The Evolution of Food Systems Planning in Kansas

Before moving to Lawrence, Kansas (pop. 97,000), my experience with food systems planning, for the most part, was theoretical and academic. With a recently minted Master of Regional Planning degree, I found myself launching my professional career in a new position: Food Systems Coordinator for Douglas County.

It soon became clear why a college town in Northeast Kansas could boast a county position (albeit grant funded, for now) dedicated to supporting the local food system. We’ve had a farmers’ market and co-op active since the mid-1970s, a collaborative Community Supported Agriculture share program now two decades old, community leaders interested in protecting soil and promoting gardening, a range of active community groups, and a highly motivated Food Policy Council since 2010.

Early outside research and facilitation from state universities and national experts helped lay a foundation to lead the community to become a nationally recognized leader in this work.

So what has food systems planning looked like in Lawrence and Douglas County?

The Garden Incubator, a Common Ground site located within a city park, is designed to welcome gardeners of all ages by including kids’ plots, a vegetable maze, and a sensory garden. Photo by Aimee Polson.

A commitment to cross-sector collaborations

The Douglas County Food Policy Council (DCFPC) is a joint city-county advisory board, composed of 23 local stakeholders representing a diverse range of interests throughout our community food system. Eileen Horn, our city-county Sustainability Director, served as the primary staff support for the council and its various efforts, a role I now hold.

County Appointed City Appointed
At-Large (Input supplier) At-Large (local Health Department)
At-Large (Haskell Indian Nations University Dean) At-Large (Statewide Foundation)
At-Large (State policy advocate on food and health) Agricultural Producer (Produce, flowers)
Agricultural Producer (Poultry) Retail Food Outlet (Restaurant)
Agricultural Producer (Organic produce, flowers, wheat) Retail Food Outlet (Co-op)
Agricultural Producer (Farm bureau board member) Sustainability Advisory Board (for City of Lawrence)
Retail Food Outlet (Grocer) Food Security (Food bank)
Institutional Food Purchaser (Public school) Farmers Market in Douglas County
Education (KU) Business Community (Chamber of Commerce)
Extension Service  
NGO- Health/Nutrition/MD  
NGO- Local Food Systems/Sustainable Ag.  
Youth Representative  
Senior Food and Nutrition Programs  

Innovative use of local government resources to improve access to local, healthy food

  • Double Up Food Bucks: Launched as Market Match in 2014 with about $20,000 in city and county funding, this program allows SNAP-eligible families to spend their benefits at farmers’ markets and have it matched dollar-for-dollar. We are now partners in a $5.8 million USDA grant initiative to rebrand and expand the program with regional partners. Over the next three years, Double Up Food Bucks will expand to 18 regional farmers markets in Eastern Kansas under Douglas County oversight.
  • Common Ground Community Gardening Program: The City of Lawrence community garden program, started in 2012, offers free use of city land to interested residents. There are currently 10 Common Ground sites, including an incubator farm for market growers.

Economic development to support farmers and spur new supply chain connections

  • County-wide farmers’ market study: This in-process project funded by the USDA Farmers’ Market Promotion Program grant will provide critical data and technical assistance to strengthen the farmers’ market sector in Douglas County, Kansas.
  • Regional food hub creation: After a multi-year effort assessed the viability of scaled-up local foods production and distribution into wholesale buyers in Northeast Kansas and the Kansas City region, a new food hub, Fresh Farm HQ, has recently launched as an agricultural cooperative.

Changing land use regulations and instilling long-range planning

  • Urban Ag Policy: This spring, following a year of collaboration with the Douglas County Food Policy Council, the planning department, and interested citizens, the City of Lawrence passed a suite of land use code changes to expand allowed urban agriculture uses and standards, including on-site agriculture sales, small animal agriculture, and beekeeping.
  • County-wide Food System Plan: As part of an update to the community’s comprehensive plan, the DCFPC was asked to write a countywide Food System Plan. A community engagement process has launched and will continue into the fall. Our elected officials will adopt the Food System Plan in early 2017.

In each program, project, and policy initiative, there have, of course, been challenges, setbacks, and differing opinions. Yet through sustained efforts, building relationships, and securing outside funding (now more than $1 million!), innovative ideas have helped food systems planning rise to a more prominent place on the city’s and county’s agendas.

As a young professional, it’s quite the place to build my skills — and, yes, at times quite tasty, too.

About the Author

Helen Schnoes is a food systems planner in Douglas County, Kansas.

Top image: Mushrooms at a farmers' market in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by Flickr user Chris Palmer (CC BY-SA 2.0).


July 26, 2016

By Helen Schnoes, AICP