Faces of Food Systems Planning: Helen Schnoes

IMG_20150412_170915Helen Schnoes is the Food Systems Coordinator for Douglas County, Kansas. As a recent graduate of planning school, and a recent hire occupying a newly created position, Helen provides a unique perspective on defining her food systems planning work. Her work focuses on a variety of local food system development initiatives, including food hubs, farmers markets, farm to school, food policy council support, and food system assessment. She is also an active member of APA-FIG’s Policy Working Group.

To learn more about the innovative food systems planning and policy work of Lawrence and Douglas County, click here.

Kimberley Hodgson, Chair of APA-FIG, conducted this interview via email in October 2015.

  1. What is your first and last name? Helen Schnoes
  2. What is your current position? Food Systems Coordinator, Douglas County, KS
  3. How long have you held this position? Since April, 2015
  4. What do you enjoy about your work? I enjoy working with a wide range of people throughout the community, and the chance to balance an appreciation for the local context with bringing new ideas to the table and learning from the work happening elsewhere. I get to staff our food policy council, a group of 23 stakeholders who advise our county and city commissions on food systems issues. It has also been rewarding to provide a supporting role to increase public input into policy change–and learn on the ground about the technical details of these processes/policies at the same time.
  5. Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? Defining what it is! With just under 6 months at this job, I’ve learned a lot, but am still figuring out how to define the “scope” of what I’m doing. As a new role in county government, I talk a lot with my boss about what our place in the community is to support local food development and community health–and what “food systems” issues we can actually meaningfully address at the local scale. Recently, figuring out how to frame issues, especially how food “connects” issues beyond its materiality, has been on my mind. There’s a lot of powerful writing and thinking nationally about food issues and planning–but translating that into practical, on the ground action is an intellectual and professional challenge–though quite an exciting one to have the chance to tackle! On a practical level, too, I’m in a grant-funded position, so its tenure is limited in its initial composition, and dependent upon Congress. (But we are thinking about future options.)
  6. What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? It’s a mix: Local food system development, including food hub creation and fostering wholesale opportunities for small-scale farmers; supporting farmers markets; farm to school purchasing processes; food policy council support/facilitation; communications and public messaging, including a focus on health; local food system assessment (across sectors) and planning.
  7. In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? It’s everywhere! My role is funded by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant our health department received, so some of my key priorities are guided by that (wholesale local food purchasing, including farm to school and public promotion for local, healthy foods). But that work is also closely tied to other opportunities that arise in the community–including the food plan that the steering committee leading our comprehensive plan update tasked the food policy council to create for the next year, and the revision to our local urban agriculture policies, which the city commission tasked Planning with this summer. I’ve helped with public outreach and draft review.
  8. Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? With just over a year since completing my planning master’s degree, I do find that the planning lens really influences how I think about the work and how I see myself relating to the various stakeholders and community members I engage with. Attending the national APA conference in Seattle and participating with APA-FIG further help me maintain this identification with food systems planning even though some of my days are not as closely related to “planning,” per se. The chance over the coming months to help create a local food plan and update our food system assessment, however, present an exciting opportunity to really delve into food systems planning and, hopefully, anchor it locally in our long-range planning and policy priorities.
  9. What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? When our first food system assessment was conducted over five years ago, after our food policy council formed, the report pointed to local food infrastructure and food security as key areas needing attention. This has guided a lot of work since then, including creating a community garden program on city land, receiving a USDA grant to conduct an in-depth feasibility study and farmer/buyer outreach about building a regional food hub, and creating a matching program for SNAP at Farmers Markets–launched by and still partially-funded by local government. Since arriving this past April, I’m working with the core group of farmers leading the formation of the food hub and we worked with them to apply for additional USDA funds to help launch their aggregation business. Our Chamber is working with them to disburse other start-up funds our food policy council received to support the effort. Now that we’re launching an update of that first food system assessment, we’re talking about how we can integrate labor concerns, river environmental health, and even housing affordability to continue pushing how we (and our leaders) understand and address food security. Both local food aggregation (and growing the production/viability of small-scale farmers), especially in Kansas, and food security are long-term issues with many non-local influences. However, I’ve been impressed by the continued energy in this community to maintain commitment to these efforts.
  10. How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? Not a lot of people know what food systems planning is! (Although I do think my mom gets it now.) I’m still working on how to simply talk about the type of work I’m doing. However, as a young professional, I’m very excited to be entering the planning field at this time that food systems issues really are further establishing themselves within the profession. The question of scale is also very clear in my mind since taking a job in local government, and how influential state and regional dynamics can be–yet at times beyond our immediate sphere of action for the majority of our work. But, this intrigues me to continue thinking about alternative approaches, opportunities for coordination and collaboration, etc. Also: There’s often an urban (big city urban) bias to a lot of “national” conversations about food planning.
  11. Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? I like to tell people that I chose to attend Cornell for my planning degree as much for its location in Ithaca, NY, given its strong local food scene, and its standing as a land grant university with cooperative extension, as any of its “prestige.” There were so many people there that contributed to how I think about food systems and planning: Mildred Warner was an amazing (and demanding) advisor, and John Forester imbued an important level of self-awareness about the process and place of planners. I had the great fortune to overlap in my two years there with Becca Jablonski, and meet others she works with, including Ken Meter. I have a handful of peers who also pursued their own food systems planning focus and we bonded over our shared commitment to this area that many of our classmates rarely even knew existed (at first). My program also encouraged us to take courses outside of planning, so leveraging law, business, development sociology, agricultural economics, and natural resource courses provided a breadth of perspectives about issues central to food systems work. Volunteering with a community local food networking group and interning with Martha Armstrong at Tompkins County Area Development in Ithaca were very formative and helped get a bit of reality to balance my coursework “up on the hill.” From my volunteering I met Jeanne Lecesse, who now with Growing Food Connections, has provided helpful guidance about being a young planner on the job market interested in food systems. My food systems work is also very much shaped by two summers in Sitka, Alaska, and subsequent work with Nic Mink to research wild salmon and help launch Sitka Salmon Shares, a sustainable wild seafood business built upon the community supported fishery model, adapted for Midwestern consumers. Since graduate school, I’ve had the opportunity to intern with the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and work with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture–two pioneering groups in my home state who have worked for decades to build capacity and connections that have significantly impacted small- and medium-scale agriculture and the state’s local food system. I draw from all of these experiences for my current work.
  12. Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? I feel I could still gain much from what others answer when asked these questions! That said, I am a strong believer in always following your passions, putting yourself out there for different opportunities (some will be dead ends, others will work out), and having a driving curiosity mixed with entrepreneurial spirit. Find people who inspire you and from whom you can learn, and ask questions. (I’m currently reading Food for City Building by Wayne Roberts and think that’s a pretty accessible and over-arching primer for thinking about this type of work, though of course context-specific to Toronto.) The ability to think critically/creatively and make connections (with people, across issues) is really important in the rather nebulous realm of food systems planning. Take an optimistic perspective, most of the time. A lot of this work comes down to communication with others, building relationships, and thinking strategically of both the short and long term. Synthesizing information and tailoring arguments for different audiences is important. Be humble and listen. I’m hoping to build my more technical skills regarding specific policy interventions, financing options, public facilitation processes, etc. Though I don’t use it, I appreciate that I persevered through a GIS course to understand data analysis and presentation better, and how to utilize it as needed. Being able to conduct meaningful evaluation is also important. I’ve done quite a bit with Survey Monkey, for example, and benefited from exposure to survey design while in school, as well as use of Excel for basic analysis and presentation. Related–knowing where to go for other examples of food systems work, data sets, etc. is helpful and something to continually develop. (And, luckily, FIG and GFC are working on this!) I personally think there’s an under-appreciated importance for food as culture and the power of stories. I reflect on this quite a bit, even though I don’t often utilize it in my day-to-day work so far. Gravy, a podcast by the Southern Foodways Alliance, is excellent on this front and one of my favorite things right now.
  13. What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? Knowing more about local government, its processes and financial aspects, though varied across place, could have provided a richer foundation for a lot of our planning discussions. Despite getting pretty advanced with math in high school and college, I hadn’t had a statistics course until grad school, and it was a WHIRLWIND from which I learned a lot, but would have probably gotten more out of, and better leverage now, with additional coursework. When I wrote my application for planning school, I actually said that I wanted to enter the program not to be a planner, but to gain the tools of the planner to influence food systems change. However, I now have deepened my appreciation for the larger field of planning, and value that professional identity much more than I anticipated I would three years ago. So, I’m probably the opposite of a lot of planners–where I’m the food systems girl who’s enjoyed expanding my perspective through planning, instead of the planner who’s beginning to integrate a food systems perspective.

Faces of Food Systems Planning is a series of interviews with practicing planners from across North America who are engaging in food systems planning and policy work. This series is part of APA-FIG’s efforts to highlight food systems planning as an important planning topic. Click here for more information.

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