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.