Faces of Food Systems Planning: Mary Yetter



Image Source: Piedmont Park Conservancy


Mary Yetter is a Program Coordinator at the Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta, GA where she manages the Piedmont Park Green Market. In her unpaid work, she is also a small-scale grower/farmer and dedicates herself to increasing access to local food.

This interview was conducted via phone by Erin Thoresen, a member of the APA-FIG Communications & Outreach Working Group on July 8, 2016. The following responses have been edited. 

What is your first and last name? Mary Yetter

What is your current position? Program Coordinator, Piedmont Park Conservancy

How long have you held this position? 2.5 years

What do you enjoy about your work? The flexibility to do what I want.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? I find the lack of interest by my organization in what I do challenging. There is a general apathy in the organization.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? In my work I focus on farmers markets, going from the farm to the market, and promotion to get people to purchase. Local food. In my unpaid work, I farm. I am in small-scale production.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? Hoping to effect change to bring smaller scale availability and local availability to the population. We’re working to get fresh – I don’t like to say that – just-picked food to people. Before I even did this position, it was really different here. Coming to Atlanta was eye-opening – the lack of access, lack of availability, lack of awareness. Atlanta ranks low in that area. Now there are a more markets – we’ve probably reached saturation even. But there’s not enough promotion to make them successful. There is change [happening], but I just don’t think that the change and the promotion are working hand-in-hand. It’s getting there, but progress is slow.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Well, in a broad sense, yes. I have a public health background. I approach everything from public health perspective. I work with small-scale farmers and growers. I also work with [the organization] Community Farmers Markets a lot. So I think yeah, it’s part of that system. Part of what I do is work in my own local community to create access, to connect people with food. When I got here, there was nothing in terms of fresh-picked or local. It was – I hate this term, but it was a food desert. Now that is starting to change.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/ organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? Actually we’ve been planning and developing an urban farm, but it hasn’t taken off due to a lack of buy-in and lack of funding available. I think there’s still a long way to go in terms of financing and buy in for these types of things. It’s a barrier. I see this across Atlanta in general. They [the City] hired a sustainable urban agriculture guy, but he’s not even a grower. He’s a landscape architect who is well versed in City ways. It looks good, but I see it as superficial action with no real change. It’s going to take a group of more grassroots people to call people to task.

Do you think that group exists already? The grassroots group to make that change happen? For small farmers, they’re so busy they don’t have time. Plus they’re wary of crossing the City. It’s going to take time.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the field? I was working on an international perspective, but here I’ve gotten more involved in trying to push and work with smaller farmers to empower them. Helping with land acquisition, financing, and support them. It’s not organized but in small circles of folks I work with. The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group is great. They put on a great conference.

Who has had the most influence on you as a food systems planner? Not one person specifically, but I work with farms and partner with them. I work with a couple of older farmers who take on younger farmers to teach and mentor them – since I don’t have my own land. They teach seed, soil, working with tractors. They’re very generous with their energy. I also admire Crack in the Sidewalk farm – they are true-blue in terms of trying to change, to create access where it doesn’t exist, promoting small scale urban ag. They follow sustainable practices,

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’m an action-oriented person. Going to meetings is fine, but if you don’t do something, then it doesn’t matter. Doing something in the physical sense. Physical skills are essential. Problem solving and mediation – that’s what I really do. Sometimes it’s like being a psychologist.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? How much I like farming and food systems. I would have redirected into a different area.