“Little p” and “Big P” Policy: Paths to Improve Our Food System

It’s a Complex System – Where Do You Start?

Policies and laws affect our community and regional food systems in many different ways — from federal regulation of school lunches and food safety practices to state codes for environmental health and construction, from county zoning requirements to city ordinances regulating backyard chickens, and from your local hospital’s healthy vending machine rules to your local college campus’ local food procurement policies. These rules, regulations, and policies shape how food is grown, processed, packaged, sold, donated, bought, consumed and disposed across the entire food chain. It can feel intimidating to think about where to begin to affect policy changes that make tangible improvements in such a large and complex system.

Breaking Down policy vs. Policy

Comparing  “little p” and “big P” policy, as different levels of policy, can help food councils and advocates better understand where they can make a difference across the broad spectrum of agricultural and food policy. Breaking down “little p” from “big P” can help determine exactly where to spend time and resources advocating for winnable food system improvements.


“Little p” policies are typically at an institution, department or agency level and generally influence organizational practices. One example of a “little p” policy is a healthy vending machine requirement. The Board of Directors for a hospital can make a decision to only stock vending machines with healthy food and beverage choices. This policy could have an immediate impact on what kinds of foods hospital visitors are consuming. These types of policy changes can actually create quick wins and can sometimes lead to larger changes that typically are not as labor-intensive as “big P” Policy changes.


Changing organizational policies to provide healthy snacks at meetings and events is an example of little ‘p’ policy.

Some other examples of “little p” policies:

  • Organization passes a healthy snack policy for all meetings and events
  • School allows leftover packaged food to be shared between students and teachers (example: “Share Tables”)
  • Local restaurant association adopts a living wage policy for its members
  • Preschool decides to procure 10% of its food from local producers
  • Food pantry decides to provide 15% fresh foods to its clients
  • North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s (NCDPI) memo on GAPs certification that instructs individual county school boards to carry their own separate liability insurance policies if they wish to purchase non-GAPs certified foods.


“Big P” policies, like state or federal law, city ordinances and comprehensive plans, typically need elected officials’ approval and are generally more difficult to influence than “little p” policies. We typically hear about these policy changes more often because they receive lots of media attention or take a long time to pass. The farm bill is the strongest example of a “big P” policy in the fields of agriculture and food security. The farm bill can take years to form its many components and goes through a complex federal legislative process that is marked by high amounts of competitive lobbying from the agricultural, food and biotech industries, as well as national groups working to support farmers, food assistance, and conservation interests. The number of stakeholders and gatekeepers involved in the farm bill reflects why ‘big P’ policy change can be much more time consuming and difficult to move forward. Although it takes significant time and investment, when ‘big P’ policies are improved, the implications for change can be far reaching – affecting a much larger population rather than just one organization or department.


In order to get mobile farmers markets into neighborhoods, Charlotte Mecklenberg Food Policy Council worked with the City Council to change zoning ordinances to allow selling in residential areas.

Some other examples of “big P” policies:

  • City passes a tax-incentive to grocery stores that open in food desert areas
  • State increases funding for conservation easements in their state budget
  • County implements a composting program to divert food waste from the landfill
  • County updates their local zoning ordinance to allow for shared use of agriculture and solar on farmland
  • City adopts zoning ordinance to allow mobile food vendors in residential areas as a way to increase healthy food access in food deserts
  • City changes local zoning ordinance to allow food grown on residential land to be sold under farm business permit
  • Congress authorizes an increase of mandatory funding to the Value-Added Producer Grant Program in the farm bill

Interpretation and Implementation

You may notice, even with the examples listed above, whether a policy is ‘little p’ or ‘big P’ is sometimes a matter of interpretation or implementation, and may also depend on which county or state a policy is being implemented. One example that can be an issue for many urban farmers is the interpretation of ‘permanent structures’ on urban farms. While most cities do not allow permanent structures on urban farm sites, high tunnel structures often fall into a grey area. A farmer or gardener’s ability to install these structures may depend on the interpretation of the ordinance by the zoning official you talk with or the level of attention your structure raises for neighbors or city officials. One example of policy implementation is the way the USDA managed loans and programs with African American farmers between 1981 and 1996. While the official USDA policy on qualifying and enrolling in these programs was not overtly racist, the way the loans and programs were implemented locally disenfranchised African-American farmers and communities; ultimately it took a multi-million dollar lawsuit to end those practices.

Stories of Policy Change

At Community Food Strategies we are working to share the stories of local food councils across North Carolina as they engage in both ‘little p’ and ‘big P’ policy change. Councils are encouraged to submit their own stories, and we will support your council in crafting and refining your story to share with the world.

  • A Funding Mechanism to Spark the Local Food Economy tells the story of Cabarrus County and their efforts to create an Agricultural Development and Farm Preservation Trust Fund – a “big P’ policy that has generated over $1.5 million in funds that the County uses to support local food and agriculture.

Build Relationships, Be Strategic

Taking on food systems policy change is doable, especially when you understand that policies are simply a set of rules that guide our organizations, institutions, and laws.

Start by understanding the issues and identify where you, or your food council/organization, have the capacity to shift policies, rules, guidelines or laws towards supporting healthy food and farming practices. “Little p” changes are an excellent place to start, and offer an opportunity to build your network of people engaged and affected. Regardless of what level of policy change you are trying to affect, it is important to build relationships and rapport with food system decision makers, as well as to be thoughtful and strategic in both your networking and your advocacy. Please visit our Strategic Advocacy Toolkit to learn more about planning for and engaging in thoughtful advocacy and relationship building with policy makers.  

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