Food System Planning — Why Is It a Planning Issue?

An overview from APA's Divisions Council

The discussion of food system planning within APA originated with the keynote address given by Jerry Kaufman, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, at the 2003 APA National Planning Conference in Denver. He challenged planners to begin addressing food system issues within their communities. His words resonated with many people at the conference.

Following the conference, Deanna Glosser — President, Environmental Planning Solutions, Inc., ENRE Past Chair, and APA Divisions Council Vice-Chair — discussed this issue with APA's Divisions Council and requested its support in pursuing the topic within APA as a council initiative. There was strong support for this as a cross-divisional topic. Glosser and Kaufman worked with APA staff and established a Food System Planning Track at the 2005 APA conference. A total of 85 paper abstracts were ultimately submitted for consideration, far more than anticipated, and seven sessions were presented at the conference.

Food system planning is multi-disciplinary, involving issues related to the environment, transportation, social equity, public health, and more. There is much for planners to do. However, before we discuss the specifics of what planners can do, we need to answer several questions:

  • What is the food system?
  • Why haven't planners traditionally been engaged in planning for the food system?
  • Why should planners become more involved in food system planning?

Be sure to check the Resources section at the bottom of this page for APA documents about food systems planning.

What is the food system?

By the food system we mean the chain of activities beginning with the production of food and moving on to include the processing, distributing, wholesaling, retailing, and consumption of food, and eventually to the disposal of food waste.

Why haven't planners traditionally been engaged in planning for the food system?

Up to now, scant attention has been paid to the food system by planning scholars and practitioners. This is a puzzling omission because as a discipline, planning marks its distinctiveness by a strong claim to be comprehensive in scope and attentive to interconnections among important facets of community life. Yet among the basic necessities of life — air, food, shelter, and water — only food has been given short shrift by the planning community.

Consider some of the findings from a survey of senior level planners in 22 city planning agencies to gauge the extent of their agencies' involvement in food system issues (Pothukuchi and Kaufman, 2000). The authors found that these planners on the whole said their agencies gave only limited attention to food system issues. A number of reasons were given ranging from "it's not our turf" to "planning agencies aren't funded to do food system planning." Two reasons stood out, though, more than others: "The food system is primarily driven by the private market" and "What's the problem — if it ain't broke, why bother fixing it?"

Why should planners become more involved in food system planning?

Some of the planners interviewed partly justified their limited role by claiming competence in dealing with public goods, such as air and water, and with services in which the private sector traditionally had not invested in or was unwilling to, such as public transit, sewers, highways and parks. Because the food system is dominated by private sector players, they reasoned that the planner's role had to be limited.

But the food system has significant impacts on communities and the lives of their residents in terms of the local economy, jobs, the transportation system, the environment, health, and even waste disposal. Therefore, we question the view that planners should take a back seat with respect to food system issues because that system is driven primarily by the private sector. Why? Because the market forces driving the food system impact communities, some of them in negative ways, across a wide spectrum of concerns in which planners have traditionally been involved.

Others contend that the food system is doing fine. Why? Because the dominant industrialized food system produces many hidden costs that aren't really taken into account when we pay modest prices for our food goods at supermarket check-out counters.

They include:

  • the costs of massive energy use all along the food chain from the production of food to transporting food to food processing;
  • the costs of pollution of lakes, rivers, and streams from farm runoff due to pesticide use;
  • higher public health costs resulting from too easy access to foods lacking in nutritional value which lead to more and more people becoming overweight and obese and thus more prone to cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease;
  • and costs generated by increasing consolidation and concentration in the food industry sector which contribute to the significant loss of small farms and decline of some rural communities.

Ultimately, one of the principal reasons for planning's special identity as a discipline and as a profession comes from the particular attention planners give to considering a wide range of distinct community facets and the linkages among them, e.g., transportation, land use, housing, economic development, the environment, recreation. Because the food system is clearly a distinct facet of community life, it warrants being paid more attention to by planners; especially as to how it links to functional areas planners have long considered in their work.

Ways planners can become more engaged in the food system

Drawing on an article in the special issue on planning for community food systems in the Journal of Planning Education and Research (Pothukuchi, Summer 2004), we put forth the proposition that planners can make unique contributions to strengthening local and regional food systems. Among these are their:

  • Skill in analyzing spatial dimensions of community needs that can be applied to the food sector's spatial dimensions;
  • Training in multiple facets of communities not common to those engaged in food system work;
  • Ability to analyze externalities which can be applied to analyzing potential food policy outcomes;
  • Strength in facilitating and managing group processes which could assist in food system work given the diversity of stakeholders involved;
  • Links to decision makers by virtue of their involvement in land use, zoning, and neighborhood issues which can be beneficial to food activists who want to build stronger local and regional food systems; and
  • Support of overarching goals like sustainable and healthy communities as well as strategies to achieve such goals, which is also shared by local and regional food system proponents.
  • Planners could also make a contribution by including more supportive community food system policies in comprehensive, neighborhood, and sector plans.

Following are a number of illustrative policies culled primarily from three sources: the Portland-Multonomah County, Oregon Food Policy Council, the Toronto, Ontario, Food Policy Council, and a paper by the Executive Director of the Madison, Wisconsin, Planning and Development Department. These policies are grouped into two broad categories: steps in the food chain and functional areas familiar to planners.

I. Steps in the Food Chain

A. Food production

  • Enhance the viability of regional farms by ensuring the stability of the agricultural land base and infrastructure (Portland-Multonomah Food Policy Council)
  • Support public campaigns that promote regionally produced foods (Portland-Multonomah FPC)
  • Make community gardens a permitted use in all zoning districts (Madison Department of Planning and Development)
  • Strengthen linkages between rural producers and urban consumers (Portland-Multonomah FPC).

B. Food distribution and food processing

  • Promote regional food products and producers through a combination of farm-direct sales, farmers' markets, a public market and grocery stores (Portland-Multonomah FPC)
  • Consider ways to make farmers markets and fresh food markets standard features across the city (Toronto Food Policy Council)
  • Place a high priority on creating permanent sites for farmers markets and urban agriculture incorporating necessary utilities, parking, and loading areas into the design and provide these facilities at minimal cost to farmers markets (Madison dept p&d)

C. Food access and food consumption

  • Develop community-based solutions for areas with inadequate food access. Just as local government works with communities to improve access to high quality transportation and housing; it has a key role to play in planning for adequate access to food in the neighborhoods and communities of the city and county. (Portland-Multonomah FPC)
  • Preserve maximum access to nutritious, affordable, locally produced, and culturally appropriate food choices for all city residents (Madison dept p&d)
  • Designate retail access to fresh food as an essential service in every community (Toronto FPC)
  • Encourage the development of small and medium-sized grocery stores, and support Madison-owned stores and use of locally produced products (Madison dept p&d)

D. Food waste disposal

  • Set a goal of "zero nutrient loss" from food waste for City resource management systems (Toronto FPC)
  • Establish a citywide composting program to complement an aggressive recycling effort to minimize wastes to be land filled (San Francisco)

II. Functional Areas Familiar to Planning

A. Environment

  • Foster a strong regional system of food production, distribution, access and reuse that protects our natural resources and contributes significantly to the environmental well-being of the region (Portland-Multonomah FPC)
  • Designate urban food production as infrastructure contributing to clean air and water as well as food security (Toronto FPC)
  • Promote edible landscaping as a cost-effective way to beautify the city (Toronto FPC)
  • Explore greenhouse food production, phyto-remediation and living machines as strategies for reclaiming contaminated brownfield sites (Toronto FPC)
  • Explore ways of reducing the distances foods must travel to get to communities in order to reduce energy consumption.

B. Economic development

  • Make the city into a value-added center for locally-grown food products (Madison dept p&d)
  • Designate food processing as a strategic industry (Toronto FPC)
  • Because food and agriculture are central to the local economy of the city and county, a strong commitment should be made for protection, growth, and development of these sectors (Portland-Multonomah FPC)

C. Sustainable development

  • Support an economically viable and environmentally and socially sustainable local food system (Portland-Multonomah FPC)
  • Apply sustainability criteria to food purchases of local government (Portland-Multonomah FPC)
  • Examine ways to support a regionally sustainable food system that gives priority to area food producers and retailers (Madison dept p&d).

D. Health

  • Recognize that food security contributes to the health and well-being of residents while reducing the need for medical care and social services (Portland-Multonomah FPC)
  • Support public campaigns that promote healthy eating (Portland-Multonomah FPC)

E. Neighborhood development

  • Identify grocery stores and access to food as important considerations for developing and redeveloping neighborhoods (Madison dept p&d)
  • Encourage and support community gardens operated, sustained and developed as neighborhood focal points (Madison dept p&d)

What Is Next?

A Food System Planning Working Group has been established within APA. Its first meeting, attended by 40 people, was held at the 2005 APA National Planning Conference in San Francisco. Jerry Kaufman, Deanna Glosser, Kami Pothukuchi, Wendy Mendes, Brandon Born, and Samina Raja volunteered to serve on a steering committee to move things along until the next meeting of the Working Group at the 2006 APA Conference in San Antonio. The Working Group has been increasing in size since its meeting at the 2005 conference as more planners indicate interested in food system planning join.

The steering committee is working to educate planners about food system planning issue s and to integrate food system planning within traditional planning. Efforts currently underway include:

  • Exploring the feasibility of developing an APA policy guide
  • Discussing the need for a Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Report
  • Creating a page on APA's website
  • Establishing relationships with allied organizations
  • Publishing articles to attract more attention to the issue

Another major effort underway is planning for the 2006 APA National Planning Conference, where there will be a track of five sessions on food system planning.

Specific topics of interest for the 2006 track include:

  • Innovative land use and transportation planning to improve food access in low-income rural and urban areas
  • The planning implications of bio-diversity and sustainable food systems
  • Rural issues in food security and related planning efforts
  • The mutual impacts of the food system and the natural environment
  • Linking school and other institutional buyers with food growers
  • Integrating planning for access to healthy foods and for increased physical activity to combat obesity
  • Local government policies to build stronger local and regional food systems
  • Water planning and policies to build more sustainable food systems
  • Planning to increase the safety of the food system


We all know that food is a basic need. The planning profession, however, has been slow to become a player in food system issues that affect the lives of citizens who live in the communities we work for. Yet we are encouraged by recent signs indicating that interest in becoming more active on this front is increasing among some planners. We are convinced that planners have an important role to play in strengthening local and regional food systems. The time is ripe for the food system to become less of a stranger to the planning field.


Food System Planning Task Group Final Report to APA Divisions Council (April 2007)

APA's 2007 Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning