Building capacity of agricultural educators to grow sustainable food systems in Iowa

Final report for ENC16-153

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2016: $74,742.00
Projected End Date: 04/02/2019
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Craig Chase
Iowa State University
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Project Information


This project aims to build the capacity of local food coordinators and other agricultural educators working for the development of local food systems. The target audience includes Iowa State University Extension and Outreach staff and employees of other entities (RC&D, city planners, community groups, etc.). Professional development opportunities for these food system practitioners will help build a sustainable and effective local food system. Research shows that strong local food systems support profitability for farmers, strong environmental practices, and high quality of life for farmers and their communities. The project will support (1) a mentorship program pairing experienced local food coordinators with beginning coordinators, (2) peer learning groups calls: a series of monthly video ­chats that would each focus on a different topic identified by practitioners, and (3) individualized face to face technical consultations for regional food system working group sites. A committee of three local food farmers, three local food coordinators, the project evaluator and a national expert in food system development will advise the project.

Project Objectives:


Educational products: • Local Food Coordinator Toolkit used by all local food coordinators and supervisors, as well as regions and groups looking to hire local food coordinators or similar positions. The toolkit will be available on the Local Foods Team website and regularly updated. • Local food mentorship guide (including sample contracts, resources, etc.) • Local food peer learning group guide (including information about its structure, how to organize one, potential experts/speakers, evaluation forms, etc.) These publications and web ­resources will be shared in Iowa via the RFSWG listserv 254 members, Iowa State University county listserv and webinar platform. The resources will be shared with other states via the eXtension website, Community Food Systems listserv and the North American Food System Network (NAFSN) of which the Local Foods Team is a part of.

Educational activities: • A total of 12 local food coordinators or supervisors receive up to two individualized technical assistance consultations. • Mentorship program piloted by 3 mentor/­mentee pairs, then implemented for 6 other mentor/­mentee pairs. • Peer learning calls: 10­15 local food practitioners pilot these learning calls for the first three months. Then 2­-3 cohorts of 10-­20 local food practitioners will participate in the peer learning groups.


Short term outcomes: ­ Increased knowledge of participants in food systems topics. ­ Increased capacity among local foods practitioners. ­ Network of local food practitioners in Iowa grows. ­ New relationships develop among people participating in the local food network. ­ Extension educators develop new partnerships with food system stakeholders in their region. ­ Farmers are key advisors in food system development processes.

Intermediate outcomes: ­ Participating agricultural educators incorporate food systems concepts into existing and new programs, thereby meeting client demand. For example: Extension educations offer TA related to local foods to farmers or County Youth Coordinators participate in Farm to School or school garden programs. ­ Farmers receive information, resources and technical assistance around local foods. ­ New collaborative work begins among network members. ­ Higher job retention among local food coordinators. ­ More local food coordinators are hired. ­ Local food practitioners leverage more funding to increase food system development outcomes.

Long term outcomes: ­ Better coordination and increased support for local food system efforts in the North Central Region. ­ Increase effectiveness of local food programming. ­ Increased access to local foods. ­ Policy, systems, and environmental changes to support local food systems occur throughout the state of Iowa.


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  • Caitlin Szymanski
  • Lynn Heuss
  • Emily Coll


Educational approach:

This grant program is firmly rooted in peer-to-peer led and directed learning opportunities.  Place-based learning has proven successful and desired by local food practitioners in Iowa and each of the grant educational programs was developed with this approach in mind.

Education & Outreach Initiatives

See outcome activities listed below for full details

See outcome activities listed below for full details


See outcome activities listed below for full details

Educational & Outreach Activities

14 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
12 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

85 Extension
1 Researchers
70 Nonprofit
9 Agency
4 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
9 Farmers/ranchers
11 Others

Learning Outcomes

101 Participants gained or increased knowledge, skills and/or attitudes about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches
45 Ag professionals intend to use knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness learned

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

This project has contributed to building the capacity of local food coordinators and other agricultural educators involved in the local food system in Iowa. The professional development and networking opportunities provided through the Peer to Peer webinars, the Mentorship program, Technical Assistance, outreach to Extension county staff and the Local Food Coordinator Toolkit were all proven valuable and supportive to local food coordinators in Iowa through program evaluations. The following is a brief overview of project outcomes:

  • Surveyed ISU Extension and Outreach county employees to determine how they would like to be integrated in statewide food system work and their highest professional development needs.  A report and action plan were developed from these results.  Due to this outreach, over the course of this grant Extension county employees involvement with statewide food systems networking increased.
  • An advisory committee with 3 farmers, 3 local food coordinators and an out-of-state expert provided valuable feedback for grant activities through 5 different meetings.
  • The peer mentorship program successfully graduated 7 mentorship pairs; all mentors and mentees found the program to be valuable.  A program guide and best practices manual (which included evaluation results) was created and shared publicly.  This document is included as an informational product associated with this grant.
  • Eight peer learning group calls have successfully taken place with recordings being posted online for continued access.  A best practices guide and evaluation results for the program is included as an informational product associated with this grant.  
  • Thirteen technical assistance opportunities were successfully conducted to support local food coordinators with assistance for projects.                                                                                                                          ·      
Additional Outcomes:

Expanded Accomplishments/Milestones:

Advisory Committee- The project’s advisory committee was formed and held its first in person meeting in March 2017.  This gathering was a productive opportunity to get additional input on launching the different components of this grant.  Constructive input included suggestions from farmers on the committee for peer to peer call topics that would support opportunities they see for local food system professionals to support their challenges as well as the out-of-state expert on the advisory committee from North Carolina sharing their experiences with and helpful resources for mentorship programs. The input from those serving on this committee continues to help shape the direction and or changes needed to make the most of the opportunities available through this grant. The draft of the final toolkits and report was sent to them in early 2019 and the final meeting was held in March 2019.  Advisory Committee members remarked that they all found it a valuable experience and process to serve in this capacity.

Local Food Coordinator Toolkit- The initial version of the local food coordinator toolkit was completed and posted online in January 2017 and has continued to be updated with any additional relevant resources in 2018 and 2019. The toolkit can be viewed here: The toolkit was shared on the Iowa Regional Food System Working Group (RFSWG) email listserv  (reaches 300+ individuals) as well as the ISU Extension and Outreach Local Food Program’s e-newsletter (600+ individual reach).   Before publishing, three Iowa local food coordinators, who were involved in the initial concept of this idea, reviewed it. Since posting, this resource has also been directly shared with five new local food coordinators and has had over 200 unique page views.  Feedback has been very positive about the toolkit that it is useful and contains relevant information for new local food coordinators.  We plan to continue to update and add new resources to this toolkit.

Strategic Outreach to ISU Extension and Outreach County Employees- Throughout year one and year two of the grant, several initiatives were successfully undertaken to increase extension county staff involvement in and connection to the local food system professionals’ community in Iowa. 1) Direct emails were sent to extension county staff who have shown an interest in local foods work to invite them to professional development opportunities, events and peer-to-peer opportunities. 2) A new webpage was created that supports new and existing county staff in more easily connecting with other extension local food professionals in the state and related resources ( 3) An electronic local foods needs assessment survey was created and distributed to over 130 extension county staff whose jobs currently do or have the potential to involve local foods. Ninety-seven staff members completed the survey. Among many things, this survey conveyed high-priority local food system interest areas for counties. We are currently working towards addressing professional development needs in high interest areas.  One example of this is that the LFP developed an Introductory Farm to School webinar targeted towards extension staff, but applicable broadly to all community partners, that 155 individuals registered for. These initiatives appear to be paying off. Consistently over 50 percent of our quarterly Regional Food System Working Group attendees, peer-to-peer call participants and all of our peer mentees in 2017 and 75% in 2018 were extension county staff. This consistent and higher than prior years participation rate, signals to us that extension county staff are finding value in networking with other local foods-engaged extension staff as well as other local food system professionals around the state.

Peer Mentorship Program- In year one and year two, seven newer local food coordinators applied and were successfully paired with experienced coordinators based on their needs identified in the application process. A “Getting Started” mentorship guide was created and distributed at the beginning of the relationship in additional to one-one beginning support from the coordinator.  The program coordinator was in regular contact with all mentors and mentees throughout the year.

All mentorships have met or exceeded expectations laid out in the mentorship program. Final evaluation interviews revealed the following themes: the program increased job satisfaction, mentorship pairs were well matched, and the program allowed for mutual learning and personal job role clarification. The few recommendations shared for future cohorts included when possible to have pairs be geographically close and pair extension funded local food coordinator positions with a mentor who is also in the extension system.  

You can view the complete evaluation report and resources created for the program in the informational products associated with this grant.

Peer to Peer Calls- We successfully hosted 8 peer-to-peer calls/webinars.  The peer cohort-selected topics for these calls were: 1)Coaching Colleagues, Leaders and Allies, 2) Food Systems Evaluation, 3) Conflict Management, 4) Tips for Improving Communication and Outreach, 5) Writing Successful Grants to Support Your Food Systems Work, 6) Information on Farmers Markets 7) Food Hubs 101, and 8) Equity and Inclusion in the Food System.

Due to the unreliable nature of most local food system professionals schedules we have learned that the expectation of participating in monthly peer to peer calls is unrealistic. Convening every other or every third month (depending upon the business of that time of year) in 2017 provided the opportunity for better attendance. We have also learned that most of those attending are much more interested in hearing from local sources who have successfully navigated challenges or who are creatively finding solutions, as opposed to hiring a local or national “expert.”

To make these conversations accessible to anyone who is unable to attend, we have archived closed caption video recordings on the ISU Extension and Outreach Farm, Food and Enterprise (formally Local Foods) Program professional development webpage and have promoted their availability  Beyond the general local food systems professionals cohort, there are no other specific cohorts formed at this time.  The RFSWG Policy group was offered an opportunity to have a peer to peer session, but they are not at a point where they are ready to take advantage of this type of opportunity.

You can view the complete evaluation report and resources created for this program in the informational products associated with this grant.

Technical Assistance- This program connected participants with a technical assistance opportunity for supporting their local food system development work that they would not have otherwise been able to access. To execute the technical assistance (TA) program, our team developed an application survey to understand individual and regional needs for one-on-one consultation as well as a post-consultation survey to understand the outcomes, benefits and lessons-learned.  

This survey was successfully sent out to the pre-identified Regional Food System Working Group in Iowa in March 2017. A total of 13 local food coordinators (LFC’s) participated in the TA program. 12 consultants provided the TA and one consultant provided TA to two LFC’s.  The evaluation overall showed positive results.  Recipients are quite confident that they can implement the recommendations they received from their TA provider. However, one did indicate that his/her organization would need additional financial resources to implement a marketing plan they had developed with their TA provider. Participants rated the technical assistance that they receive as very useful and that they would have been highly unlikely to pay for TA opportunities themselves without this grant opportunity.  Finally, a few respondents suggested the program could be improved by providing future recipients with examples of how others have used the technical assistance program to give them some ideas of how the program can be used.  Respondents indicated that it was difficult to determine what type of technical assistance would be most helpful to them.  Some of the TA topics selected by LFC were grant writing, storytelling/communicating to the public impacts of local foods work, and facilitation of stakeholder meetings. 


Information Products

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.