Faces of Food Systems Planning: Monica Wilkinson

Monica Wilkinson_pic 10-2015Monica Wilkinson is the Community Development Director for the City of Vernon, Texas. She has held this position for 10 years. She is also an active member of the APA-FIG Policy Working Group.

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? I enjoy working with members of the community on collaborative projects such as park improvement, community-based planning, downtown revitalization, etc..  Working with the public can be exhausting but is at the core of why I chose a career in local government.  What I do makes a difference, which is fulfilling.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? Right now my workload is a challenge.  I manage code enforcement, building services, planning & development, GIS, grant writing/management, animal control, and recently tourism and our main street program with one staff member and myself.  It’s a chore to keep up with it all much less to be competent and comprehensive in all facets of the job.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? I was part of a citizen group that started our local farmers market so I work with that in the spring and summer quite a bit.  We coordinate with our local WIC office, meals on wheels, senior center, regional food bank and local food pantries.  I would love to conduct a food system plan for our area but haven’t been able to do so yet.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? It’s not in my job description but it is a priority of mine.  I would say it is my responsibility as the city planner.  Vernon is a rural community and honestly, there hasn’t been much demand or support for food system planning….much less an understanding of why it’s important.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Not specifically.  I have all the right training, background and experience to be one….just not the right location!  Food system planning alone is way too specific a title/position for a town of 11,000 – at least in rural Texas!

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? The lack of understanding on the importance of food system planning and the unwillingness to devote funding for such an activity.  It’s really done in bits and pieces here…not collectively by way of a plan.  When I say in pieces, there are many people and organizations that contribute to improving health and food access/security in our community but no one concerted effort to plan for such in our community.  I think if our economic development people could ever understand that there is opportunity for job employment and business growth via a concerted effort on food system planning, etc. in our community, things might change.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? Ten years ago it wasn’t on my radar.  I have a PhD in political ecology and a background in agricultural development and cultural anthropology.  My dissertation addressed social implications of genetically engineered cotton in Texas.  I was, and continue to be, an advocate for sustainable agriculture but honestly I had no idea food system planning as a field of specialization existed until a few years ago.  It started coming together for me a few years ago as I became more interested in nutrition.  I’m a local Weston A. Price chapter leader and currently studying to become a nutritional therapy practitioner.  Maybe my interests  have just changed and I sought it out with more fervor.  Realistically, I don’t thing food system planning was a popular subset of planning until 5 or so years ago.  I could be wrong but I get that impression.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? Hmmmm…I love the work of Randall Arendt but I don’t think he is considered a food systems planner.  Since I don’t have a degree in planning per se and came to this (profession) in around about way, I’m not familiar with the key food system planners.  I will say that Arnendt’s work helped me start thinking about how our environment and the layout of our living spaces plays into our health and thus, the enjoyment and fulfillment we feel in life.  A century ago, the majority of people lived on the land and from the land.  Today we are so disconnected from what sustains us.  It’s hard to achieve health when so far removed.

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 would love to work more directly in the field of food system planning but that is not an option for me here…at least not at the moment.  Food system planning is a very small part of what I do every day.  It seems like most of the opportunities to work in this field are in urban areas where there are the resources and need to be more specialized.  But I think food system planning is especially important in rural areas and I would encourage anyone interested in working in this field to look broadly at planning and community development positions in rural areas.  There are a lot of opportunities to do good work which is both satisfying and significant in small communities.  You can see results quickly and witness daily the positive effects of change in your community.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? I wish I would have gone to planning school!  I guess it’s never too late!   Actually, I don’t think it is necessary to be formally trained as a planner to work in food systems planning.  The field lends itself to diversity as it is a conglomeration of so many areas of study, i.e. ecology, transportation, planning, nutrition, GIS, community health, parks and recreation, economic development and even tourism to name but a few.

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.