Faces of Food Systems Planning: Amy Verbofsky

Verbofsky Photo.jpg

Amy Verbofsky is a planner working at the Office of Environmental Planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Laura An, a planning intern at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and a graduate student of planning at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted this interview in October 2015.

What is your first and last name? Amy Verbofsky

What is your current position? Planner in the Office of Environmental Planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC)

How long have you held this position? I’ve been in my current position since January 2015, 10 months. But I started at DVRPC as a food systems planning intern 3 years ago.

What do you enjoy about your work? There are always a lot of different things to work on; it’s a very broad topic and involves everything from economics and building the food economy to farmland preservation, and food access. There are lots of ways to get involved.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? You’re always learning as you’re going. I didn’t study food systems in school, but it’s more learning on the job, things like farmland preservation or financing food businesses.

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? Whatever stakeholders want you to focus on. For the last three years, I have worked on a Food Economy Strategy (increasing food access, building economic opportunities through food) for Camden, NJ. A recent project is a Food Promotion Survey for Montgomery County, PA. There are lots of different people in the food systems community and with lots of different interests.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Yes, but I don’t typically introduce myself that way. It depends on my role in a given project because food systems are only a part of the overall work that I undertake at DVRPC.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? Planning can be slow, and often times the area or community you’re working with is changing rapidly. We need to make sure our work is always current and relevant to what’s happening in the community. For example, Camden City is changing significantly in just the past 3 years as several large corporations have announced relocating to take advantage of state tax incentives. The challenges that everyday people face haven’t really changed but the players who are involved in addressing those issues have changed, and therefore have also changed what growth looks like. It’s also difficult when you’re doing long-term work to keep stakeholders engaged over a long period and to ensure that your plan is eventually implemented over time.

Did you know you wanted to go into food systems when you first started that work? In graduate school, I focused on Community and Economic Development. I saw food systems as a way to address community/economic development issues from an equity/poverty perspective. Food systems came along with the internship and job opportunity with DVRPC. It is one way to address the problems I am interested in.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? Learning just how broad food systems is, particularly that the problems are not just in distressed and low income communities but are also in rural areas. Food systems also incorporates broader topics, not just food access, but everything important to all the different players in food systems. Regional planning helps me see a lot of different perspectives, in different types of communities.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? In terms of food systems, definitely Alison Hastings, currently DVRPC’s Manager of the Office of Communications and Engagement. From working with her in the past 3 years, watching her and learning how to run meetings, soaking in knowledge. Alison helped me find a niche and supported my career growth. She also transferred a lot of her food systems planning work and knowledge over to me.

Another influence is Samantha Phillips (Director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management), gave me my first real job before grad school, inspired me to take on more responsibility and bring passion to work in public service. She’s a strong young female leader in government.

And last but not least, Amy Hillier, a professor at University of Pennsylvania who has a dual faculty appointment between the Department of City and Regional Planning and the School of Social Policy & Practice. She has a passion for Philadelphia and for similar issues.

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? Be open to opportunities. There are lots of ways to do food systems planning, and many ways to address all these issues in the food system. It’s helpful to also know how to work with others, building relationships, and finding partners. It’s a small community within food systems so it’s imperative to maintain good relationships.

The skills I use most are: writing, case study research, and meeting facilitation.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? Use grad school as a time to make connections, and get experiences like internships. The most valuable things I took away were not necessarily the hard skills, but the opportunity to intern at DVRPC. Being a grad student also gives you the opportunity to network and the opportunity to explore the field.

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.