Seattle just released its Food Action Plan, a blueprint to improve the city’s food system. Many of the recommendations in the plan will be familiar to those of us who work on urban food policymaking. These include: expanding SNAP enrollment; creating a “Fresh Bucks” program to help SNAP recipients shop at farmers markets; expanding the city’s P-Patch community gardening program and facilitating rooftop agriculture; investigating the viability of food hubs; helping corner stores sell healthy food; and promoting backyard composting.
The process for arriving at these recommendations follows what planners describe as a “rational” planning model: (1) Public participation to establish broad priorities; (2) Translation of these priorities into four goals; (3) Establishment of criteria (feasibility, potential reach, inclusivity, community health impacts) to evaluate different recommended actions; and (4) Evaluation of existing food-related activities and new policy ideas based on these criteria to arrive at final strategies, recommendations, and specific actions.
Two aspects of the plan – and Seattle’s efforts over the last several years in the area of food planning and policymaking — distinguish it from many similar efforts around the country. The difference is an emphasis on integration across agencies and integration of food into existing planning processes.
The city has a Food Interdepartmental Team (IDT), a working group of senior staff members from different agencies who collaborate on various food policy issues, and this team has been involved in the development of the Food Action Plan. The IDT has been successful at overcoming administrative silos and coordinating food policy work across different agencies, in part because they consist of energetic and dedicated individuals and in large measure because the current Mayor has given them direction to do so.
Second, Seattle has focused on integrating policies into existing planning processes so that officials consider the needs of the food system as different types of infrastructure are developed, new land uses are planned, and projects are designed. This integrated planning approach is reflected in several strategies.
For example, the Food Action Plan recommends integrating “food access policies into the Comprehensive Plan, the Transportation Strategic Plan, Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans, the neighborhood planning process, and other relevant plans so that planning processes include consideration of the availability of healthy food” (emphasis added). In particular, the plan calls for new criteria that would be applied during the transportation planning process to ensure that food access is included as transportation infrastructure is developed. That means building “pedestrian, bicycle, and transit connections between neighborhoods and community gardens, food banks, grocery stores and farmers markets” as a matter of course as transportation engineers consider physical infrastructure and route planning.
The Food Action Plan also calls for integrating urban agriculture into the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and recommends integrating supportive policies into additional plans and efforts, such as incentive programs to encourage green development. One such program, the Green Factor, requires developers of new projects to increase the use of landscaping. The Green Factor provides a bonus for incorporating productive (vegetated) landscapes into new development. A second program, Priority Green, allows expedited permitting for projects that meet Seattle’s sustainability goals, which includes the design of on-site food production into new projects. A third expands a program to require developers to purchase development rights from farmers in the region to meet the city’s incentive zoning requirement in the downtown area and hopefully stem farmland conversion.
As with all plans, the Food Action Plan will require various city agencies, the Mayor, and the City Council to take steps to implement its recommendations. Seattle’s food governance network, including NGOs, community activists, academics, the business community, and policy entrepreneurs within city government will have to monitor its implementation and effectiveness.