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Planning for Local Food Systems: A Whatcom County Case Study, Part 2

A vendor stall at an outdoor market featuring produce, cut flowers, and potted plants

Photo credit: Margaret Gerard

A few weeks ago I interviewed Ali Jensen about the Whatcom County Food System Plan (Plan). In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the concept of local food system plans and discussed the county’s planning process to date. Part 2 of this series dives deeper into the plan itself and includes advice for counties interested in developing or updating their own plans.

A Continuing Conversation with Ali Jensen 

As a Program Specialist with the Whatcom County Health and Community Services, Ali has been deeply involved in the county’s process to develop the Plan

Can you summarize some of the Plan’s key strategies for creating a healthier and more sustainable local food system?

Our Plan is big (114 actions) and complex (it’s a system). At the heart there are five distinct goals for ensuring the health of our county’s food system: cultivate equity and justice; protect and regenerate our water, soil, and land; build a resilient and vibrant local food economy; ensure access to healthy food for all; and mitigate emissions from food system activities and adapt the food system to a changing climate. And the Plan identifies five ways to do that: through policy solutions, community collaborations, county leadership, infrastructure development/maintenance, and public education and programming. Many government plans sit on shelves and collect dust. Implementing this plan will take the will of the Whatcom County Food System Committee and of county staff and elected officials, as well as engagement from the community itself.

Which strategies have been completed so far and which ones do you think will have the biggest impact?

As of this writing, the Plan has not yet been adopted by the county council, but many of the actions outlined are already underway. We have so many amazing community partners working on everything from educating producers about best practices to raising awareness about issues facing our food system workers. We still have many gaps in our understanding of the local food system. Actions related to assessing and creating goals for our food system feel like a really important first step.

I think “biggest impact” would be defined differently depending on who you ask. Immediately funding food banks would be impactful for many families right now, while starting a program to explicitly invest in cooperative ownership of food system businesses would have a significant long-term impact on our economy.

What might Whatcom County’s food system look like in 10 years?

I think the biggest success we can achieve is increased awareness about our food system. Food system planning has certainly exploded since the county’s first community food assessment was published in 2011, but it is a new field of study and practice. I’m hopeful more people will ask questions about the food they eat. The Plan calls for the county to establish a food system dashboard, which should help to keep people engaged, concerned, and committed to our local food system.

I think our food system will look really different in 10 years. We will grow different crops, the fishing economy will look different, and there will be new and innovative ways to get food to people. My hope is that this plan sets the direction and vision of how we want those differences to look and how we respond to emerging issues.

What advice do you have for other local governments interested in developing and implementing a local food system plan?

There is no right way to make a food system plan, but there are wrong ways. I’d ask a series of questions in the beginning of the planning process, such as:

  • Who is driving this work? Is it the county council? A community group? A county department? What is the impetus of this plan?
  • Where should this plan live (in or out of local government)? The Whatcom Plan is housed in government, but my peers working on a plan for San Juan County are not housed in government. Each approach has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Consider whether or not government is the place to do this. Either way, local government should support this process.
  • What is your scope? Is your community interested in food security (or is it just the environmental advocates)? Food system plans are broad, but you can target one goal (instead of five) and still identify a complex web of actions that will impact that goal.

Another important step is to ask your community, “What would a bad plan look like?” This could shape how you develop implementation or how you value community engagement.

For any staff involved in this work, you are not alone. When I started, I spent a lot of time working alone, but in time I met more food system planners. A few cities and counties in Washington have food system plans or councils (e.g., King County Local Initiative and Spokane Food Policy Council) and I would encourage other planners to reach out to us for support and empathy (Food can be controversial too!).

For more information about the Whatcom County Food System Plan, contact Ali Jensen. For more examples and information on local food systems, see these resources:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Lisa Pool

About Lisa Pool

Lisa Pool joined MRSC in June 2021. Most recently, she served as a senior planner for Bellingham. In this role, she primarily focused on long-range planning projects, including the city’s comprehensive plan and new housing regulations. Prior to moving to Bellingham, she worked on regional sustainability and transportation issues for a metropolitan planning organization and conducted development review for cities and counties in the Midwest.

Lisa holds a Bachelor of Arts in environmental policy and a Master of Urban Planning, both from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She has been a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners since 2009.

Photo of Ali Jensen

About Ali Jensen

Ali Jensen, MPH, is a Program Specialist at the Whatcom County Health Department and is supporting the Whatcom County Food System Committee. She works directly with community partners to plan for a more equitable and sustainable food system and co-creates solutions to food insecurity.

Ali was born in the Pacific Northwest and is passionate about the intersection of food, housing security, and transportation. She likes using community stories to determine what to work on and measure how well she’s doing.