Faces of Food Systems Planning: Luis Nieves-Ruiz

Name: Luis Nieves-Ruiz, AICP

Current Position: Economic Development Manager for the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council (ECFRPC), a council of governments located in Orlando, FL.

Lusi Nieves-Ruiz, AICP

What do you currently enjoy about your work?

My current position allows me the flexibility to pursue my individual interests and passions including regional food systems. This requires me to identify potential funding sources and continuously develop new scopes of work, project methodologies, and grant applications, forcing me to flex my creative and entrepreneurial muscles quite often. Working for a technical assistance provider, I also get to be involved in different types of projects such as economic impact modeling, industry cluster analysis, and resiliency planning, among other areas. In turn, the experiences gained through these projects have helped to inform how I approach my food systems work. Finally, I get the opportunity to collaborate with a variety of stakeholders including economic development agencies, public health departments, and academic institutions, among other organizations.  This always keeps work interesting. 

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work?

Money is always a problem for our agency. Every year we have to raise about 60 percent of our budget through grants and contracts. You are often forced to do more with less.  In my case, I am usually working on three or four different projects at the same time:  not only managing the project, but also doing the basic research, designing the document’s graphics and layout, and doing the final write up. I used to have to do most of this work by myself. Recently, I have been able to hire other planners to assist me with some of these tasks. The lack of consistent funding is usually a deterrent for me to focus on the implementation of long-term projects and initiatives. Another challenge is time. You can have great ideas, but sometimes there is not enough time to make them a reality. 

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?

My research work has three focus areas. I spent a good part of the last five years developing a sound methodology to assess regional food production systems. This includes identifying and mapping critical assets such as agricultural lands and food production businesses (farms, processors, and distributors). My approach to studying food systems is rooted in my interest in industry cluster analysis. I like to understand how the parts of the system work or do not work together. My planning background has also helped me to understand that land use regulations can act as barriers to the development of regional food systems. I specifically study how jurisdictions regulate food uses in their zoning codes. Finally, as an economic development official, I am working to develop a framework to use regional food systems to revitalize distressed communities.  Food production can help to generate much needed jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities in low-income areas. 

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? 

If you had asked me this question five years ago, I would have said no. However, after being awarded $150K in grants and contracts to complete this type of work, I can confidently call myself a food systems planner. It is all about validation. When I started doing food systems work in Orange County, most of my peers regarded this work as a nice hobby. Thankfully, I had a planner colleague that really believed in my work more than I did myself. Winning the first grant to study Orange County’s regional food production system was definitely a game changer for me.  It helped me to start developing a body of work in the food systems area. These projects helped me to be selected as a Regional Food Economies Fellow by the Wallace Center at Winrock International in 2018. This has certainly been the highest point of my career as a food systems planner. Currently, I dedicate about 40 percent of my time to work on food systems projects.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with?

I think that there is generally some antagonism between planners and food systems practitioners. Most food systems practitioners are entrepreneurs that want things to happen immediately. On the other hand, urban planners take a long view and understand that change takes time. I witnessed some of this dynamic when East Central Florida started its food policy council. After a couple of months, most of the food business owners had left the group. One thing that I have started to do is try to bridge the gap between both groups by developing some common language and tools. I am still working on it. 

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner?

Alissa Barber Torres, my first planning supervisor in Orange County, taught me two very important career lessons. First, it is important to let young planners pursue their passion areas. She provided me with the opportunity and space to work on my food systems planning and economic development projects. These two areas are currently the backbone of my planning career. I continue to use these lessons in my planning work and apply with the younger planners in the office. Sadly, my journey as a food system planner has been more lonesome. I can’t think of any other planners that were doing similar work to mine. Through my involvement with the Wallace Center and the Council for Development Finance Agencies, I met some great food systems practitioners.

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?

Food systems planning is a very broad field. While it is important for planners to be conversant in all areas, at some point you will need to identify your own niche within the profession. To get to this point though, you need to understand what your strengths are.  Some of the skills that I use in my food systems work include Geographic Information Systems (GIS), data analysis, and policy analysis. Finally, to be successful in this line of work you have to be a good communicator. I credit my experience with Toastmasters for my ability to develop a concise message that that can be tailored to different audiences. 

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school?

Most planning school students are idealists by nature. They go to planning school to learn how to change their communities for the better. However, professional planners often get caught in the “planning review process wheel” which prioritizes short-term projects (rezonings, site plan developments, etc..) over long-term policy solutions. There is also a plenty of antagonism towards planning and government in general. Your role is to convince multiple stakeholders and elected officials that what you propose is the best option for the community. Therefore, this idealism needs to be tempered by the understanding that in real life change is slow and incremental in nature. To become a more effective planner you need to become a better listener and focus on building bridges to allow for real collaboration. 

How do you think COVID 19 will shape/change your job/food systems?

It has been interesting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred interest in mapping regional food systems. In the ten years I have been involved in food systems, I have never seen so many webinars discussing ways to map community food assets. However, most of these efforts will fall short if there is no concrete goal behind the mapping exercise. The end goal should not be to produce a cool map, but to develop an analysis tool to help food systems practitioners identify trends and patterns in the data. 

 Moreover, by exacerbating the inequities and brokenness of the current food system, the pandemic has also opened opportunities to discuss alternatives to the status quo. Every crisis is an opportunity. Elected officials and other stakeholders might now be more open to addressing food deserts and identifying ways to increase local food production. 

*Some portions edited for length.

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