Faces of Food Systems Planning: Becky Bodonyi


Becky Bodonyi is a planner working as a program specialist for the Multnomah County Health Department located in Portland, Oregon. Her work focuses on bridging urban planning, public health, and food access issues. Becky is also an active member of APA-FIG’s Policy Working Group.

Kimberley Hodgson, Chair of APA-FIG, conducted this interview via email in October 2015.

  1. What is your first and last name? Becky Bodonyi
  2. What is your current position? Program Specialist, Multnomah County Health Department, Portland, Oregon
  3. How long have you held this position? Just over three years.
  4. What do you enjoy about your work? I love working at the intersection of public health and urban planning. It’s an exciting time to be a planner at the health department, as more and more people in a wide variety of sectors are starting to realize how their organization or their work influences health. The idea that place matters is becoming more widespread and I get to help people tell this story. I also love geeking out about the data – both quantitative and qualitative – making maps and working to figure out how we’ll get from a vision to tangible change in our communities. Finally, I’m always told that planners talk in “planner speak,” and I love helping non-planners understand the world of planning, for example, deciphering maps, visualizing floor-area-ration (FAR), or how a density bonus can help us achieve multiple outcomes.
  5. Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? Change is slow. It takes time to change systems, especially when the work is about making those systems more fair and just. The health inequities we see today, especially related to food, nutrition and chronic disease, have their roots in a long history of racism and policy decisions across all sectors, from agriculture and housing to transportation and education. The challenge is understanding how all of this is related but also accepting that not everything can be “fixed” overnight and being patient with yourself. I first heard Wes Jackson’s words nearly 17 years ago: “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” And while it has since inspired me, I will also admit that it is ultimately my biggest challenge.
  6. What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? I’m focused on healthy food access. My projects of late have centered on food retail and integrating food access into transportation planning.
  7. In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? I work mostly on the consumer end – where do people shop and how do they get there, what’s on the shelf, do customers know how to prepare it, what is actually getting eaten. That said, working in healthy retail and helping small retailers overcome barriers has also meant I have had to engage somewhat with production and distribution through farm to store efforts, joint purchasing, and learning what wholesale produce suppliers serve the region.
  8. Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Yes and no. I am an urban planner by training and I work on issues directly connected to food systems. But my focus within the food system has been so narrow that I don’t immediately identify as a food systems planner. Rightly or wrongly, in my head, I’ve reserved that title for folks who are working at a systems level, say convening a process to integrate food systems into a comprehensive (or general) plan or to develop a multi-sector food action plan.
  9. How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? I was an Environmental Studies major in undergrad and I took a few sustainable agriculture classes, which opened my eyes to the world of agriculture policy and food systems. When I got to planning school, which wasn’t that long ago, I guess I was surprised to learn that food systems planning was relatively new. It seemed so obvious to me that planners should be paying attention and using their tools and planning processes to support/influence/improve the food system. I’m glad it’s getting more and more attention now.
  10. Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? I don’t have any particular influences. I am a social justice advocate and planning is just one of my tools that I use to advance equity and fairness. I was raised to believe everyone deserves to live to their full potential and to do so in a physical, social and political environment that supports their total well-being and that presents opportunity not barriers. I picked planning as a career to contribute to this vision. I also just love cities and talking with friends (and strangers) about what works and what doesn’t about a particular place. Every day conversations and observations are probably the most persistent influence I have on my planning practice. I get around mostly by walking, biking or taking transit, which gives me a lot of time to observe the city and to interact with other people. A lot of my thinking is done on the bus.
  11. 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 broad field – don’t just limit yourself to working for a planning agency or a firm. I didn’t expect to work for a health department but am finding it to be an interesting place to be a planner and be a bridge between urban planning, public health and healthy food advocates. Skills that have proven useful in my role have been project management, negotiation, data and policy analysis, evaluation planning, and relationship building.
  12. What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? Planning is as much an art as it is a science. I knew I didn’t want to go into the academic world so I focused my school search on programs that offered the so-called ‘professional degree.’ I didn’t exactly know what this meant and it was kind of sold to me as a two-year program where you developed technical skills, like understanding land use laws or GIS, and boom – you’re workforce ready. While those technical skills are essential, planning is about people and communities and humans’ relationships with each other and with place. It’s also about politics, conflicting priorities, and chronically underfunded cities (or counties). It is way more complicated and messy than I expected and this is where the art comes in. Planning school helped me develop skills to navigate this part of planning, but truthfully, the art of the profession is something that is better learned in the work place not necessarily a classroom. (And, I’d argue, the skills a planner needs to succeed in the art of planning don’t need to be learned in an urban planning job).

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. Click here for more information.