Who Needs a Food System Plan Anyway?

November 15, 2011

By Alison Hastings
Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission

A few weeks ago, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) accepted an award for its Food System Plan, Eating Here (PDF) from the American Planning Association’s Pennsylvania Chapter.  The project was honored by APA-PA for expanding the role of planning into a new and exciting area, recognizing that all of the various elements of the food system – growing food, transporting food, selling food, and disposing of food waste – are critical for a community’s (or a metropolitan area’s) sustainability.

Eating Here report by DVRPC

DVRPC is a relative newcomer to the food system planning field, having identified vague “food system issues” as a possible research interest in 2007.  However, there are many academic and professional experts who, over the last few decades, understood that food system issues will become more important to the planning field.  And there are plenty of practitioners in New Jersey who are making things happen, with or without plans.

Planning to Eat

Food System Planning, like the ever-evolving profession of “planning,” seems to encompass anything and everything: from broad-sweeping policy work to the specificity of developing local ordinances, and from data analysis to on-the-ground work with communities.  DVRPC’s working definition of Food System Planning is the integration of food system issues into policies, plans, and programming at all levels of government.  Planners could and do play an important role in the development of a healthy, just, and sustainable food system.

The professional membership organization, American Planning Association, is nurturing this growing interest within the field and has established the Food Interest Group, a coalition of APA members who are interested in food system planning at the local, regional, state and national levels.  At its 2007 National Conference held in Philadelphia (coincidently where DVRPC’s offices are located), APA adopted a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food System Planning.  And that is Policy with a capital “P” – as a policy guide goes – the APA’s Food System Planning Policy Guide is meaty, giving a reader plenty of food for thought.

Planning to Eat report by U of Buffalo SUNY

A soon-to-be-published resource document by the University at Buffalo–SUNYPlanning to Eat, eloquently lays out how some local governments are using plans, regulatory tools, fiscal incentives, and institutional mechanisms – tools or activities that are within a local government’s purview – to strengthen food systems.  Some cities, such as Rochester, NY and Madison, WI have adopted ordinances allowing for beekeeping or backyard chickens (known as wholesome-sounding “honey and egg” ordinances).

Just Don’t Call New Jersey Late to the Food System Dinner

New Jersey is both unique to and entirely the same as every other state, with its mix of urban, suburban, and rural communities, values, and challenges.  And as in lots of other places around the country, there are interesting things happening in New Jersey’s food system, from the ground up and top down.

Rutgers, a well-respected land grant university, created the Food Policy Institute in 1999, bringing together disparate food industry, government, consumer groups, and research interests.  Its Eco-Complex in Burlington County runs a business incubator program, which has helped some food-related businesses, such as Seaburst Farms, an aquaculture business.  And the Rutgers Innovation Center opened in 2008 in Cumberland County, ready to help food business entrepreneurs develop products, with focus group testing and commercial kitchen facilities.

Essex County Parks Department and the Branch Brook Park Alliance are partnering to preserve and restore an Olmsted Brothers park in Newark and provide space for urban agriculture.

Every time the New Jersey Farm to School Network hosts a meeting or a conference, they need to find a bigger space.

As with other local government issues, Sustainable Jersey has kick-started some local governments into acting within their local food systems.

And to those communities and organizations who have already integrated food system activities into their plans and programming – who needs a food system plan, anyway?  Doers like to do.

The great thing about a plan, though, is that it can capture individual actions that accumulate into positive changes.

Alison Hastings of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and DVRPC partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog on issues of food policy and regional food systems.