Faces of Food Systems Planning: Heidi Stucker

March 10, 2015. Boston, MA. The Metropolitan Planning Council staff photos. © 2015 Marilyn Humphries

March 10, 2015. Boston, MA.
The Metropolitan Planning Council staff photos.
© 2015 Marilyn Humphries

Heidi Stucker is a Food System Planner for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston, Massachusetts. She has held this position for 1.5 years.

Erica Campbell, member of the APA-FIG Leadership Committee and Coordinator of the APA-FIG Policy Working Group, conducted this interview in October 2015.

What do you enjoy about your work?

As a food system planner, I most enjoy the process of facilitating conversations between stakeholders that conclude with all contributors having a far more nuanced understanding of the food system, and what strategies are most important and practicable. To adequately understand the issues present in the food system, and to develop strategies for addressing those issues, it’s important to bring together a range of individuals and stakeholders to identify the leverage points for food systems improvements. Stakeholders include a range of people with varying perspectives to offer – consumers, food producers, supply chain workers and managers, advocacy groups, policy makers and legislators, and others.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work?

I am working on state food policy efforts as well as multi-municipality projects on healthy food programming in grocery stores and neighborhood markets. I am also helping develop ideas for future projects at my agency that address food waste management and local food distribution to school districts in our service region. I am a lead planner on the Massachusetts Food System Plan. This planning process, which has been ongoing for over one and a half years has focused broadly on all aspects of the food supply chain. Through convening a range of food system experts and stakeholders – from fishermen to farmers, researchers to legislators, advocates to activists – the process has led to the development of food policy recommendations that advance the local food system and contribute to achieving goals for increasing local food production and catches, improving business and job opportunities, improving the availability and affordability of local foods, and conserving and ensuring responsible stewardship of natural resources in food production.

I am also a contributing planner to a project that is partnering with a cluster of municipalities north of Boston to improve healthy food access in the cities and towns. The project team is working with neighborhood market owners to develop a business association that would enable identifying and addressing issues unique to smaller food and convenience stores, including improving healthy food distribution. The team is also working with grocery stores to pilot a healthy check out aisle.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time?

I address food system issues as a central component to my work. Over half of my time is committed to food system-related projects. Over time, I have taken on additional work in climate change adaptation planning.

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

I do consider myself a food system planner. This is a central component of my work and expertise.

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 greatest challenges our planning team has faced in the process of developing a state food system plan has been to ensure a process that is representative of a diversity of stakeholders. Through our efforts we had regular input from over 300 people, and outreached to over 1500 people. Those that joined discussions were representative of all parts of the food system, and included researchers, practitioners, industry professionals, advocates, and others. Despite our great successes in developing ongoing relationships with a range of individuals that provided valuable insight into the issues and priority areas for improving our local food system, we had difficulty engaging a few groups of individuals, including those working in the food system – farmers, fishermen, food service workers, those representing mid- and larger- food production and distribution companies, and constituents of community based organizations. While these stakeholders were underrepresented in the larger group conversations, perhaps because of time and financial constraints, we remedied this by deliberately reaching out to these groups to better understand their concerns and ideas, and integrated their feedback into the shaping of the food system plan.

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

Prior to studying food system planning, I had been engaged in food system work in Massachusetts for seven years, and in that time I had observed that increasingly consumers, businesses, community organizations, and others were using food as starting point for talking about a whole range of issues – from the challenges faced by farmers and fishermen to have secure livelihoods, to the prevalence of diet-related health issues experienced by communities of color as symptomatic of systemic issues that resulted from years of racism and disinvestment in these communities.

At the time when I started my masters program there were a handful of examples nationally where cities, regions, and in some cases, states had begun prioritizing food system work, identifying strategies for addressing issues related to farming, food access, food supply chains, and others. As a budding practitioner in the field, I was excited to be a part of an emerging field, hopeful that the field would continue to grow, and intrigued to see whether the field would develop into an independent discipline within the urban planning field, or if it would be integrated into existing disciplines of the field. As it turns out, the answer is, both.

Today, food system planning is emerging as a unique and independent discipline of urban and regional planning, and it is also being integrated by other planning fields – economic development, public health, energy, environmental, transportation, and others. These planning fields are making food system advancements through projects that focus on topics like workforce and business development in the food system, developing solutions for food waste, agricultural preservation and conservation, improving food access through improved transportation systems, and others.

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 system planning connects to nearly all fields within urban and regional planning. It is crosscutting in a way that few other areas of the field are. Furthermore, it is engaging; everyone eats and enjoys food. Beginning conversations with food can open up dialogue about a range of topics: social justice, ecological stewardship, and economic prosperity.

For an individual entering the field of food system planning, I would urge her to gain a firm understanding of the ways food systems connects to a range of issues. In opening conversation with communities about their food systems, help to make those connections and encourage examining issues from several angles, so that strategies shaped for strengthening food systems can be thoughtfully informed.

Further, food system planning is still in its early stages, and there is great diversity in how people are approaching it. In practicing as a food system planner at this time, you will be contributing to and shaping how food system planning is done. Valuable groundwork has already been laid. Do your research, and look at how others have approached food system planning – on a range of governmental levels. Let others’ work inform your food planning, and integrate these practices into your approach, as it makes sense for the context you are working in.

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.