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.