Faces of Food Systems Planning: Trevor McCoy

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Name: Trevor McCoy

Current Positions: Georgia Tech – Masters of City Planning & Public Policy Candidate – Collaborating with my academic advisor, Dr. Michael Elliott to design and teach Georgia Tech’s first Sustainable Food Systems course.

Georgia Organics – Georgia Food Oasis Intern

1. What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work, and where does that fit in with the rest of the work that you do? As a student at Georgia Tech, I spend most of my time doing research, focusing on the environmental impacts of our global and national food systems. This is research that will be included in the Sustainable Food Systems course that my advisor and I have been designing and will teach together in January 2019.

My main interest lies in agriculture’s substantial carbon footprint, which does not receive the attention that it deserves. In 2014, the IPCC listed agriculture, forestry, and other land use as 24% of global carbon emissions. By comparison, all of land, sea, and air transportation combined are only 14% of our emissions.

Everyone eats. My goal is to bring as much attention to food’s role in our carbon footprint as I can.

2. What do you enjoy about your work? I like to focus on big problems. Although they’re intimidating and sometimes scary, the biggest problems also provide the most room for us to improve, become more efficient, and ultimately come closer to achieving sustainability. There is so much wrong with our food system that it can be depressing, or it can be motivating. When we focus on the world’s worst problems, we can create the world’s most important solutions.

3. Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? Food is deeply personal. This makes it easy to accidentally offend someone. People eat what tastes good, and it’s extremely difficult to change established dietary habits, as we’ve seen with products like sugary soft drinks. We know that these sugar-filled beverages aren’t healthy for us, but millions of Americans drink them every day. I find them particularly hard to resist around the holidays.

Similar to sugar’s role in America’s health, many foods play an important role in our most pressing environment issues. Like sugar, these foods are consumed by millions of Americans every day, which means that finding a way to approach conversations and debates about these issues with friends, family, or colleagues can be extremely tricky.

4. Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? This is a hard question for me to answer. The short answer is that I’m still training to be a food systems planner. I have gotten my feet wet by working with different organizations that are determined to eradicate food deserts, but most of my work has been researching the problems with our food system, rather than trying to actually solve them. I plan to transition from research to application over the next few years, taking the knowledge that I have built and applying it to create solutions through planning and policy.

5. What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? In my work with Georgia Organics’ Food Oasis Program, I have joined their efforts to improve nutrition and provide food security. We are helping the city of Augusta to connect and engage its residents with local farmers to organize community-led interventions for improving their local food environment. Additionally, we have been assisting individuals who are interested in contributing to the food system, especially through urban agriculture.

But America’s nutrition epidemic will not be solved without a heavy dose of creativity and a lot of hard work. It will take a coordinated effort that breaches political lines and all levels of government to win our country’s simultaneous wars on undernutrition and overnutrition.

6. How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? When I first came into the world of food systems planning, I didn’t really “believe” in urban agriculture. The amount of food that a city’s residents require is far greater than the amount that urban agriculture can offer. I used to grow frustrated with people who claimed that urban agriculture was the solution to our nation’s food crises. However, over time I have come to realize how much value urban agriculture has to offer.

There is no question that urban agriculture is not enough to feed our urban population. If we want to change the food system, it needs to take place in the urban setting as well as rural communities, where the vast majority of our food is actually grown. However, urban agriculture plays a vital role in our fight to overhaul the current system. Two hundred years ago, over 80% of Americans were farmers. One hundred years ago, over 20% of Americans were farmers. Today, less than 2% of Americans are farmers. This has distanced the average American’s connection to their food – seeing where it comes from, how it’s made, and what it takes to get food from the field to the plate.

Urban Agriculture helps to recreate the bridge between people and their food by bringing the production of food to the people in a role that is primarily educational. Although it cannot feed the population, urban agriculture reconnects us to our land and can help us to determine what we should eat in a world where such a simple question has become incredibly complex. I especially believe that every school in every city should have a thriving garden, where children can develop a connection to local fruits and vegetables, which will help them to choose which foods to eat during their entire lives. Ron Finley said it best in his Ted Talk, “Children who grow cauliflower will eat cauliflower.”

7. Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? Of course, all of my professors at Georgia Tech have been incredibly influential. Most of all, my advisor, Dr. Michael Elliott, who helped me to channel my interests in food systems into something productive and has had a formative influence on me since I joined this program.

I also need to mention Michael Pollan. Over the past year I’ve been reading all of his books and watching his documentaries, and it has been an eye-opening experience. His writings exposed me to some of the biggest issues of our food systems, and Omnivore’s Dilemma rocked my entire worldview.

8. What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? When I first came to Georgia Tech, I thought I would be happy in the environmental specialization, but I quickly realized that most of the environmental issues I cared about involved food. For some time, I wished that I had gone to a university whose planning department had a greater emphasis on food systems, and if I had known that I would be this passionate about food then I probably wouldn’t have chosen Georgia Tech. However, because Georgia Tech’s planning department has not historically placed a large emphasis on food, I have been given the opportunity to assist in the creation of the university’s first food systems class, which has been an honor. I believe that this will be the first class of many, and hopefully one day our planning department will offer an entire food systems specialization.

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