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

A close up of rows of berries at the Whatcom County Farmer's Market

Photo credit: Margaret Gerard

Local food system plans address the strengths and weaknesses of a community’s food system, from processing and distribution to redistribution and disposal, and include strategies to address not only ‘hard infrastructure,’ such as transportation systems, but also ‘soft infrastructure,’ such as policies, partnerships, public education, and programs.

Because local governments are linked to nearly all areas of local food systems, including environmental protection and economic development, these entities play an important role in supporting local producers and consumers. In addition to food system plans, cities and counties can develop supportive comprehensive plan goals and policies, zoning regulations, programs, and incentives. For example, counties can amend their zoning codes for agricultural uses, including commercial waste facilities.

The Whatcom County Food System Plan

Whatcom County has taken a deeper dive into a comprehensive local food system plan. I recently reached out to Ali Jensen, Program Specialist with Whatcom County Health and Community Services, to find out more about the county’s process to develop the Whatcom County Food System Plan (Plan). This blog covers a series of questions I asked Ali about Whatcom County’s work, with the hope that it provides valuable insights for other local governments into how to develop a long-range plan that fosters an equitable, integrated, and sustainable local food system.

What is your definition of a local food system and why are these systems important to cities and counties in Washington State?

We had a lot of discussion around this when Whatcom County’s Food System Committee (Committee) was first formed in 2019. We originally used a geographic parameter and considered food grown or produced within a 200-mile radius “local.” Sometimes we expanded that radius to 400 miles or, in the case of Alaskan-caught seafood processed and sold in Whatcom County, over 1,000 miles. We actually asked subject matter experts, “What comes to mind when you think about our local food system,” when conducting the most recent Community Food Assessment Update, and got a broad set of responses. Ultimately, we are a county advisory committee, so our plan mostly focuses on the food system within our county borders.

I participate in regional and statewide conversations about our food system and think there is importance on every level (even national and global). Whatever scale you are considering, there are always forces acting against the food system. Factors could include severe weather events ruining crops or cutting off important transportation routes, emerging markets in other regions of the world impacting domestic producers, state-specific commitments to agricultural land preservation, and even county- or city-level regulations around worker wages and scheduling. The concept of “voting with your fork” can be realized at the local level and, by investing resources in the food system, local governments can have a huge impact on issues like food insecurity.

What was the impetus for the Whatcom County Food System Plan? Who initiated it?

Way back in 2009, the Whatcom County WSU Extension Office and several community food system leaders conducted the first countywide Community Food Assessment, and the Whatcom Food Network (WFN) was formed after some of those leaders attended a Food System Strategies Summit in Seattle. WFN published later versions of the community food assessment, but seeing that these assessments weren’t creating much improvement, they established a food system plan subcommittee. WFN was mostly volunteer-led and knew a countywide food system plan, though useful, would take a lot of work, so the county health department committed staff time to create an advisory body of the county council tasked with creating a countywide food system plan.

I feel like this plan became especially relevant during COVID. The county had record food insecurity rates, supply chain issues, and significant staffing shortages in low-wage food system jobs. People started to become aware of the relationships within our food system. 

The planning process included a robust community engagement component. Can you tell me more about the populations that were engaged in order to create the Plan, and how the county did it?

First, the Committee is made up of eight sector representatives (local sales farming, export sales farming, food access, nutrition/public health, natural resources, labor issues, processing/distribution, and the fishing industry) plus a WFN member. The sector representatives are supposed to represent as well as liaise within their sectors and are responsible for guiding the Plan in both development and implementation. 

The Committee conducted several rounds of community engagement (outlined in the Plan story map). We started off with a public survey that was open for two months in early summer 2022. Surveys are good for awareness-raising and reaching a broad audience but can often lack specific and actionable information. Knowing this, we tabled at community events, such as Whatcom Pride, went to other advisory committee meetings, such as the Marine Resources Committee, and we also hosted events. We held a huge, in-person event with tamales and sheets of butcher paper which participants filled with ideas, and sponsored sector-specific events, such as a restaurant worker focus group. Our goal for these events was to get as much input as possible on how we could achieve our five draft food system plan goals (outlined below). 

A participant makes notes on a sheet during a county community engagement event. Photo credit: Ali Jensen

Our consultant, New Venture Advisors, supported the development of the draft plan. The Committee collaborated with their team to theme, code, and synthesize the hundreds of pages of notes we collected during summer engagements and created a long list of potential actions for a food system plan. Many jurisdictions will stop here and publish their plans, but we did not. Instead, we wanted to ask: “Did we get this right?” We brought subject matter experts back in to help us refine the list of potential actions and hosted a feedback form, which served as an open-ended survey. Committee members reached out to their sectors seeking feedback and we refined our list — again. 

Finally, we took the draft actions, objectives, and goals on a roadshow. We attended and presented the draft plan to attendees of the 2022 Farm to Table Trade Meeting and the Whatcom Farm Expo, and we hosted another restaurant worker meeting and held two open houses, one virtual and one in person. The Committee reviewed all feedback received at those events and made edits accordingly. All told, around 650 community members participated in the planning process. 

This concludes Part 1 of my interview with Ali. In Part 2, we dive deeper into the county’s plan itself and talk about implementation.

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-related 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.