Faces of Food Systems Planning: Sharon Lerman

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Sharon Lerman is the Food Policy Advisor for the City of Seattle. Based out of the City’s Office of Sustainability and Environment, Sharon provides policy direction and strategic advice to increase options for access to healthy and affordable food for Seattle’s residents. Sharon was interviewed on July 7, 2016 by Andrea Petzel.

What do you enjoy about your work? Food systems planning is still a young field, and there is so much to learn from other disciplines about how we approach our work. I enjoy working with smart people across disciplines and learning from the decades of experience in their fields. There are so many translatable lessons from the history of housing policy, community development, economic development, land use planning, and others. I also love working for local government – knowing that the reason I go to work every day to make Seattle a better place for people who live here.

What do you find challenging about your work? Food systems planning is complex, and often there isn’t a single solution to all the challenges we’re wrestling with. It’s sometimes difficult to set one priority aside to really focus on another, but I believe we sometimes need to do that. Ultimately, it’s a suite of activities, policies, and initiatives that are needed to build the just and sustainable food system that we’re working towards.

Where does addressing food systems issues fit in for your work with the City of Seattle?  All of my work is about food systems, and I get to address it from many angles. Sometimes I’m focusing more on human services aspects, sometimes on supporting small businesses, and other times on farmland preservation. I work with many folks in city government, and some of our best food systems champions are in positions that aren’t titled “food” people, but they bring a food lens to their work and are able to help make sure food is considered across the work of city departments.

 What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? My work as food policy advisor is greatly informed, and influenced by Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative. This has led to a strong focus on food access and affordability, which were top concerns raised by the community during the development of Seattle’s Food Action Plan. Seattle is becoming increasingly unaffordable for low-income people and other vulnerable populations, healthy food is one of the first things to go when people struggle financially. So while my work also includes supporting our local food economy, food waste prevention, and local food production, healthy food affordability has been a prominent focus.

How did you become a food systems planner? My interest in food policy started as an undergraduate with an interest in hunger in the developing world. Understanding the role that political, distribution, economic, and power systems played in solving – and also creating – hunger, I wanted to understand how these same systems worked locally. I worked for community-based organizations for a number of years, and eventually pursued a joint master’s degree in City and Regional Planning and Public Health at the University of California Berkley, focusing on health equity.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? During planning school, I pursued internships and hands-on projects with many different organizations. I found it impactful to apply the concepts that I was learning on the ground, and also to get a feel for different types of agencies and organizations. I’d encourage students to seek out different types of stakeholders to work with. Understanding their priorities and what drives them will also help you to better identify your own priorities and what really drives you, as you embark on your career.

JOB OPENING: City of Madison, WI Food Policy Coordinator

The City of Madison is hiring a Food Policy Coordinator. This position will direct food policy work for the City of Madison by providing leadership and strategic direction to policymakers and stakeholders including, but not limited to, policy development, coordination, implementation, and analysis.  This position will also oversee several food-related programs and provide administration and analysis of the programs. The position will have an intense focus on increasing equitable access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate food to all communities and developing polices that positively impact the health and well-being of all residents of the City of Madison and beyond.

See full position description here.

Apply for this position by June 23, 2016.

Exploring Stories of Food Systems Planning and Policy Innovation

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Growing Food Connections is excited to announce the addition of 5 free publications to the Exploring Stories of Innovation series, a series of short articles that explore how local governments from across the United States are strengthening their community’s food system through planning and policy. These include:

Beginning in 2012, Growing Food Connections (GFC) conducted a national scan and identified 299 local governments across the United States that are developing and implementing a range of innovative plans, public programs, regulations, laws, financial investments and other policies to strengthen the food system. GFC conducted exploratory telephone interviews with 20 of these local governments. This series highlights some of the unique planning and policy strategies used by some of these urban and rural local governments to enhance community food security while ensuring sustainable and economically viable agriculture and food production. The first four articles in the series featured:

For more information and to download these free publications, visit http://growingfoodconnections.org/research/communities-of-innovation/.

Growing Food Connections is supported by Agriculture and Food Research initiative Competitive Grant no. 2012-68004-19894 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Job Opening: Planner II (CITYlab Team), Lead the implementation of “fresh”: Edmonton’s Food & Urban Agriculture Strategy

The City of Edmonton is hiring a Planner II to lead the implementation of Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy. See the link for more details.

Food Well Alliance: Changing the Food System from the Ground Up

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The Food Well Alliance is an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization formed in partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB) that connects members of the local food movement around building healthier communities, strengthening the local food system and improving lives.   The Alliance amplifies and accelerates metro Atlanta’s local food movement by hosting and organizing events, facilitating working groups and projects, making grants, and providing resources and information to the community at large.

Food Well Alliance serves three primary roles: to connect, to promote, and to mobilize. One of its main purposes is to create a space for nonprofits, community organizers, educators, entrepreneurs, and growers to learn about what others are doing around local food in Atlanta and how the community can align its efforts, identify challenges and barriers, and work collaboratively to strengthen the local food system.  Food Well Alliance provides opportunity to use the collective impact model to hear the local food community’s voice, cooperatively design a solution or program, and then mobilize the resources and funding to implement those solutions.

Young as the Alliance may be, it is deeply rooted in Atlanta’s food system.  It’s Advisory Committee includes a veritable who’s who of Atlanta area food systems, including Bill Bolling, Founder and former Executive Director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, representatives from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Captain Planet, Georgia Organics, and many others (for a full list, click here).

The Alliance has been working hard to assess the needs of the local food community and recently celebrated its first year with a Healthy Soil Festival.  Hundreds of people attended, celebrating efforts to provide greater access to healthy food and learning about the importance of healthy soil – the foundation of a sustainable garden and good food production.

The festival was part of the Alliance’s Healthy Soil, Healthy Community initiative – a series of workshops, demonstrations, soil testing, and other activities organized in partnership with numerous community organizations to support the growth of community gardens and raise awareness about the importance of healthy soil and composting. The initiative offered 30 free public workshops across 5 counties of Metro Atlanta to educate gardeners on the elements of living soil and methods to build soil.  The partners jointly designed a resource guide for Healthy Soil, provided composting signs and bins, and distributed local compost to over 50 community gardens in the region.   Click here for a list of partners.

To strengthen and expand the capacity of local food innovators and entrepreneurs, the Food Well Alliance has partnered with Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation to create the Food Innovation Network – a formal network of entrepreneurs, educators, and community organizers dedicated to growing and using local food, starting a food business, nutrition and health, and food access.  The network offers events, trainings, one-on-one advising, and encourages participants to share resources and ideas to help build a stronger Atlanta food system.

 

Connection to Food System Planning:

Food systems planning will be critical to the success of Food Well Alliance.  An assessment of the current landscape is needed in order to have baseline data, to evaluate and measure impact, and to create a roadmap for going forward.  But first, Food Well Alliance is working to convene all of these organizations and people together to explain how collective impact could work in this context, how it serves their needs, and how to best align efforts to bring greater participation and investment to the local food movement in Atlanta.

Throughout the course of its first year, Food Well Alliance discovered a common obstacle to improving food systems: the silo effect. So many people diligently working with local food know that they are part of an interconnected web of educators, producers, consumers, and distributors but they don’t necessarily see it within a local food system framework.  But rather than view this as a barrier, the Alliance chose to view this as an opportunity – coming to a common understanding of what the local food system is, why each piece is important, and how they are all needed for the whole to be successful.

The Community Gardens working group was the first effort to convene a group around a collective impact approach to assess and prioritize community needs.  This group of 7 nonprofit and education leaders shaped the goals and design of the Healthy Soil, Healthy Community Initiative and will do an evaluation of the process and program this winter.  Other working groups are currently in development for 2016, based on priorities and challenges identified by the community.

To learn more, visit Food Well Alliance or find us on Facebook.

 

Photos courtesy of Seanna Berry and Food Well Alliance

Seanna Berry works on research and development at Food Well Alliance and has written on food systems issues nationally and in AtlantaPrior to earning her graduate degree in City and Regional Planning from Georgia Tech, she worked in community food systems growing, processing, selling, and distributing fresh local food. She sees great opportunities to incorporate agriculture into how we shape our neighborhoods and regions.

Erin Thoresen (@ELThoresen) loves food, travel, and thinks a lot about what makes a “good” place. Her work has brought these interests together in food systems planning – helping launch youth-staffed farmers’ markets with Sustainable Long Island and serving on the Suffolk County Food Policy Council. She now works in transportation at Gresham, Smith and Partners in Atlanta and continues her involvement with food systems through APA-FIG.

Faces of Food Systems Planning: Martin Bailkey

Martin Bailkey - Food for Thought Festival - CRC/GP boothMartin Bailkey is a food system consultant and former staff project manager for Growing Power, Inc. and co-director of theCommunity & Regional Food Systems Project. Martin is also an active member of the Madison Food Policy Council. He has worked in the food systems planning field over 17 years.

Marcia Caton Campbell, APA-FIG Leadership Committee Member, conducted this interview on November 17, 2015.

What is your first and last name? Martin Bailkey

What is your current position? I’m now completing my tenure as Co-Director of the Community & Regional Food Systems Project, a USDA-funded effort to document and implement food system innovations across the US. The project is run out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m returning now to food system consulting after working as a staff project manager for Growing Power, Inc., which is also a major partner in the CRFS project. I’m also a member of the Madison Food Policy Council.

How long have you held this position? The CRFS project began in 2011. I was with Growing Power for nine years in one capacity or another.

What do you enjoy about your work? After 17 years in the food systems field it still feels like cutting edge work in many ways, particularly in those contexts outside of our world of daily practice where alternative food practices are still considered novel (although that’s decreasing steadily).

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? It’s becoming increasingly challenging to keep up with what everyone is doing nationwide and globally. It’s also a good challenge to have!

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? Urban agriculture is what brought me into the field, and it still is at the core of much of the work I’m involved in.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? When I started in food systems, I worked on the “big picture,” looking at things at a systems level. But my time at Growing Power took me to the level of the individual project and/or activity. I often reminded myself to assess how what was just completed altered the larger system that provided its context. I’m also much more aware of the pervasive role of systemic racism in the availability and accessing of nutritious food.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Yes and no. At the risk of appearing overly concerned with formal designations, I’ve never had “food systems planner” as a professional title as more and more folks now do. But I’ve always held the belief that anyone who acts deliberately to fulfill a vision of a better future is, in essence, a “planner.” So, yes, in that sense I’m a food systems planner.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/ organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? It’s been a challenge for the city of Madison to move a public market district forward. I’m not directly involved in the effort, but city staff and members of the Madison Food Policy Council have diligently employed planning practices in addressing the public’s questions about siting, need/use and funding. Madison, however, is one of those places where large public projects move pretty slowly anyway.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? A number of years ago Marcia Caton Campbell and I wrote a paper that essentially posited that while food system planning may have looked like a new area of professional practice it actually drew on and reflected established aspects of planning theory and practice. I still stand by that view.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? I had the good fortune to have had Jerry Kaufman as my major advisor in planning school. But though Jerry is considered a father of food systems planning, he had a greater influence by introducing me to the areas he was engaged in before food systems – planning theory, planning ethics (another area he pioneered), and central-city planning. Within food systems planning, no single individual(s) stands out. But I’ll give a collective shout-out to those university extension personnel dedicated to food systems with whom I’ve worked over the years.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? My best advice would be to engage, either professionally or personally, in some sort of on-the-ground food system activity that gets your hands dirty; something connected directly to food production (e.g, for-market farming) or distribution (working at a farmers’ market). To me, the core of community food systems work is direct engagement with food, and the more one does that the better. Other than that, you can’t deny the importance of critical and strategic thinking, and being able to communicate – particularly through writing – for a variety of audiences, whether school kids, grant proposal reviewers or the general public. I draw on those skills constantly.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? From the outside, urban planning always seemed rather dry compared to architecture and landscape architecture, my previous fields. Until I went to planning school, I wasn’t aware of how effective planning practice is driven by a vibrant theoretical base.

Interviewer’s note: In addition to the work described above, Martin is co-author, with Kimberley Hodgson and Marcia Caton Campbell, of the 2011 monograph, Urban Agriculture: Growing Healthy Sustainable Places. Planning Advisory Service Report Number 563. Chicago, IL: American Planning Association. Martin has also published many articles on urban agriculture.


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.

Faces of Food Systems Planning: Becky Bodonyi

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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.

Faces of Food Systems Planning: Jaspal Marwah

IMG_3963 - Version 2Jaspal Marwah is a regional planner working for Metro Vancouver, a regional planning agency, in Burnaby, BC. He is responsible for developing an action plan to implement the Metro Vancouver Regional Food System Strategy.

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

What is your first and last name? Jaspal Marwah

What is your current position? Regional Planner, Metro Vancouver, Burnaby, BC

How long have you held this position? 2 years

What do you enjoy about your work? I like the variety of assignments and projects that I’m able to participate in – from technical work like processing requests to change land use designations, or assisting municipal partners in aligning their planning processes with the regional growth strategy, or championing a new plan or strategy like the regional food system action plan. My area of focus tends to also be in social planning issues, which I find rewarding to participate in. And it’s also interesting to focus on the connections and opportunities for local governments to collectively advance initiatives that are region-wide.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? Working at a regional scale doesn’t have the same level of engaging technical, hands-on, on the ground type of planning work that happens at the municipal level. And political interests are always a challenge to navigate.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? I’m working on an action plan to implement our regional food system strategy. My focus is on convening all of the local governments in Metro Vancouver to assess the current state of activity related to the region’s food system, to map out what’s happening on the ground in the next 5 years, and to address areas that need more effort. This initiative focuses specifically on the dimensions of the food system that local government have immediate control over and can directly engage with.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? My involvement with food systems planning started out working with colleagues to plan and deliver a consultation series on different aspects of the regional food system, including some analysis of the feedback and outcomes. Following that, the food system portfolio migrated from a different department into the planning department, where I was able to take the lead on moving things forward in developing a regional food system action plan. Currently, food systems planning remains one of my lead projects.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? I consider myself a planner who is fortunate enough to be involved in food policy and food system issues. Although I enjoy being engaged in the regional food system, it is only one dimension to my overall planning work.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? One of the biggest challenges is in securing and sustaining political and organizational support for bringing food system issues into the local government sphere of activity. Some don’t always see the important role that local governments have in supporting the food system. Building connections among local governments helps create a network of peers and practitioners to learn from, and to develop common approaches and language around integrating food system issues into local government processes. Similarly, building relationships between local government and civil society groups seems to be a very effective approach to enabling a lot of on the ground activity.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? I started off in the green development/ sustainability policy field, and wasn’t aware of food systems and the connection with planning at that time. Since then, I’ve seen the steady growth of food systems issues in general within my community, and increasingly in the realm of local government interests. It is now a burgeoning field with opportunities for practitioners and supporters in the public, private and non-profit sectors.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? The colleagues and partners I worked with when I first started out in the consulting field helped provide perspective and experience to learn from and to understand the field more holistically. For food systems planning, my peers Janine de la Salle and Mark Holland have always been passionate voices and innovators in the field, and have helped bring food systems planning to the forefront of planning practice in Vancouver.

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? Don’t feel constrained by job titles or even distinctions between public/private/non-profit sectors – there are many paths that lead to food systems planning. Look for opportunities to be involved in food systems issues in your community – there are non-profits that are always looking for assistance, and who are doing a lot of the ‘on the ground’ work; municipal advisory committees with opportunities to be involved as a citizen; attend council meetings for food systems issues to get a sense of the discussion, debate, areas of concern from a local government perspective; and, if one is working in a planning company that doesn’t have any food systems experience, there’s an opportunity to bring the issue to the table as part of other projects. Like any planning work, the skills involved are varied and depend on the nature of your work, but some skills are always helpful, such as: systems thinking (to consider how all parts of the food system interact), facilitation (sooner or later you’ll be involved in some form of consultation and group work) and relationship-building (positive and productive relationships with other agencies is key to advancing food systems issues).

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? Planning is a broad, generalized field and has as many dimensions as it has practitioners. The education helps give one a sense of the field, but the real learning really only happens after planning school once you’re practicing!


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.

Faces of Food Systems Planning: Thyra Karlstrom

ThyraThyra Karlstrom is a senior planner for Marquette County, Michigan located in the Upper Peninsula (UP) near Lake Superior. Food systems planning has not always been part of her work, but in recent years she has been able to focus some of her time to work on food systems issues. Recently, she led the development of a comprehensive local food supply plan for the county, and is currently working on a meat processing feasibility assessment for the UP.

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

  1. What is your first and last name? Thyra Karlstrom
  1. What is your current position? Senior Planner, Marquette County, Michigan
  1. How long have you held this position? I have worked for Marquette County for 8 years, and as Senior Planner for 1.5 years.
  1. What do you enjoy about your work? The diversity of projects, all of which share a common element- improving community. In addition to traditional county-level planning, the Marquette County Planning Division is also charged with managing a community development program, county forest and recreation facilities.
  1. Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? The same thing I enjoy about work can also be a challenge. Having to shift in and out of topics that range from plan writing to managing a forest to balancing a recreation budget is a challenge.
  1. What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? Mostly policy and education. My position as a county planner presents opportunities to share information and raise awareness of food systems with local municipalities. It is unusual for rural municipalities to have planning staff. It is common for a township supervisor to also serve as the zoning administrator, code official, etc. leaving no time to research and develop food systems policy.
  1. In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? Addressing food systems issues fits into the traditional county-level planning work that I do. In 2013, a local food supply plan was adopted by the County’s planning commission and later by the county board. The Plan is a guiding document for our planning commission and planners to use and enables us to be active participants in addressing our community food system issues. On a routine basis, the county planning commission reviews proposed plans and regulations from local units within the county. One thing we look for is whether or not they are “local food friendly” and we offer suggestions for improvement. Over time, I believe our county government has taken a stronger role in addressing food systems issues. For example, the County is the lead applicant for a grant to study the feasibility of a USDA multiple species processing center(s) across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
  1. Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? I consider part of me a food systems planner, but that does not mean that this region is absent a food systems planner. A great characteristic about where I live, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is the community’s ability to work in partnership – across municipalities, agencies, and sectors. Together, we combine our resources and achieve great things!
  1. What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? Navigating the Michigan Right to Farm Act (MRTFA) is a significant and on-going challenge as we try to strengthen our food systems. The MRTFA preempts local zoning regulation, but not always and there have been many court cases addressing this topic. It is hard for municipalities to create “local food friendly” regulations when there is a threat of litigation. We continue to monitor court cases, research what other municipalities are doing, and work on model zoning language for agriculture.
  1. How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? When I first entered the planning field well over 10 years ago, the term “food systems” was not on my radar. Through participation in Transition Marquette County and hearing Will Allen speak at the 2009 APA conference in Minneapolis, I was inspired to make “food systems” a common term in Marquette County. Components of a food system have always had a presence in planning activities, but today there is an increased awareness of how all of the components fit together and that now has an identity – “community food system”.
  1. Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? My planning advisor and professor during college, Steve DeGoosh. He is really a professor of community and has a talent to lead the community through discussion of tough subjects. My children motivate me to continue in the planning field, especially food systems planning. I want them to experience how food is grown and where it comes from and a strong community.
  1. 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? The best advice that I can offer, and this extends beyond food systems planning, is to know your audience. A great idea can be snuffed out quickly if your audience feels alienated. It is also important to trust your ideas and to just go for it sometimes. Be a student and a team member-learn from others and provide support where you can.

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.

Faces of Food Systems Planning: Helen Schnoes

IMG_20150412_170915Helen Schnoes is the Food Systems Coordinator for Douglas County, Kansas. As a recent graduate of planning school, and a recent hire occupying a newly created position, Helen provides a unique perspective on defining her food systems planning work. Her work focuses on a variety of local food system development initiatives, including food hubs, farmers markets, farm to school, food policy council support, and food system assessment. She is also an active member of APA-FIG’s Policy Working Group.

To learn more about the innovative food systems planning and policy work of Lawrence and Douglas County, click here.

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

  1. What is your first and last name? Helen Schnoes
  2. What is your current position? Food Systems Coordinator, Douglas County, KS
  3. How long have you held this position? Since April, 2015
  4. What do you enjoy about your work? I enjoy working with a wide range of people throughout the community, and the chance to balance an appreciation for the local context with bringing new ideas to the table and learning from the work happening elsewhere. I get to staff our food policy council, a group of 23 stakeholders who advise our county and city commissions on food systems issues. It has also been rewarding to provide a supporting role to increase public input into policy change–and learn on the ground about the technical details of these processes/policies at the same time.
  5. Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? Defining what it is! With just under 6 months at this job, I’ve learned a lot, but am still figuring out how to define the “scope” of what I’m doing. As a new role in county government, I talk a lot with my boss about what our place in the community is to support local food development and community health–and what “food systems” issues we can actually meaningfully address at the local scale. Recently, figuring out how to frame issues, especially how food “connects” issues beyond its materiality, has been on my mind. There’s a lot of powerful writing and thinking nationally about food issues and planning–but translating that into practical, on the ground action is an intellectual and professional challenge–though quite an exciting one to have the chance to tackle! On a practical level, too, I’m in a grant-funded position, so its tenure is limited in its initial composition, and dependent upon Congress. (But we are thinking about future options.)
  6. What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? It’s a mix: Local food system development, including food hub creation and fostering wholesale opportunities for small-scale farmers; supporting farmers markets; farm to school purchasing processes; food policy council support/facilitation; communications and public messaging, including a focus on health; local food system assessment (across sectors) and planning.
  7. In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? It’s everywhere! My role is funded by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant our health department received, so some of my key priorities are guided by that (wholesale local food purchasing, including farm to school and public promotion for local, healthy foods). But that work is also closely tied to other opportunities that arise in the community–including the food plan that the steering committee leading our comprehensive plan update tasked the food policy council to create for the next year, and the revision to our local urban agriculture policies, which the city commission tasked Planning with this summer. I’ve helped with public outreach and draft review.
  8. Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? With just over a year since completing my planning master’s degree, I do find that the planning lens really influences how I think about the work and how I see myself relating to the various stakeholders and community members I engage with. Attending the national APA conference in Seattle and participating with APA-FIG further help me maintain this identification with food systems planning even though some of my days are not as closely related to “planning,” per se. The chance over the coming months to help create a local food plan and update our food system assessment, however, present an exciting opportunity to really delve into food systems planning and, hopefully, anchor it locally in our long-range planning and policy priorities.
  9. What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? When our first food system assessment was conducted over five years ago, after our food policy council formed, the report pointed to local food infrastructure and food security as key areas needing attention. This has guided a lot of work since then, including creating a community garden program on city land, receiving a USDA grant to conduct an in-depth feasibility study and farmer/buyer outreach about building a regional food hub, and creating a matching program for SNAP at Farmers Markets–launched by and still partially-funded by local government. Since arriving this past April, I’m working with the core group of farmers leading the formation of the food hub and we worked with them to apply for additional USDA funds to help launch their aggregation business. Our Chamber is working with them to disburse other start-up funds our food policy council received to support the effort. Now that we’re launching an update of that first food system assessment, we’re talking about how we can integrate labor concerns, river environmental health, and even housing affordability to continue pushing how we (and our leaders) understand and address food security. Both local food aggregation (and growing the production/viability of small-scale farmers), especially in Kansas, and food security are long-term issues with many non-local influences. However, I’ve been impressed by the continued energy in this community to maintain commitment to these efforts.
  10. How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? Not a lot of people know what food systems planning is! (Although I do think my mom gets it now.) I’m still working on how to simply talk about the type of work I’m doing. However, as a young professional, I’m very excited to be entering the planning field at this time that food systems issues really are further establishing themselves within the profession. The question of scale is also very clear in my mind since taking a job in local government, and how influential state and regional dynamics can be–yet at times beyond our immediate sphere of action for the majority of our work. But, this intrigues me to continue thinking about alternative approaches, opportunities for coordination and collaboration, etc. Also: There’s often an urban (big city urban) bias to a lot of “national” conversations about food planning.
  11. Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? I like to tell people that I chose to attend Cornell for my planning degree as much for its location in Ithaca, NY, given its strong local food scene, and its standing as a land grant university with cooperative extension, as any of its “prestige.” There were so many people there that contributed to how I think about food systems and planning: Mildred Warner was an amazing (and demanding) advisor, and John Forester imbued an important level of self-awareness about the process and place of planners. I had the great fortune to overlap in my two years there with Becca Jablonski, and meet others she works with, including Ken Meter. I have a handful of peers who also pursued their own food systems planning focus and we bonded over our shared commitment to this area that many of our classmates rarely even knew existed (at first). My program also encouraged us to take courses outside of planning, so leveraging law, business, development sociology, agricultural economics, and natural resource courses provided a breadth of perspectives about issues central to food systems work. Volunteering with a community local food networking group and interning with Martha Armstrong at Tompkins County Area Development in Ithaca were very formative and helped get a bit of reality to balance my coursework “up on the hill.” From my volunteering I met Jeanne Lecesse, who now with Growing Food Connections, has provided helpful guidance about being a young planner on the job market interested in food systems. My food systems work is also very much shaped by two summers in Sitka, Alaska, and subsequent work with Nic Mink to research wild salmon and help launch Sitka Salmon Shares, a sustainable wild seafood business built upon the community supported fishery model, adapted for Midwestern consumers. Since graduate school, I’ve had the opportunity to intern with the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and work with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture–two pioneering groups in my home state who have worked for decades to build capacity and connections that have significantly impacted small- and medium-scale agriculture and the state’s local food system. I draw from all of these experiences for my current work.
  12. 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? I feel I could still gain much from what others answer when asked these questions! That said, I am a strong believer in always following your passions, putting yourself out there for different opportunities (some will be dead ends, others will work out), and having a driving curiosity mixed with entrepreneurial spirit. Find people who inspire you and from whom you can learn, and ask questions. (I’m currently reading Food for City Building by Wayne Roberts and think that’s a pretty accessible and over-arching primer for thinking about this type of work, though of course context-specific to Toronto.) The ability to think critically/creatively and make connections (with people, across issues) is really important in the rather nebulous realm of food systems planning. Take an optimistic perspective, most of the time. A lot of this work comes down to communication with others, building relationships, and thinking strategically of both the short and long term. Synthesizing information and tailoring arguments for different audiences is important. Be humble and listen. I’m hoping to build my more technical skills regarding specific policy interventions, financing options, public facilitation processes, etc. Though I don’t use it, I appreciate that I persevered through a GIS course to understand data analysis and presentation better, and how to utilize it as needed. Being able to conduct meaningful evaluation is also important. I’ve done quite a bit with Survey Monkey, for example, and benefited from exposure to survey design while in school, as well as use of Excel for basic analysis and presentation. Related–knowing where to go for other examples of food systems work, data sets, etc. is helpful and something to continually develop. (And, luckily, FIG and GFC are working on this!) I personally think there’s an under-appreciated importance for food as culture and the power of stories. I reflect on this quite a bit, even though I don’t often utilize it in my day-to-day work so far. Gravy, a podcast by the Southern Foodways Alliance, is excellent on this front and one of my favorite things right now.
  13. What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? Knowing more about local government, its processes and financial aspects, though varied across place, could have provided a richer foundation for a lot of our planning discussions. Despite getting pretty advanced with math in high school and college, I hadn’t had a statistics course until grad school, and it was a WHIRLWIND from which I learned a lot, but would have probably gotten more out of, and better leverage now, with additional coursework. When I wrote my application for planning school, I actually said that I wanted to enter the program not to be a planner, but to gain the tools of the planner to influence food systems change. However, I now have deepened my appreciation for the larger field of planning, and value that professional identity much more than I anticipated I would three years ago. So, I’m probably the opposite of a lot of planners–where I’m the food systems girl who’s enjoyed expanding my perspective through planning, instead of the planner who’s beginning to integrate a food systems perspective.

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.