Faces of Food Systems Planning – Dawn Meader McCausland

Dawn Meader McCausland is the founder and principal of Fruition Planning & Management, a Seattle area consulting firm that works at the intersection of food and community development in order to support organizations that expand opportunities and advance equity. Dawn recently co-authored Shared Kitchen Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Planning, Launching and Managing a Shared-Use Commercial Kitchen.

  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?

Lately, the focus of my work has been food entrepreneurship programs and facilities, in particular, kitchen incubators and shared-use commercial kitchens. Shared kitchens are like co-working spaces for small food businesses. Kitchen incubators (also known as food business incubators) are similar but also offer training and support services for food entrepreneurs. Some of the best known ones, like La Cocina in San Francisco, are nonprofits specifically focused on low income, immigrant and minority businesses, but there are also many for-profit facilities. The common thread is that they offer affordable commercial kitchen space, which is needed to meet food licensing requirements that prohibit people from selling (most) foods made in a home kitchen. Shared kitchens and food business incubators play an important, but often overlooked role in the food system. When I attempted to develop a shared kitchen I was amazed at how complicated it was and how few resources were available. That frustration became my motivation. I set out to learn everything I could and eventually refocused my consulting on food entrepreneurship. I’ve spent the last year working with partners to develop resources to support shared kitchens and kitchen incubators.

  1. What do you enjoy about your work?

I love the creativity of food and the excitement of being a part of the entrepreneurial journey. I’m trained as a Planner and as a Chocolatier, so I gravitated to this work as a way to combine my passions for community development and good food. I’m particularly inspired by the potential for food entrepreneurship to bring greater opportunities to people with limited financial resources or access to the traditional job market, such as immigrants and refugees. I worked in public housing for many years and see a great need to create economic opportunities for people facing barriers. I’m continually inspired by the groups I work with and the entrepreneurs they serve. I love problem-solving so I especially enjoy the analysis and strategy involved in finding the right solution. It’s an exciting time to be in this field because there’s so much innovation. Collectively we’re starting to really appreciate that food can be a tremendous tool for revitalization and community building.

  1. Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work?

Shared commercial kitchens and incubators are diverse and unique to each community. Every time I think I’ve seen all the variations, someone develops a new model. Lately it’s been a trend toward clusters of single-user kitchens and production spaces, sometimes called “pods”. It’s fascinating. But it can also be challenging to wrap your arms around all of the models to come up with best practices that work in different communities. I recently co-authored the Shared Kitchen Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Planning, Launching and Managing a Shared-Use Commercial Kitchen and it took 30 pages just to define the types and discuss their uses and revenue streams. It’s exciting to be working in such a rapidly evolving area of food systems, but it can feel elusive. Local rules for these facilities vary tremendously by jurisdiction. And food industry trends and changes in food regulations are continually shifting the landscape of what’s needed and what’s possible.

  1. Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not?

No, because I don’t generally do traditional long range, comprehensive food systems planning – I’m more specialized. I would say I’m part of the food systems planning world, but I’m not a food systems planner. My goal is to help people understand the role of food entrepreneurship in the food systems puzzle.

  1. What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with?

Because shared commercial kitchens and food business incubators straddle food systems and economic development it’s been challenging to find stakeholders invested in the success of them as a group. I think that’s starting to change and I’ve been lucky to join teams working on developing resources for their unique needs. But there is still so much research needed about what’s working and the impact these programs and facilities are having on the food system and local communities. I worry we aren’t being as effective as we could be. From a policy standpoint, there is a real need for more consistency and transparency in how shared facilities are regulated. But the first task is helping people understand why they matter. In a sense, shared kitchens and kitchen incubators are the “back of house” of food systems – out of sight and sometimes undervalued in our focus on the production and consumption ends of the system.

  1. How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field?

It’s exciting to see how much it’s grown as a field. We’re understanding so much more about the layers of local food systems and how they interact with the global food economy. It’s been fascinating to see how advocacy for changing the food system has influenced consumer preferences over the last 10 years. New trends in local, healthy, ethnic, and sustainable food have opened up more opportunities for small businesses and shifted market share from the big food companies. I think we’re wrestling with what sustainability looks like at scale and perennial issues of injustice in the food system. We’re also learning more about how to leverage economic forces. I think the next step is incorporating more insights from market research and behavioral economics.

  1. Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner?

Karen Chapple, my advisor at UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning taught me a lot about the potential for equitable community economic development strategies. I’m grateful for the economic analysis tools she and others taught me in planning school. But my perspective is also influenced by the social justice framework I gained from my Ethnic Studies undergrad.

  1. What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school?

How to build the career you want in planning and all the different ways in which planners use their training outside of traditional planning work. And how valuable business classes could be!

  1. Any advice you’d give to people entering the planning or food systems field?

I would encourage them to think more about implementation and who needs to be engaged in the process to bring plans to life and make them more equitable. I think it’s also important to try to understand the role of the economy in your work – whether that’s development pressure or food trends. Ultimately you’ll be more creative and effective if you understand the forces at play.

 

 

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