Megan Bucknum is ¾ faculty with the Department of Geography, Planning and Sustainability at Rowan University in New Jersey where she currently teaches planning courses, including food systems planning. As a consultant, she has worked on food projects throughout the country and has held staff positions at New Venture Advisors LLC, Philly CowShare, The Food Trust, Fair Food Philadelphia and the Wallace Center at Winrock International, as well as assisting with the University of Vermont’s inaugural Food Hub Management Certificate course. She has been a contributing author to a the planning guide Building Successful Food Hubs, the Healthy Food in Small Stores report, and the book “Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement is Changing the Way We Eat.” Megan serves as a board member for the Share Food Program in Philadelphia, and is a member of the APA-FIG Leadership Committee.
This interview was conducted via email in March 2017 by Laine Cidlowski, member of the APA-FIG Leadership Committee.
What is your current position? Part-time Faculty at Rowan University (NJ) + Independent Consultant
How long have you held this position? Just over 3 years, with different degrees of teaching/consulting split
What do you enjoy about your work? Listening to and learning from people’s agrarian experiences. The majority of my consulting work has been conducting primary research, mostly through interviews, and facilitating public meetings. Through this work, I have been able to talk with and meet people from across the food supply chain in the quest to find where there are barriers and opportunities to increase the amount of regional food available within an area. The great part about splitting my time between consulting and teaching is that I get to help spread the stories of food producers to the next generation.
Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? This field has a lot of turnover, mostly due to the predominance of grant-funded positions within the subject area. I feel that it can be hard for projects and initiatives to create projects based on institutional knowledge because of staff turnover. Additionally, I think improvement can be made to try to connect various efforts within the good food movement to ensure that projects are not recreating the wheel.
What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? While my career focus has been varied, the majority of my work (and interest) has been in regional food distribution and procurement, specifically integrating regionally produced food into conventional distribution routes. While this focus is very distinct, achievement of this goal will have wide benefits for both producers and consumers of regional food.
In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? Addressing the food system has always been the core of the jobs that I have held.
Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Building upon my previous answer, I have always sought after jobs that are completely food systems related. Because of this I have held a lot of nontraditional planning jobs and have often referred to myself as a “quasi planner.” I always preface my Introduction to Planning courses by mentioning how I am a planner, but a bit of a weird one.
The majority of the food-related jobs and projects on which I have worked may not seem fully planning related on the surface, like conducting a food hub feasibility study. However successfully implementing food systems projects requires working on more traditional planning related tasks, like farmland conservation, economic development incentive packages and making sure there are adequate accessible commercial properties available.
What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? In my opinion, over (or premature) investment in infrastructure is a hurdle to food systems projects. While it may be look great for a food systems related project to have a large warehouse, or for a municipality to have been able to offer subsidization for that project, if the business model is not secure, this project will likely not be viewed as a success for long.
An alternative is to have municipalities assist in the business development phase of a food-based project by leveraging a collaborative planning approach. This technique can help qualify and quantify regional food supply and demand as well as make connections that could be used for infrastructure sharing.
How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? The more time I spend in this field, the more I favor public-private partnerships to implement food systems projects, especially those associated with regional food supply chain development. Because the market is still developing for source-identified foods, some financial assistance may be necessary to jump start programs, projects and businesses. I have seen more success in projects that have forged a public-private partnership to secure some of this assistance than projects that are fully grant funded.
Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? My graduate advisor at the University of Virginia Tanya Denckla Cobb. Not only did she deepen my understanding of the food system in general, but she taught me the most valuable tool to any project and community development: facilitation. Drawing from her experience as a trained mediator and facilitator, she taught me how to conduct a successful interview, facilitate a meeting and design a project plan that allows for public inclusion in a meaningful way. Lastly, she taught me to ask people, “if you had a magic wand, what would you do?” I cannot tell you the wealth of information I have unearthed by asking this question…right after the interviewee asks if I’m serious.
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? Work in this field before you consider any academic training, even undergraduate education! Yes, this is coming from someone who teaches at a university and teaches a food systems planning course. Because this field is so specific, I think people really need to be sure that they want to focus on this before they make the financial commitment to a traditional education experience. If you are interested in working in the food system, start at the source: the farm. Apprentice on a farm and consider a Food Systems 101 class; feel free to email me and I’ll send you a list of readings to accompany your work experience.
The skill I use most in my food systems work that has allowed me to successfully contribute to projects is listening. Truly listening to people, not just hearing them, will reveal both hurdles — as well as their possible solutions — in our food system. People experiencing a problem have often thought about a solution. Try asking them about their ideas.
What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? A little bit more about the discipline! I embarrassingly did not know a lot about this field, I had to look up who Jane Jacobs way the first week of classes.
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.