George Reistad

George Reistad, 27, is the city's new food policy coordinator. 

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

As the new food policy coordinator for the city, 27-year-old George Reistad plans to be the channel that takes the community’s concerns to the local policymakers in city hall.

“I think the role of government is to listen to its citizenry and its residents and to support the needs of those residents in that citizenry,” Reistad said. “It seeks to amplify and create power and create impact in neighborhoods throughout the city.”

Reistad previously served as the associate policy director at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on sustainable agriculture, the cultivation of local food systems and their resiliency.

Reistad is shifting his focus from state and federal programming in this area to a “Madison-centric” one and is looking forward to working closely with residents at the local level. He will be focused on sustaining existing programs like the Healthy Retail Access Program and a community garden network and will serve on the Local Food Committee.

“I think the goal with this job and what the goal has been, is it’s very community facing,” Reistad said.

Reistad will be the first person to focus solely on food policy in the city. He is succeeding Mark Woulf, the former alcohol and food policy director, who argued that separate positions would be more effective.

What will you be doing in your role as the city’s food policy coordinator?

Working with existing programs, things ranging from the Garden Network which works with city residents on community gardens, Community Groundworks, (UW Extension)… all the way to things like the pretty new Healthy Retail Access Program which works with local businesses.

I think the overall goal or objective of the food policy coordinator is, obviously enough, coordinate food policy. Again, I would say (the role) almost serves as a conduit between the community and the mayor, so you can work with members of organizations, work with the Food Policy Council, work with community residents, potentially individuals, to kind of flesh out what those issues are at the community level and then transfer to the halls of power and actually make that into something that’s implementable and impactful.

Why did you want this job?

Food is everything. No one doesn't eat, I guess, and so the ramifications of food in our daily lives is profound. From a short term perspective, there are benefits to food, but it’s more of a longer term thing: What is your relationship with food? People have memories potentially of their parents having a garden or maybe they don’t have those memories, so there's not necessarily a food heritage tapped into.

I think again there’s differing roles to what government can do and that’s why the idea of community partnership is such a huge part of this position and huge part of what this administration wants to do because we can't do everything and we can’t know everything. But when you work with community partners... you can again flesh out what those issues are and work on those things.

It's an issue that weaves itself into everything else. It’s always interwoven into other issues: How it affects employment, how it affects student achievement, how it affects these other things.

I’m not going to say that if you solve someone's food issues it solves every other issue in their life, but it is a basic issue that needs to be addressed. It’s a basic human right to have access to healthy, affordable and culturally relevant and appropriate food. So to be able to be in a position at the institutional level to actually make sure some of that happens on the ground is a blessing. It’s something that I’m very fortunate to be able to do.

How would you describe Madison’s local food economy?

You have the stereotypical image of Madison as this foodie, gourmet heaven … but I do think the infrastructure that Madison has when it comes to food systems is very impressive. We have a very impressive community garden network, which is obviously not the only access point, but we have a very impressive farmers’ market. I would say our coverage of food retailers exceed many other cities that are larger than us, some that are smaller to us, some that are similar to us.

That’s not to say we don’t have our problems, but I think that especially with the administration of Mayor Soglin that food is a priority to him, which isn't necessarily true for every other city in the country. I really think that this is something that (Soglin) cares about deeply... and that bodes well for the residents of this city.

In Madison, it’s not like other huge cities that have other huge crime problems or some of these other really deep rooted problems that can kind of refocus priorities of an administration. I really think that while there are issues, that food always stays front and center and and that makes it a lot easier to address those needs when you have the institutional support behind it.

How does institutionalizing a position for food policy change the approach to dealing with food issues?

So say this position didn't exist. It’s not like food issues aren’t going to be addressed in some way, shape or form, either from a piecemeal, institutional approach or from community-based organization taking these issues on themselves.

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And we’ve seen that, but I think with the formal institutionalization of such a position it comes back to my idea of being a conduit between the community and administration to actually take those requests, complaints, issues — when you’re actually able to condense them and bring them to folks who make the decision at an institutional level, at the city level, you’re able to offer resources that meet those needs. I think that just amplifies the power of the community.

How does equity play into Madison's food system? 

Madison has identified equity problems and again, I think that this is one of them. And things are being done at a plethora of levels. Not just on food but on transportation, on housing, on employment.

With food, equity of course is a huge issue. A lot of the time you find compounded issues in underserved areas. You have neighborhoods that are underserved by transportation. You do have neighborhoods that are underserved in terms of employment opportunity and lo and behold, in those same neighborhoods you may have crime issues or food access issues. When you talk about food equity, this comes back to food is a basic human right, and we have to look outside our normal economic and business models to provide the services and meet the needs of our residents.

I think again, some of the programs that have been created under Mayor Soglin’s administration really seek to do this. The Healthy Retail Access Program, the Allied Community Co-op is a community-driven entity that is working to establish a grocery store in that area. That’s not a traditional food retailer, so that’s kind of breaking the mold of the business plan of what it means to site food retailers. I think those kinds of innovative approaches are how we need to address this issue because the answer to these questions isn’t just one answer. There's multilateral solutions we can take.

Do you think the public market is a budget priority for 2017?

I think that if you wait, you can then just keep rationalizing waiting, so I think you have to draw clear lines on what your priorities are. And this mayor really has, with the public market and the public market district, and I think that should be a priority. It’s something that’s essential to the citizenry of Madison.

But I think that this is a service that the city just currently doesn't have. It's a new service, a novel service, an essential service. I don’t think the impacts of what a public market could actually do are even fully understood. The ramifications of what that could mean 10, 20 years down the line are huge.

For us to have things like a public market that pulls on and loops in rural producers to urban entrepreneurs and even rural entrepreneurs, that’s an economic engine that we can really get churning.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.