Faces of Food Systems: Matthew Gabb

Job: Program & Social Science Research Coordinator at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment

  1. What’s your favorite food?

Fresh-made sourdough bread with butter.

  1. What do you enjoy about your work?

Being at a university, I love getting to work with students every day. I’ve only been out of grad school for a little over a year, but I still learn so much from folks even a few years younger than me.

  1. Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work?

Not being able to please everybody. At IonE, we do research on many multi-million dollar research grants at a time, mostly related to the social science of climate change and sustainability, including a lot of work on industrial ag emissions. As in planning, there are going to be times when people don’t like or want to hear what you have to say. So we do our best to handle that criticism head-on and address folks’ concerns, but all while remembering that what we do and research is important.

  1. 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?

In addition to my role as a program coordinator and general cat-herder, I help with some of IonE’s research on state-level climate policy. This includes understanding what state- and county/city-level policies exist that tackle food systems and work to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Outside of work, my interests in food systems are largely in two areas: policy and community-building, which I’ll talk more about below.

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

Yes and no. In my current role at the university, I am definitely not a food systems planner. But a major project I led in grad school and still work on some is Olmsted County, Minnesota’s first-ever food security assessment. Working with a coalition of community partners, we did a deep-dive — including GIS analysis, statistical regressions, and literature reviews — on the state of food security in Olmsted County, including how it is impacted by race, class, transportation, zoning, health, and a number of other factors. It included a list of 34 policy and program recommendations pulled from communities around the US, and helped launch the new Olmsted County Food Security Coalition that is working to implement the recommendations of the assessment. That kind of community-driven work (that also let me dig into Census data, a guilty pleasure of mine) is what I love doing and hope to work on in the future.

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

I moved to Minneapolis in 2019 for planning school, and lived a few blocks from the MPD 3rd Precinct during the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd. Almost all of the national chain grocery stores in the surrounding neighborhoods were inoperable for many months in the summer and fall of 2020, with the remaining options being gas station convenience stores, an overpriced organic co-op, or driving/bussing to the suburbs or St. Paul. None of those are great options, so many of my neighbors tapped into existing mutual aid networks and set up new ones to make sure everyone’s needs were met. Armed with some Google spreadsheets, viral Instagram stories, and word of mouth, South Minneapolis came together to get people diapers, bus passes, food, water, hand sanitizer, rent money, garden seedlings, baby formula, face masks, you name it. When national and international media left Minneapolis, my neighbors were still out in the streets taking care of each other.

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

I thought more grocery stores and supermarkets were the answer to “food deserts.” Now I know that they are just a band-aid. Obviously grocery stores and necessary, but if we just slap a supermarket down in a so-called food desert (a term I take a lot of issue with now) it will not work unless we tackle more deep-rooted issues like wages that are too low, bus routes that don’t go to stores, the systemic racism poisoning every aspect of the food system — heck, even something as “simple” as making sure there are adequate, well-maintained sidewalks around a grocery store so folks with mobility aids and strollers can actually get into the store. The “food system” does not exist in the policy vacuum I once thought it did.

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

Two people: Charlotte Rodina, my AmeriCorps supervisor when I served at Beardsley Community Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. The work she does at Beardsley opened my eyes to the notion that all food, transportation, wage, poverty, etc. policies are choices. And if we want people to have access to safe, culturally relevant, affordable food that they enjoy, we have to start making different choices as a community, a society, and a field. Most importantly, she taught me to remember to focus on the joy that can come from a good meal shared with your neighbors.

The second is my grad school advisor, Dr. Fayola Jacobs, who pushed me to think more critically about why I wanted to go into food systems planning and the policies I wanted to push for. She challenged me throughout my studies to make sure my thinking around food systems was actively anti-racist, non-paternalistic, considered the environment, and centered public health. I can never thank Fayola enough for helping show me a better world is possible when we envision everyone, not just ourselves, in the future.

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

Sit down, shut up, and listen to what any communities you work in actually want and need. Because even with all our expensive, fancy training and all the acronyms after our names, we will never be as knowledgeable as community members. Do everything you can to make the futures they envision a reality, no matter what you think is “best” for them.

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

Public speaking and non-academic writing skills, which not enough planners are trained in. Planners’ most important job is to be communicators, and we often are not taught how to do that effectively.