Community Capacity Building to Strengthen the Links within the Iowa Local Foods Value Chain

Final Report for ENC11-121

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2011: $42,472.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Linda Naeve
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
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Project Information


Three local food systems development activities were facilitated with the intent to build relationships between Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO) staff and local food advocates and organizations. In fall 2012, 70 professionals, including ISUEO staff and partners, participated in a partnership development conference. Two regional network meetings and a local foods conference were held in Spring 2013 to strengthen and sustain those partnerships. These events resulted in the formation of the ISUEO Iowa Food Systems Working Group and survey results indicated increased collaborations between various organizations, individuals and ISUEO staff thereby strengthening Iowa’s local food systems.

Project Objectives:
    1. Provide a professional development educational forum on Iowa’s extensive local food value chain by bringing together staff from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach (ISUEO), school educators, and other governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s)
    2. Provide a conduit in which sectors involved in the Iowa local foods movement will be able to learn what others are doing in the state.
    3. Build community capacity among educators, farmers, institutions, and others within regional food systems enabling groups, consumers, and youth to work together to strengthen and sustain the local foods value chain in Iowa.

Efforts to grow Iowa’s local food economy have taken many forms and have quickly grown many branches over the past 10 years as more organizations form to address this issue. In 2003, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s (LCSA) Value Chain Partnerships created multi-organizational working groups with partner organizations to address economic, community, and environmental challenges found in value chains. These Regional Food Systems Working Groups (RFSWGs), now numbering 15 throughout the state, were many of the first organizations to recognize the importance of collaborative efforts to maximize the potential for community-based, economically sustainable, and environmentally responsible regional food enterprises. In 2009, nearly two-thirds of county supervisors taking part in a LCSA survey indicated that they expected to see an increase in local food availability for their county residents.

Well-known anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” This is clearly reflected in the dedicated efforts of many individuals, groups, and organizations in the Iowa local foods network. In 2010, the Iowa legislature passed an amendment calling for the development of a Local Food and Farm Plan for the state of Iowa. To be effective and successful, the recommendations in the plan require a statewide cohesive understanding and partnership in which ISUEO could be a major conduit. However, with this effort, one branch is not connected to the others or knows little about what they are doing; they often do not work together for a common good of the cause.

In August, 2009, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (LCSA) released a publication, “Learning about Local: A Resource Guide to Iowa Organizations and Programs Supporting Local and Regional Food Systems," ( in which 68 government agencies, university departments, centers and numerous NGO’s in Iowa were identified that provide resources in the area of local foods. In 2010, the ISU Extension Regional and Local Food Systems Task Force asked Extension staff about their current efforts in local and regional food systems and were surprised when they created an inventory of over 70 state and regional programming efforts involving Extension staff. That number is far larger when the multiple segments within each organization are identified. It was apparent at the beginning of this project that many NGO’s and government organizations were duplicating efforts and working parallel as the local foods movement continued to expand in communities.

Iowa State University Extension staff, government agency staff, and other educators are generally unaware of the continually increasing wealth of resources and expertise available to them, their clients, and communities that can strengthen and sustain their local economies through the production and consumption of locally-produced foods. If the resources, knowledge and expertise from many of the groups are brought together through community capacity building exercises, educators could learn and groups could share resources and expertise among themselves to create a strong state-wide food system that cohesively links the local farmer to the consumer and ultimately contribute to Iowa’s local economy.


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  • Dr. Craig Chase
  • Linda Naeve

Education & Outreach Initiatives



The project included three primary events. These events were to provide training and professional development opportunities for ISUEO staff and others from government agencies, community leaders and farmers and enable them to learn about Iowa’s regional food systems and resources and build capacity outside their agency or organization. The first event was a three-day conference, titled “Putting the Pieces Together,” that brought 70 key players and ISUEO educators together to learn about the multitude of organizations, institutions, councils and farmers who lead this effort. The conference included day-long tours of the various links in value chain for produce and livestock production, from farm to consumer. Following the tour, a "World Cafe" activity was held to discuss what was learned and note where possible weak links were in the Iowa local foods value chain and how they can be strengthened. Two-days of the conference were organized into “tracks” or “links” in the value chain that focused on production, consumer, and community. The program also included sessions in which NGO’s worked together with educators to do community capacity building exercises to enhance the ability of people in communities to participate in actions based on community interests. This exercise was intended to develop new relationships and networks, and build on other groups’ experiences and expertise. Post-conference surveys were conducted to determine what was learned and if new networks and local foods programs and relationships were developed between and among Extension staff, local foods advocates and outside organizations.

The second part of the project included two, half-day workshops held seven months after the conference to strengthen and sustain local relationships and build awareness on ISU local foods programs. Clicker surveys conducted by 24 participants before and after the workshops determined the level of confidence working with local food systems and the degree of involvement.

A third event, a conference titled “Roadmap to Resilience,” with 50 participants, was held in March 2013 and hosted by the Iowa Food Systems Working Group as part of the Iowa Food and Farm Plan. A follow up e-survey of participants who attended at least one of the events was conducted in August 2013.

Outreach and Publications

The collaborations created in part from these events led to the formation of the Iowa Food Systems Working Group (IFSWG), consisting of 17 specialists from various program areas within ISUEO. Since July 2012, IFSWG developed and mainains an ISUEO food system website (; provided professional development opportunities; implemented a system of “tagging” Extension publications, news releases, staff profiles, program category for” local foods” within the biannual ISUEO program catalog and developed a specialty matrix identifying a point of contact; and developed a comprehensive list of grant opportunities that support local food systems programs. Activities generated from the IFSWG have resulted in a set of outputs (tools, resources, programs, etc.) that provide county and campus Extension staff access and support to a growing comprehensive portfolio of ISUEO local food system expertise and resources.

Outcomes and impacts:

Surveys of all of the events were conducted immediately following the events to determine the level of knowledge and confidence gained by attending the events and the impact of networking and community capacity building in developing sustainable collaborations through programming and funding support.

To evaluate the project goal “to build community capacity among educators, farmers, institutions, and others within regional food systems enabling groups, consumers, and youth to work together to strengthen and sustain the local foods value chain in Iowa,” an electronic survey was sent out in August 2013 to 72 people who attended at least one of the four conferences/meetings in 2012 and 2013. The survey, designed to measure outcomes and impacts from participants, had a high response rate with 49% of those contacted responding. Seventy-one percent of the respondents were ISUEO employees (ISU employees with an Extension appointment). The remaining 29 percent of respondents came from a variety of occupational backgrounds, including Regional Food Systems Working Groups (RFSWG) coordinators/members, farmers, university or community college employees, government agency employees, elected officials, and economic development professionals.

Facilitation of Connections between Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Regional Food Systems Working Groups

The survey asked ISUEO employees to indicate in which ways they have followed up with RFSWG coordinators since the conference(s) and/or regional meetings they attended. Ninety-two percent of respondents indicated they had followed up with RFSWG coordinators in at least one of the ways listed below:

  • 80% of ISUEO employees indicated they had communicated with someone from a RFSWG.
  • 56% indicated they had provided Extension programming or resources to a RFSW
  • 48% referred others to their local RFSWG.
  • 12% followed up with a RFSWG in some other way, including collaborating with RFSWG members for a federal grant submission and Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) training, talking with RFSWG members about Extension programs in their area/or working with RFSWG to find funding to hire an area local foods coordinator

Similarly, respondents who do not work for Extension were asked to indicate the ways in which they have followed up with Extension since the conference(s) and/or meeting they attended. Seventy percent indicated they followed up with Extension in at least one of the ways below:

  • 40% of non-Extension employees communicated with Extension about local or regional food systems development.
  • 30% made use of or adapted Extension programming or resources on local food systems development.
  • 30% referred others to Extension programming or resources on local food system development.

Overall, 86% of survey respondents followed up with Extension or Regional Food Systems Working group members. This indicates that the meetings were effective in facilitating new connections between Extension employees and the RFSWG groups.

Building Capacity in Local or Regional Food Systems Work

The survey asked participants several questions to evaluate the impact the meetings and conferences had on their work in local food systems. The following results were obtained:

  • 91.4% indicated as a result of the conference(s) and/or regional meetings they felt more connected with local food systems activities and programs in their region.
  • 88.6% indicated as a result of the conference(s) and/or meetings they attended they felt more confident conducting or participating in local food systems activities and programs in their region

Participants were also asked if they had taken on a new leadership role in local or regional food systems work in the last year. Twenty-nine percent of respondents indicated they had. New leadership roles taken on by those ten respondents included: becoming a regional foods coordinator or educator, joining a food policy council, joining a committee on the Iowa Food Systems Working Group, joining leadership of the Food Access and Health Working Group, starting regular local foods meetings in one’s office, and joining leadership of a local farmers’ market.

Of those with new leadership roles, 70% were ISUEO employees and 30% were employed elsewhere. Because approximately 70% of survey respondents were ISUEO employees, this indicates that ISUEO employees are no more likely to take on new leadership positions than those employed elsewhere. This indicates that opportunities for leadership in local or regional food systems work are opening up and that SARE PDP-supported conferences and meetings reached future leaders and may have prompted them to take on leadership roles.

Progress in Collaborative Local Food Systems Work

Survey participants were asked to gauge the progress of their own work in local food systems in the areas of networking, collaborating and joint programming or planning since their first conference or meeting. These measures are important because they identified the level of cooperation and collaboration among meeting attendees. The survey showed that 94% of respondents indicated they have made some form of progress in collaborative work. The most common form of progress indicated was reaching out or networking with potential new partners outside one’s own region or service area, with 54.4% of respondents indicating they had done so.

The results of this survey are indicative of the collaborative nature of local food systems work. Although the conferences and meetings were one of many factors contributing to attendees’ progress, not all of the forms of progress toward collaborative work can be tied to these events.

A complete evaluation report of the project outputs, outcomes, and impacts is included with this report.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

A goal of this project through conferences and meetings was to nurture connections among participants that would lead to new grant-funded projects. Survey results showed 40% of survey respondents (14) applied for grant funding for their local or regional food systems work since attending his/her first conference or meeting. Results from those respondents who applied for grant funding is summarized below.

  • Five of those grant applications were funded for a total of $149,709.
  • At the time of the survey,14% of survey participants who had applied for grants (2) indicated they had not yet submitted their grant application and another 28% (4) were waiting to hear if they were funded.
  • Only 21% of survey respondents who applied for grants (3) had heard that their grant application was not funded.
  • Eleven of the 14 survey respondents (79%) who had applied for a grant did so in collaboration with people from outside their own organizations.


Future Recommendations

This project serves as the initial baseline for ISUEO programming and community capacity building for work in local and regional food system development. Follow up surveys of participants in the events conducted through this project should be conducted to evaluate the sustainability of the collaborations developed, continued partnerships, and the participation and growth among and between Extension and external organizations. Through additional surveys, Extension staff will identify topics and issues that additional professional development trainings can provide to further strengthen local food systems programming.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.