Planning Local Food Systems: Whatcom County Case Study, Part 1

A local food system plan addresses the strengths and weaknesses of a community’s food system, from processing and distribution to redistribution and disposal, and addresses not only “hard infrastructure” such as distribution systems, but also “soft infrastructure” such as: including strategies to address “infrastructure” as well. policies, partnerships, public education and programs.

These organizations play a key role in supporting local producers and consumers, as the local food system is linked to nearly every area of ​​local government, including environmental protection and economic development. In addition to food system plans, cities and counties can develop supportive comprehensive planning goals and policies, zoning regulations, programs, and incentives. For example, counties can amend zoning provisions for agricultural use, including commercial waste facilities.

Whatscom County Food System Plan

Wacom County has gone even deeper with a comprehensive local food system plan. I recently reached out to Ali Jensen, Program Specialist at Whatcom County Health and Community Services, to learn more about the county’s process for developing the Whatcom County Food System Plan. In this blog, we hope to provide valuable insight to other local governments on how to develop long-term plans that promote equitable, integrated and sustainable local food systems. Here are the series of questions I asked Ali about the effort.

What is the definition of local food systems, and why are these systems important to Washington cities and counties?

When the Wacom County Food Systems Commission (the Commission) was first formed in 2019, we had a lot of discussion about this. We initially used geographic parameters and considered food grown or produced within a 200-mile radius to be “local”. Sometimes that radius was extended to 400 miles, or more than 1,000 miles for Alaskan seafood processed and sold in Wacom County. In fact, in conducting the latest Community Food Assessment Update, we asked subject matter experts, “What comes to mind when you think of your community food system?” and received a wide range of responses. rice field. After all, we are the county advisory board, so our plans are primarily focused on the food system within the county precinct.

I participate in local and statewide conversations about the food system and believe it is important at all levels (even national and global). No matter what scale you are considering, there will always be forces acting on the food system. Factors include severe weather that can ruin crops or cut off important transportation routes; emerging markets in other parts of the world that affect domestic producers; state-specific commitments to farmland conservation; and schedules may include county or city level regulations. . The concept of ‘voting with a fork’ can be realized at the local level, and local governments can have a significant impact on issues such as food insecurity by investing resources in the food system.

What inspired the Wacom County Food System Plan? Who started it?

As far back as 2009, the Whatscom County WSU Extension Office and several community food system leaders conducted the first countywide community food assessment, and some of those leaders attended the Food Systems Strategy Summit in Seattle. Watcom Food Network (WFN) was founded as a result of his attendance. WFN published subsequent versions of the Regional Food Assessments, but found that these assessments did not lead to significant improvements and established a Food Systems Planning Subcommittee. WFN was largely volunteer-led and knew that a countywide food system plan, while useful, would be labor intensive, so the county health department devoted staff time to developing a countywide food system plan. Established an advisory body to the county council to serve.

I feel that this plan has become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. The county had record food insecurity rates, supply chain problems, and a significant shortage of low-wage food system jobs. People have started to realize the connections within our food system.

The planning process included a strong community engagement component. Can you tell us more about the residents who participated in the development of the plan and how the county developed the plan?

First of all, the committee consists of eight sector representatives (local commercial agriculture, export commercial agriculture, food access, nutrition and sanitation, natural resources, labor issues, processing and distribution, fisheries) and one WFN member. . Sector representatives not only represent the sector, but also act as liaisons within the sector and are responsible for guiding the plan in both development and implementation.

The Commission conducted several community engagements (outlined in the plan’s story map). We started in early summer 2022 with a public questionnaire he published for two months. Surveys can help raise awareness and reach a wider audience, but they often lack specific, actionable information. Knowing this, we participate in community events such as his Whatcom Pride, attend meetings of other advisory committees such as the Marine Resources Commission, and have even hosted events. We held large-scale face-to-face events with tamales and packing paper packed with ideas by participants, and sponsored sector-specific events such as restaurant employee focus groups. Our goal for these events was to get as much input as possible on how the draft of his five goals (outlined below) for the Food System Plan could be achieved.


Attendees make notes on sheets during community participation events.

Our consultants, New Venture Advisors, assisted in drafting the plan. Working with the team, the committee themed, coded and synthesized hundreds of pages of notes collected during the summer activities to develop a long list of potential actions towards food system planning. Many jurisdictions would stop here and publish their plans, but we didn’t. Instead, I wanted to ask, “Did I get this right?” We reconvened subject matter experts to narrow down the list of possible actions and hosted a feedback form that acted as an open-ended survey. Committee members contacted each sector for feedback and we refined the list again.

Finally, a roadshow drafted actions, objectives, and goals. We attended the 2022 Farm to Table Trade Meeting and Whatcom Farm Expo to present a draft plan to the participants. It also hosted another restaurant employee conference and held two open houses, virtual and in person. The committee considered all feedback received on these events and made edits accordingly. Overall, about 650 community members participated in the planning process.

This concludes Part 1 of our interview with Ali. In Part 2, we’ll dig deeper into the county plan itself and talk about its implementation.

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