Sunrise Project Engages New Voices in Food Systems Planning

Blog post written by Helen Schnoes, Douglas County Food Systems Coordinator

If there’s one thing that’s been hard to miss this summer—besides the packs of Pokemon Go-ers wandering down Mass St.—it’s that we’re in an election year. Voting is one of the core acts that we perform as citizens of our representative democracy. But, it’s certainly not the only way we make our voices heard. 

Look in the newspaper or scroll through social media and you may notice a survey asking for your input or an invitation to a town hall meeting to share your thoughts about this project or that future development plan. The folks behind these efforts want to make sure their direction follows the public interest. In fact, in Lawrence, we have over forty advisory boards to review local policy issues! 

However, there’s almost always more outreach that could be done. Voices go unheard because they didn’t have the time. The calls to participate may not reach them.  And we often hear from the very engaged citizens who comment on many community issues, so we end up hearing from only a few. This shortcoming can skew our understanding of community experiences, needs, and desires. We may miss revealing insights and creative problem solving that could point energy in new directions. Existing feelings of separation may grow. 

So, what could be done differently? Last year, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department (LDCHD) hosted a workshop with the LiveWell Lawrence coalition about this topic. Led by the national group PolicyLink, the workshop challenged participants to think outside the box about how local efforts can become more inclusive and hear from more people. PolicyLink shared examples of how changing the processes of local planning and policy creation can empower and engage often underrepresented community members. They shared that acknowledging and reducing the barriers of economic inequality and institutional racism often requires slow and intentional effort. 

That’s where Sunrise Project comes in. This local non-profit has hired nine “Community Coordinators” to work with the Douglas County Food Policy Council to collect stories and experiences around food issues. (The DCFPC is one of those 40-plus advisory boards.) Though we may not often think about it, how we produce, buy, eat, and throw away food in Douglas County impacts our economy, our health, our environment, and our local culture. Our community has asked for a strategic Food System Plan to guide future decisions made by our local leaders. The Food System Plan will establish goals and policies to improve the local food system—from farming to access to healthy food to minimizing food waste.

This summer the Community Coordinators are learning all about our local food system, including the hidden parts that most of us don’t see day to day. They are learning about how local decisions are made. They will collect stories and ask questions of their families, friends, and neighbors. The goal of this experimental project is to enhance and expand our understanding the challenges and hopes people living in Lawrence experience. In the process, we hope to go beyond surveys and town halls to integrate more perspectives and deepen what it means to engage in local planning. 
The Community Coordinators and DCFPC will host community conversations to share the results and determine the priorities to guide the Food System Plan. By early 2017, they’ll present the plan to our city and county leaders for formal adoption. 

Along the way, you can follow this series to learn with the Community Coordinators about what it means to shape our local food system—and find yet another way to make your voice heard.

-Written by Helen Schnoes, Douglas County Food Systems Coordinator