."

The Navajo Nation project is important because residents face unique challenges with access to healthy food. First, The Navajo population is dispersed into small pockets, many of which do not have grocery stores. Second, the desert climate of the region (Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico) hinders agricultural variety, which is a significant obstacle to food sovereignty. This limits farming options at the home, school, community, and commercial levels. Finally, while many non-tribal communities support their low-income residents with SNAP (federal food assistance program formerly known as food stamps), this program’s efficacy relies on access to grocery stores. So, while SNAP is available to tribal members, it is not a practical solution. Instead, the USDA administers Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), which sends non-perishable foods, such as canned fruit, to the reservation communities. Thus, a person looking for healthy food faces significant obstacles.

The Navajo Nation recently held a Food and Wellness Summit in June, and invited our clinic's staff to present on the types of policies that are improving public health in other communities. I helped prepare the presenters by drafting a memo on the Navajo Nation governance structure, including the choice of law used by its courts and the governmental relationship with the federal government and neighboring states. I assembled a presentation by starting with the clinic's toolkit for state policy makers and highlighted solutions that would work on the nation. For the obstacles described above, we highlighted where elements of the food system are going mobile. For example, animal slaughter trucks were pioneered in Washington, and the model is taking off around the country.

We will work with the Navajo Nation to craft food policies identified through the coming months. As a starting place, I am drafting a memo that synthesizes systemic solutions such as food policy councils and state food plans.

July 18, 2013

In June, a co-worker and I accompanied our clinical supervisor to Mississippi to attend a Mississippi Food Policy Council (MFPC) meeting. Formed in 2010, MFPC is a community group of diverse stakeholders who plan state legislative policy and community events that address hunger, farming, health, nutrition, and economic development. MFPC is made up of representatives from the poultry and agriculture industries, state agency officials, university professors who specialize in agriculture, young co-op managers, community advocates from youth-focused non-profits, Teach for America volunteers, and local attorneys interested in food law.

During the meeting, the group developed plans for community events such as hosting its second annual Farm to School Conference, which connects local growers to institutional purchasers. These types of events are beneficial to farmers who want to sell directly to institutions, such as schools, but do not have the time or expertise to develop the direct sales side of their businesses. This conference gives farmers the tools they need to develop farm to institution programs.

The group broke into subcommittees to develop their policy projects. I sat in on the Food Systems and Economic Development Subcommittee, which focuses on ways to improve the local food economy. The leader suggested that they start their legislative efforts with a resolution in which the state declares the local food system a priority for economic development. The other group participants expanded on the idea and advised that legislation needed action items to be effective.

As the conversation developed, the industry representatives discuss the role of taxes and subsidies in shaping the food system, the professor offered to research quantitative support for the legislation, the legislative advocate suggested legislators to sponsor the bill, and the local attorney offered to research and develop definitions and provisions for the legislation. Ultimately, the group ended where they started, settling on submitting a resolution within the next several months while the individual members worked on developing a more comprehensive bill.

There were four other subcommittees at that meeting who were engaging in the same type of collaboration: farmers markets, farm to institution, food access, and food safety. MFPC is proud of its legislative successes over the last few years. It has drafted and advocated several bills in the state legislature, four of which were passed and signed by the governor, and several regulatory changes.

I have worked in policy before, interning at state and U.S. legislators' offices, but this platform was much more interesting to me. The legislature can be a difficult environment to maintain motivation. When I was writing for the legislature, I was writing to both sides, which hindered my ability to take a stand on issues. But this was different. Here, community members were giving up their free time to advocate for food policy; they went to this meeting to find common ground with different stakeholders, who may have been their "opposition" if the issue was being considered in the legislature. The meeting made me want to investigate the community development side of policy work. Since that visit, I have reached out to the Puget Sound Regional Food Policy Council, which is a four-county planning group in Washington, about getting involved when I return.

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