Faces of Food Systems Planning: Laine Cidlowski

LCidlowski.JPGLaine Cidlowski, AICP, LEED-AP is the Food Policy Director for the District of Columbia Office of Planning in Washington, DC. She was previously the Lead Urban Sustainability Planner for the Office of Planning where she was the project manager for the Office of Planning for the Sustainable DC initiative and Plan to make the city the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States. Prior to joining OP in March 2008, she worked as Planner-Urban Designer for the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission in Prince George’s County Planning Department. She holds a Masters Degree in City and Regional Planning – Certificate in Urban Design from the University of Pennsylvania and B.A. Degree from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in Environmental Studies. Laine is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and serves as a Co-Chair for APA-FIG.

This interview was conducted via email in March 2017 by Megan Bucknum, member of the APA-FIG Leadership Committee.

What is your current position? District of Columbia Food Policy Director, DC Food Policy Council and DC Office of Planning

How long have you held this position? Around a year and a half

What do you enjoy about your work? I love working with so many committed and dedicated activists and community organizers from diverse areas of the food system. It is really inspiring to see their creativity and enthusiasm as they come up with new programs to help build and support our local food system. I feel really honored to be able to build on their work and scale-up solutions for healthy food access, urban agriculture, procurement, food justice, food businesses and more at the citywide level. My job entails different things every day, and I enjoy that variety.

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? First, the problems we face in food systems are deeply rooted in institutional racism, justice, and poverty. Although these cross-cutting systematic injustices are often the precursors to food justice programs, it’s important to understand that solving these problems cannot be done fully within food systems work. Prioritizing and focusing within such a vast field can also be a challenge, especially when there are so many different programs and organizations taking different tactics at how to approach the same issues.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? Since I work at the citywide level, I work on a bit of everything. I coordinate for more than ten agencies of the District of Columbia who have responsibility over their respective part of our local food system, and also manage our Food Policy Council (FPC). Our FPC works on sustainable food procurement, food equity, food access, nutrition and health, food business, and urban agriculture issues.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? Everywhere! This position was just created in 2015, so before I was hired, no one was looking at food issues systems wide.

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? I’d say I do now, though my undergrad degree was in environmental studies, and my Masters in city planning and urban design. I worked my way to food systems through green infrastructure and sustainability, which I think are all interconnected, although my academic training did not focus on food systems.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/ organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? Access to grocery stores in low-income communities is the toughest issue for us, and the most urgent to get a handle on. Residents in our wealthiest neighborhoods have one grocery store per 13,000 residents. In our poorest areas, it’s almost 1 per 70,000. Nothing is a higher priority for us than to get full-service grocery options in those areas.

How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field?I’ve always thought of it as a city or regional level system, but the more and more I learn about the field, the more interested I am in the behavioral psychology aspect of the issue. So much is influenced not just but the built environment and community but also by the choices of individuals, corporations, governments, and communities. Individual and group choice has a huge impact on our food systems as a whole, so gaining a better understanding of how and why people make decisions around food will help us to take a much more nuanced approach to our work in the future.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? My prior boss, Harriet Tregoning had a huge influence on me. She taught me a lot about the power of being really strategic with your efforts at work, to use a combination of storytelling and data to persuade and work with decision-makers to make change in a community. She’s a really thoughtful and curious leader who always wanted to know the why and the detail of our efforts. She would encourage us to take risks, fail, and figure out how to quickly glean lessons from our failure and try again.

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? Don’t just send a blitz of copy and paste informational interview emails. So many young people are interested in this field right now, which is really wonderful; however I, and many of my colleagues get lots and lots of informational interview requests. The ones that get responses from me are the ones that are specific and provide some detail about why you’d like to talk to me specifically (i.e. you did a little research) rather than a blanket request.

Relationship building, making connections, and networking is almost as important as your work itself. If you have good relationships established, not associations based on needing something from someone, it is much easier to find common ground to work on a project or issue later. Those are skills that translate across many fields, but it is especially true for food systems.

What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? Take a zoning class, a law class, a regulatory class and a negotiation class. Knowing and understanding the regulatory system can help you understand the context for your work. Learning the art of negotiation can help you better understand the needs/wants of the people you work with.


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. The APA will be featuring 8 food system planners at the National Planning Conference this May 2017 in a special “Faces of Food Systems Planning Session”. Click here for more information.

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