Faces of Food Systems Planning: Ben Kerrick

Ben Kerrick head shotBen Kerrick has been a consultant with Karen Karp & Partners in New York City for nearly three years. Ben has a wide range of life experiences and technical expertise, all of which he brings to bear on his work as a food systems planner. With nationally renowned food system consultant Karen Karp, Ben co-hosted the 2015 Heritage Radio Network podcast series, How Great Cities Are Fed. Inspired by W.P. Hedden’s 1929 book of the same name, Karen and Ben examine food systems in historical and contemporary terms through topics such as refrigeration, foodsheds, transportation, and “the middlemen.” Karen and Ben are joined by guest experts and friends from the food sector as they delve into the issues and hidden workings of how our great cities are fed.

This interview was conducted via email on July 5, 2016, and was edited by Marcia Caton Campbell. She highly recommends binge listening to How Great Cities are Fed on your favorite podcast subscription service.

What do you enjoy about your work? We work all across the food chain, and as consultants our work is project-based, so there’s a tremendous variety and dynamism to the work – no two days are the same. So far this year my work has included designing a kitchen and café program for a social services non-profit, assessing a food bank supply chain, developing a concept for a new food education hub in a small town, and researching feasibility and market demand for a new slaughterhouse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. So it’s really engaging, and we often get to see the way our work impacts organizations and people in tangible ways. I also get to make maps and other data visuals fairly often, which I get a big kick out of. And, you know, I love to eat, so I feel pretty lucky that I get to talk and think about food every day.

My background is in the arts – I have a degree in theater, and I spent five years working for a New York City arts non-profit – so I also enjoy being able to draw on that experience whenever I can, whether in our event design projects, or by engaging with artists and designers whose work deals with issues of food, agriculture, and sustainability.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? There’s so much to learn. Food systems are so complex – I sometimes feel overwhelmed by how much I don’t know. But that’s also what keeps it exciting and interesting, and I learn something new every day and with every project. I ask a lot of questions.

Another challenging and engaging dimension of food systems work is that food is so fundamental to daily life – we all eat, everyday – so people have strong personal feelings and opinions about food, and the stakes often feel high. But that also convinces me that this work matters. And it’s rewarding when you can work with a diverse group of stakeholders to find some new solution to a gap in the food system.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? As I mentioned, we work all along the food chain. I’m the only one trained as a planner on staff, so I do tend to work on the more “planner-y” projects – community or regional food assessments, economic development through food business, things like that. I’ve also done food access-oriented work with food banks and social services organizations. We do event design and facilitation for food-related events (such as the James Beard Foundation Food Conference), and with my background in theater and the arts, I work on those as well. Others in our company focus on different areas, like culinary education, supply chain analysis, and program design and evaluation (though much of my work touches those things too).

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most or all of the work I do addresses food systems issues. It just depends on the lens you’re using, and how explicit it is. Sometimes it’s a community saying, “Research and assess our food system, identify issues and needs, and help us find opportunities for improving it.” Other times it’s an independent entity like a non-profit or business doing something that touches food, and we’re working on some narrow component of it – but even in that case, the first thing we do is always to contextualize that program within the larger food system.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Absolutely. All of my work relates to food systems planning in some way.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? I came to the broader field of planning by way of food systems planning – not vice versa. I went to graduate school knowing I wanted to study food systems, and did dual Master’s degrees in Environmental Science and City & Regional Planning. So I entered the urban planning world sort of thinking everyone else would be as excited about food systems as I am, which needless to say wasn’t exactly the case. But I was lucky that there were some great food systems-oriented opportunities in my planning program, and I’ve been very lucky to continue that trajectory into my current work.

But I think food systems planning is still kind of a blip in the larger world of planning. In most contexts, when I’m talking to someone new, I have to explain what food systems planning is – the phrase alone usually elicits blank stares. I go to a monthly happy hour with LGBT urban planners, and even people I meet there – practicing urban planners! – don’t usually know about food systems planning as a field and discipline. I experience the same thing at the APA conference. That all being said, I do think there’s more and more food systems planning happening out there, and I think it will continue to grow.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? Dr. Casey Hoy was my advisor at Ohio State University – and after I graduated I managed the Agroecosystems Management Program that he directs. He really instilled in me a willingness to not shy away from areas of daunting complexity in food systems research, and a deep commitment to robust, rigorous data analysis – and the ability to communicate that analysis clearly and effectively. Casey is great at getting a diverse group of stakeholders to the table and “translating” between the different languages that, say, farmers, academics, policymakers, and businesspeople use. That skill is crucial to successful food systems work, and I try to get better at it with every project. If the people you bring to the table all speak the same language, you’re probably not trying hard enough to get diverse voices into the conversation.

And now I have the pleasure of working with an outstanding staff at KK&P – we all bring something different to the table and I learn from each of them every day. Karen Karp has been doing this work for over 25 years, so she was really early on the scene of food systems work (though I’m not sure that phrase would have been used then). My background is firmly in the non-profit/public service/academic world, whereas Karen came to this work through restaurant and business consulting. So working with Karen has really broadened my knowledge and toolkit in terms of working with food businesses and entrepreneurs to create a more resilient food system. Karen, like Casey, is also a really skilled facilitator of diverse stakeholder groups, so I learn a lot from her in how she approaches those conversations.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? I think effective food systems planners need to be both generalists and specialists. So I would advise an aspiring food systems planner to get exposure to as much of the food system as possible – agriculture, processing, distribution, retail, institutional feeding, food access work, the list goes on – to build an understanding of how the pieces fit and relate to each other. And whenever a particular topic or area really catches your interest, dig deep to develop more specialized expertise. I wouldn’t say I’ve been especially strategic about picking my areas of expertise, but I’ve followed my interests and passions and that has served me well.

I also think effective stakeholder engagement and facilitation is absolutely foundational to successful food systems work that pursues sustainability, resilience, and equity. Keep asking, “Who’s not at the table? Whose voices are being left out of this conversation, and how can we include them?” I’ve never taken formal facilitation training, but it’s central to the work that we do, and I would highly recommend seeking training or opportunities for learning about stakeholder engagement and facilitation.

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. The APA will be featuring 8 food system planners at the National Planning Conference this May 2017 in a special “Faces of Food Systems Planning Session”. Click here for more information.

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