Faces of Food System Planning: Ellie Bomstein

Current Position: Project manager, Wallace Center at Winrock International

What’s your favorite food? How many kinds of cheese do you have in your fridge?

I have 14 kinds of cheese, probably. We’re members of 4PFoods, which aggregates from many producers in the mid-Atlantic region, including small scale cheese producers. This time of year, though, watermelon and tomatoes are my favorite. I’ve been known to eat a tomato like it’s an apple.

What do you enjoy about your work?

At the Wallace Center I help manage the Food Systems Leadership Network, building capacity and connection for people doing community-based food systems work. What that means in practice is that I get to talk to a lot of practitioners who are doing the most amazing, cutting-edge food systems work in the country. I love the chance to connect with people and learn, see the whole food system, and notice the trends that are popping up all over the place.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work?

Funnily enough, it’s the other side of the coin of the best part of my work. Because the Wallace Center is a national organization, I don’t have direct community connection or as much of a sense of place in our work as I did when I was working at a statewide organization. We help folks with their work at those levels, but don’t always have the sense of the impact of our capacity building work—we don’t get to see them applying what they’ve learned in practice and track that impact. As a result, the way we work, through a million light touches all the time, can be challenging. We hear feedback from network members that they really get a lot out of what we offer, but I don’t get to actually witness it all that often. More broadly, the food system is so vast and such a wicked problem that we’re learning the complexities of it every day, as well as how it is tied into other complex and entrenched systems (e.g., environmental degradation, racism, capitalism)—and that can make it hard to find concrete solutions.

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?

We look at the food system from the systems level, zooming in and out between the forest and the trees. We work across the entire food value chain: with food hubs, with community-based organizations, with USDA, with academics researching the food system. The center of gravity for the work is whatever makes the food system more resilient, more equitable, and brings people more food sovereignty and self-determination. But the specific part of the system we work in to help push those changes varies.

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

I wouldn’t say that I do. When I think of a food systems planner, I definitely think of someone more place-based having an impact on a particular regional food system. Because we [the Wallace Center] have a national vantage point, we see ourselves as connectors and intermediaries; we don’t have that same physical boundary that I think food systems planners have. Also in my work I do a lot of “sensing” rather than planning. We’re opportunistic, so we very much are constantly searching for the innovation and the need—we’re reactive and responsive to signals in the network, whereas I think of a planner as a more proactive role.

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

Something that the Wallace Center really had to grapple with and push ourselves on over the past 5-6 years was understanding how essential addressing race and racism is to any systems-level solution in the food system. We can’t get to the type of transformational change that the food system needs without addressing that. What is the role for a primarily white-led/staffed organization in this work? How can we position ourselves as a conduit, a platform, and an accomplice for the people who are dealing with the most harmful impacts of inequities in the food system? This has been a huge area of growth for me personally, but also for the organization. Trying to both embody that change and authentically tell the story of our process, while recognizing that there’s no end point to that work, it’s been a big area of growth for us, and will be for a long time!

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field?

When I went to grad school in 2011, I knew I wanted to do food systems work, but there weren’t many places to study how to do it. When I was in college, taking an introduction to planning class, I had a graduate student teaching assistant (Dierdre Stockmann) who was doing work on food systems then. When I decided to go to planning school, I reached out to her to ask where I could go to combine the study of food systems with planning. Since then, I think my understanding of the field and how vital it is to planning has grown a lot. I’ve honed my understanding of why the food system is so exciting to me—it’s both a Trojan horse that allows entry into every other social problem and a tangible way of solving some of our most entrenched social problems.

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

When I was in planning school at Cornell, in the introduction to planning class, Professor John Forester said, “pretty much everywhere you go in the world, places look the way they do because people decided they should look that way.” That, in some ways, is overwhelming to contemplate, but we all have a measure of power to influence those things. It helps me feel like there’s a way out. As a food systems planner, Tom Lyson, who had been at Cornell and died a few years before I arrived as a graduate student, wrote a book called Civic Agriculture that had a huge influence on me in terms of understanding how planning and food systems were interconnected.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? 

Having some experience on the production and supply chain side of food systems is important, to understand the pressure and dynamism of that work and how exhausting and unpredictable it can be. Or, try and work in a small community-based organization. I spent time working in a food hub so I know, for example, how a late delivery of eggs can foul up an entire day—that experience keeps me grounded in the work that I do now. I recommend that anyone wanting to do food systems work spend some time on a farm, in a food hub, doing community organizing, generally being close to the ground, and do it with a lot of humility, before moving into any kind of service delivery or planning role. 

What makes you successful in your work? 

Asking lots of questions and then doing a good job listening is essential. As a person in a role with a big audience, it’s really important to be super conscious of whose voices we’re amplifying—who’s in the room, what are their interests and priorities? How are they reflected, or not reflected, in the services we deliver, and the stories we tell? The people who have the answers are most always the ones closest to the problems, so if you have a seat at the table and are able to open up access for those people, that’s a great role for a planner or someone in a higher capacity organization.

What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning-related work? 

Relationship building, trust building, and seeing people’s humanity are important. Those may not be considered traditional planning skills, but they make a huge difference to the work, especially in a community-based context.

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

I took one year off between undergrad and grad school. I didn’t really gain any professional experience to speak of in that year. I noticed that other students in my program who had so much to offer and were the most engaged in the classes were oftentimes the ones who had been in the workforce for a few years before coming to grad school. The stakes are so much higher for people who leave their lives to go back to school, and they put so much more into it and as a result get so much out of it, because they feel like they have more to learn and something is missing from their lives. A hallmark of their approach was taking advantage of things outside the classroom as well, such as volunteering and putting skin in the game in other ways. So, I think I would have taken more advantage of the opportunity if I had a little professional ability under my belt first.

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

That’s the big question right now, isn’t it? It feels like there’s a renewed attention and understanding of how resilient and redundant food systems and supply chains need to be – which, of course, food systems planners have known for a long time. It’s a great moment to capitalize on this opportunity. There are just so many new resources in the system now, especially from the federal government. The Wallace Center has been doing a lot of work to try and influence some decision making at USDA, helping people access the expanded funding opportunities and seeing how to amend programs to better serve the needs of people who use them. So, we’re hoping that USDA will make some smart decisions about what to do with that money now to catalyze long term change, and also update how they operate beyond this current money to keep throwing their weight around for resiliency in the local food system. The local food “movement” has the attention of some big players right now and hopefully that results in some new opportunities, short and long term. 

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