Faces of Food Systems Planning: Ross Daniels

Name: Ross Daniels

Current Position: Community Planner and Policy Analyst at the Public Health Law Center, and based in St. Paul, MN

Ross Daniels
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Ross works at the intersection of public health and the built environment, improving both via food systems, trails, parks, sidewalks, and bike paths. His work includes development of research, trainings, and toolkits for funders and partners in these areas, and assists in drafting ordinances, resolutions, and memoranda of understanding to incorporate projects into official local policy. Prior to the Public Health Law Center, Ross held a planning position in Nashville, TN, and earned a dual masters in Urban & Regional Planning and Public Health from University of Wisconsin Madison.

This interview was conducted via email by Molly Riordan in June 2020, member of the Food Systems Division Executive Committee.

What do you enjoy about your work? I don’t think that urban planners traditionally get to think about the types of things that I get to think about on a day-to-day basis. I get to think about how infrastructure and community development can shape public health and address public health issues.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? My profession has its roots in public health, and I think for decades we lost sight of that. Because of that, we don’t have a very robust evidence base or menu of best practices on how to solve some of the most pressing health issues of today through planning. When I’m working with a community on how to improve physical health through a built environment intervention, or how to close health disparity gaps, often there are few examples to draw from and replicate.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work, and where does that fit in with the rest of the work that you do? I tend to focus on food production (e.g., urban growth boundaries and conservation zoning) and markets. With respect to the latter, I explore how land use and zoning tools can be leveraged to promote access to food via mixed-use development, incentive zoning, planned unit developments, and other methods that push back against the Euclidean type of zoning model we’ve been accustomed to for decades.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? I provide technical assistance on how planning can help create a better and more equitable food system, but I have not done the planning myself. When it comes to food systems, I’m more of a policy analyst than a planner, evaluating what planners are doing to improve everything from cultivation to consumption.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? COVID-19 has really challenged the way we’ve been going about things from a food systems perspective. One of my organization’s ongoing projects is the Healthy Food Policy Project, which captures municipal government policies designed to promote good and resilient food systems. When the pandemic hit, the supply chain faced some stresses, workers from cultivation through sales were put at risk of infection, food service establishments shuttered at least temporarily, and people lost their jobs. Suddenly our work had this added dimension of how municipalities could simply keep people fed. Right now, we as planners are in this uncertain space where we don’t really know what cities are going to look like in the future, and how food systems will play into it.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? Speaking with people in food systems, I have begun to understand more about how the layers of regulations—economic, environmental, and so on—affected growers. These policies are often written with large, industrial farms in mind, but in many cases they apply across the board, even for smaller scale farms or urban growers. Because food policies have been implemented piecemeal over the years and across many agencies that don’t talk to one another, it is extremely difficult to promote and advocate for new and different models of agriculture.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? If more people had listened to Jane Jacobs, planning might not have created and perpetuated so many racial and socioeconomic inequities.

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? We are living in a moment where racial inequities have been laid bare. Look at how food systems have mapped onto health disparities across racial lines, and think about how to undo the cycles of poverty and illness to which our profession has contributed. Think creatively, too. Think about what you know about, say, TIF districts or overlay districts or TDR programs. Chances are you learned about these ideas in the context of housing or economic development, but you can apply them to food access as well. You don’t always have to completely invent brand new strategies when you’re trying to improve your local food system.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school?  I went into planning school thinking about land use mainly, and to be honest knowing its hold in transportation, economic development, food systems, and so many other spaces. I went through a cycle of thinking I was going to do everything. One day I was going to be a transportation planner, the next I was going to do NEPA, and so forth.

How do you think COVID 19 will shape/change your job/food systems? When this is all over, we are going to see brick-and-mortar retail shuttered permanently and office buildings abandoned. We are going to see commuting patterns change, particularly as work-from-home becomes the norm for much of our white-collar workforce. We might see a reaction against density. These are going to have massive ramifications to the physical landscape, and it is my hope that this will get us to think about how our transportation system can get people to food and vice versa, and how we can use our newly open spaces for more opportunities to cultivate food and provide it to people.

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