Faces of Food Systems Planning: James O’Neill

JONeillJames O’Neill is a social planner for the City of Vancouver, where he devotes the majority of his time to urban food systems planning and policy work. He is currently responsible for implementing the Vancouver Food Strategy.

This interview was conducted via phone by Kimberley Hodgson, Chair of APA-FIG, on September 24, 2015. The following responses have been edited.

What is your first and last name? James O’Neill

What is your current position? Social Planner, Department of Social Policy, City of Vancouver

How long have you held this position? 5 years

What do you enjoy about your work? I enjoy the ability to see different things that are happening on the ground through my work. There are tangible benefits of working on topics such as food. I enjoy being able to financially support the work of community organizations and witness the effects and outcomes of this funding – how it contributes to building more resilient and sustainable communities throughout the city.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? I find it most challenging to work across and between different topics. Food is a varied and wide topic expanding everything from food production to waste disposal. There are many different things the city can work on, so trying to be strategic when there are competing interests can be challenging.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? In our department, we take a food systems lens on all that we do.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? Here in Vancouver, we take a community development and social justice lens on food issues. Although several planners in my department focus on food systems planning and policy, no one has a title other than social planner. This allows our director to move us around, depending on resources and needs. About 85% of my time focuses on food work, and the other 15% focuses on issues concerning older adults and infrastructure development.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Yes. Although I don’t have that title, I do think I advance the work of food systems and sustainability in the city. And a lot of people look to me and my colleague as the food policy team to implement the actions developed in the Vancouver Food Strategy.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? In the past year, the biggest hurdle was the development of the Vancouver Food Strategy. Before its development, there were a number of food policy initiatives, projects, and other programs being led by community and neighborhood groups. The city wanted to support this work, but there was no coordinated policy. There was no one document we could point to and say to city council that this is what we are working on and that the food systems is a priority and is connected to other city issues. It took about 18 months to develop the Vancouver Food Strategy, which elevated the conversation of food policy to a different level to be equal to other city initiatives. We can now sit around the table with the transportation, land use, waste planners, and others to show how food can add value to what they are doing. We now have policy at adopted at the same level and deemed as important as some of these other urban topics.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? In the beginning food systems planning was an outlier. It was considered grassroots, even radical. But, I think now the perception of food systems planning has changed over the years to be a solid piece of policy and strategic priority for the City of Vancouver, but also for many cities across North America. Many of these cities now see how food can add value and help achieve a number of social, environmental and economic goals.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? There hasn’t been one particular person. The Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC) members have such a passion and interest and depth of knowledge around food. They come with different and unique lenses. Speaking with VFPC members offline and working on different projects to better enable and support the work I am doing, has helped me to stay grounded and move a lot of the work forward.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? Hone in on food systems planning, but recognize that food systems planning, when working in a municipal setting, is one of many competing and different urban topics. Planners need to be able to understand how cities work, and have a holistic view of planning.

A lot of our success within the City of Vancouver has been around relationship building, or working with other people in different departments across the city. We cannot strengthen our food system alone. We need the parks, sustainability, planning, licensing, transportation, and other departments. We also need to have great relationships with the community and community organizations. Policy within the city is important, but we also want to support the work of community groups.

It’s also important to be strategic, and to anticipate when to push ideas forward or when to hold back. Sometimes things might happen that are out of your control, so it’s important to be patient and wait for future opportunities to move forward on a particular issue.


Faces of Food Systems Planning is a series of interviews with practicing planners from across North America who are engaging in food systems planning and policy work. This series is part of APA-FIG’s efforts to highlight food systems planning as an important planning topic. Click here for more information.

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