Strengthening Community Engagement in Sustainable Local Food Systems

Final Report for ENE02-072

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2002: $99,483.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $37,207.00
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Dr. Joan Thomson
Penn State University
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Project Information

Summary:

The intent of this project was to increase public dialogue among community residents regarding sustainable local food systems. Expanding public discussions regarding community food systems enable residents to define and create the type of community they desire, including a locally sustainable food system.

Agriculture and the food system are commonly overlooked as communities define their futures. Agricultural land is preserved for its open space rather than for its economic potential to provide local foods, satisfy consumer demand, or support a locally vibrant economy and quality of life. Through this project, the desired long-term outcome was for extension educators and local residents to build consensus in order to develop a common vision of a sustainable local food system.

Project activities included:

A baseline e-survey of extension educators in each of the three participating states—New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—to determine their perceptions of public engagement with local food system issues, their involvement with them, and the support or barriers specific to communities and organizations.

Educational workshops for extension educators in each state to introduce and demonstrate the use of resources to engage residents in a public dialogue on local food system issues, and to expand local media coverage of these issues.

Specialist support to field-based extension educators via one-on-one consultations, as well as identifying material on how to build collaborations, conduct community assessments, and use appropriate educational strategies in various community settings.

For this project, success was defined as an increase in community-initiated activities that supported continuing local involvement in a sustainable local food system.

Performance Target:

Target: Thirty Extension agents and 30 community collaborators at 15 sites in three states will engage with the project. Extension educators will commit time to the initiative through a plan of work, and educators and community collaborates will work to enhance media and community awareness of local food issues, and specifically the use of Our Food: Our Future programming.

Since the overarching objective was to strengthen food systems at the community level, the project design called for collaboration among Cooperative Extension and other community-based agencies and organizations. In addition to extension educators committing and reporting time dedicated to local food system issues through appropriate extension plans of work, project success was defined as an increase in appropriate community-defined initiatives supporting public dialogue on a sustainable local food system. Local actions undertaken to address food system issues included a) initiating a process in the community to identify assets and needs for a sustainable local food system; b) determining the type, structure, and inclusiveness of community groups that may already exist and could explore these issues at the community level; c) working in collaboration with community groups to initiate local programming on relevant food system issues; and d) seeking resources to expand community dialogue on the local food system.

Each state’s response was unique. In New Jersey, a regional public forum resulted. In New York, farm-to-school programming was fostered. In Pennsylvania, in-service training and technical assistance specific to local direct markets was provided to field-based extension educators.

Our experience indicates that community-initiated programming, the foundation of this project, requires more than two years, which was the initial timeline for the project. Building capacity at the local level is a long-term, continuing challenge.

Introduction:

To increase citizen participation on local food system issues, we sought to address locally-defined issues and needs through professional development and technical support. Research carried out through this project documented extension educators’ perspectives on food system issues in their communities, their involvement with them, and the status of programming within their communities. Extension educators identified two institutional barriers—a lack of program resources on the local food system and the perception that this programming did not fit within their responsibilities as educators—as factors limiting their involvement. The survey also identified significant differences between extension educators’ demographic and program characteristics—gender, educational level, program responsibilities, and geographic location—and how important local food system issues are perceived. Just as different issues resonate with different stakeholders, diversity also exists among extension educators. These differences must be acknowledged as programs are defined and implemented. Understanding these differences is valuable in developing in-service training programs as well as providing educational resources and technical assistance at the community level. Community-defined needs for local food system programming must be the foundation on which such programming is based.

A locally vibrant agriculture is part of a community’s economic viability and quality of life for all of its residents, not only for those in agricultural production. Nevertheless, few counties or municipalities in Pennsylvania include agriculture in their planning. In fact, both county and municipal planners in Pennsylvania have indicated that incorporating food system issues into the planning process is likely to occur only through government mandates, citizen pressure, or expanded funding. Such outcomes can best be influenced by public actions at the local level.

Extension educators can respond to local community interests. Based on the project survey, a program development model was articulated to recognize what needs to be considered in developing local food system programs. As a result we did a county-level survey to determine interest in buying local, an in-service on strategies to increase consumer participation/buying at farmers markets, and developed a proposal to fund a buyer/marketing specialist. We also responded to individual requests for information. Strengthening farm-to-school initiatives in New York are now being supported through additional Northeast SARE funding.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Frances Alloway
  • Craig Altemose
  • Lucinda Baron-Robbins
  • Joan Doyle-Paddock
  • Michael Hamm
  • Alison Harmon
  • Claire Homitzky
  • Luanne Hughes
  • Leslie Hulcoop
  • Liberty Inciong
  • Rose Marie Kendall
  • Phyllis Laufer
  • Jonathan Laughner
  • Audrey Maretzki
  • Rama Radhakrishna
  • Jennifer Reardon
  • William Tietjen
  • Jennifer Wilkins
  • Ellen Williams

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

The principal strategies were survey research, educational workshops, specialist support, and engaging extension educators currently involved in this kind of programming.

Milestone 1. Establish a multi-state Extension Educators’ Project Advisory Council.

Extension educators in each state were identified to provide input through this council in order to ensure that educational strategies were appropriate at the community level, regardless of state. These educators represented the mix of extension program areas as well as the different geographical areas of each state. Their insights regarding local needs and interests and interpretation of community level data ensured more responsive educational programs across the participating states. Through a face-to-face meeting, quarterly conference calls, and a list serve, ongoing communication and resource exchanges occurred among council participants.

Milestone 2. Conduct a baseline electronic survey among field-based extension educators in each participating state.

Via conference calls and e-mails, a survey was developed through the council and the primary contact in each state. Discussions of how the was developed and carried out are included in the 2002 and 2003 annual reports for this project. Specifically, extension educators in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania provided their perspectives on food system issues in their communities, their involvement with them, their perspectives on community and organizational support and barriers, and demographic information. In January 2003, the survey (supported by TestPilot through Penn State) was piloted with field-based extension educators in a neighboring state. In late February and March of 2003, the survey was carried out among extension educators in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. In New Jersey, 90 field-based educators were invited to respond to the survey; 40 responded for a 45% response rate. In New York, 296 were e-mailed the survey and 79 responded for a 27% response rate. In Pennsylvania, 81 of 203 replied for a 40% response rate.

Milestone 3. Implement in-state in-services focusing on strategies to enhance community dialogue and media coverage on locally relevant food system issues.

Beginning in the project’s first year, each state initiated project relevant in-services targeted to field-based extension educators. In addition to freestanding in-services such as Cornell’s “Our Food: Our Future—Enhancing Community Food Security through Local Action,” addressing specific local food system priorities, or Penn State’s “Implementing Community-Based Conversations on Strengthening the Local Food System,” presentations were incorporated into other in-services such as agricultural profitability and preserving local agriculture. In-services continued throughout each state’s participation in the project.

Sustaining support for local food system programming was increasingly based on requests from individual educators. One example was a face-to-face survey at a local shopping mall to gauge interest in buying local foods during the mall’s annual agricultural fair. Data analysis and interpretation of the survey will continue.

In addition to food system resources shared through the Project Advisory Council and in-services, resources were added to the Farm Foundation’s NPPEC (National Public Policy Education) and Cornell’s Community Food and Agriculture web sites.

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
Accomplishments:

Publications

The survey determined the perceptions of extension educators regarding public engagement with food system issues within their states and assessed their own perceptions and participation in food system programming. The survey indicated that extension educators perceived each of the 21 local food system issues to be important. However, differences existed among educators based on gender, area of program responsibility, education, and location. For example, female educators placed a higher importance on food access, hunger, and food preparation skills than did male educators. Male educators viewed viable local ag-related businesses as most important. There are differences among extension educators, and these should be acknowledged as future programs are defined and implemented. Incorporating diverse interests and expertise can strengthen resulting initiatives.

Although local food system issues are perceived as important to field-based educators, these educators indicate that residents, county commissioners, and the media are not strongly engaged, and that support for local food system programming varied. The lack of both professional knowledge and program resources was seen as a moderate barrier by educators, but, just as importantly, extension educators questioned whether food system programming was part of their professional responsibilities.

Since the objective of the survey and other project initiatives was to enhance the capacity of extension educators, in collaboration with community members, to carry out local food system programming. each state analyzed responses to the survey for their own state. This analysis is continuing. For further information about extension educators’ perspectives on local food system programming, refer to “Strengthening Community Engagement Toward Sustainable Local Food Systems” published in the August 2006 Journal of Extension at http://www.joe.org/joe/2006august/a2.shtml.

Although each state held a number of in-services, some met with limited success. Thus, states modified their strategies—in New Jersey, in-service support was primarily provided through conversations with individual educators and through membership by project personnel on advisory boards such as that of the Mid-Atlantic States Food Systems Education Center. In New York, local food system programming emphasized farm-to-school efforts based on collaboration among nutrition educators and school food service personnel at the local and state levels. In addition to in-services and presentations primarily reaching family and consumer science and community development educators, technical assistance was provided on request. For example, in a hands-on in-service, participants drafted a questionnaire for local use and Geographic Information System mapping to pinpoint local food and farming activities within a county, which could then be useful when involving local residents in conversations on the food system. In another Penn State in-service, a rapid market assessment demonstrated how to engage farm market shoppers and learn why they shop at these markets.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

Cooperative Extension is unique in each state, and relationships, funding, and expectations, between field and state personnel vary. Program priorities across states, or even across regions within a state, also vary; this is why this project took on a distinct focus in each participating state. New York’s focus is farm-to-school; Pennsylvania’s personnel are determining the viability of collaborative online marketing systems to extend the selling season of local growers; New Jersey project personnel have served on the advisory board of the Mid-Atlantic States Food Systems Education Center. The project also evolved from earlier local food system initiatives in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

We found that expecting community teams, as originally proposed, to participate in state level in-services to provide training to implement the project’s performance target within their communities was not realistic. Through staff development and specialist support, extension educators can acquire the knowledge and skills to facilitate community-based programming. As part of this process, extension educators must understand the value of collaborative partnerships and gain the skills needed to build them. For programming to be robust, institutional barriers need to be addressed. These barriers include the perception that local food system programming does not fit within educator responsibilities, a lack program resources and a lack of knowledge on how to carry out local food system programming. In-service training provides opportunities to share resources and programming ideas on local food system issues, and these can be incorporated into existing programming on the economic viability of the food and fiber system within communities. Another area of inquiry is the use of language and its role in engaging residents in conversations on food and agriculture as well as media interest.

When field-based educators do not view local food system programming as part of their educational responsibilities, multiple strategies are required to change this perception. State plans of work must clearly articulate that the local food system is a legitimate program area. Extension leadership can reinforce this focus through their own actions for example in speeches and field visits.

As extension has become increasingly dependent on grants and contracts, sustaining local food programming is critical. Extramural funding often requires pilot results to demonstrate a program’s viability. This project has laid much of the groundwork, particularly in New York and Pennsylvania.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The survey determined the perceptions of extension educators regarding public engagement with food system issues within their states and assessed their own perceptions and participation in food system programming. The survey indicated that extension educators perceived each of the 21 local food system issues to be important. However, differences existed among educators based on gender, area of program responsibility, education, and location. For example, female educators placed a higher importance on food access, hunger, and food preparation skills than did male educators. Male educators viewed viable local ag-related businesses as most important. There are differences among extension educators, and these should be acknowledged as future programs are defined and implemented. Incorporating diverse interests and expertise can strengthen resulting initiatives.

Although local food system issues are perceived as important to field-based educators, these educators indicate that residents, county commissioners, and the media are not strongly engaged, and that support for local food system programming varied. The lack of both professional knowledge and program resources was seen as a moderate barrier by educators, but, just as importantly, extension educators questioned whether food system programming was part of their professional responsibilities.

Since the objective of the survey and other project initiatives was to enhance the capacity of extension educators, in collaboration with community members, to carry out local food system programming. each state analyzed responses to the survey for their own state. This analysis is continuing. For further information about extension educators’ perspectives on local food system programming, refer to “Strengthening Community Engagement Toward Sustainable Local Food Systems” published in the August 2006 Journal of Extension at http://www.joe.org/joe/2006august/a2.shtml.

Although each state held a number of in-services, some met with limited success. Thus, states modified their strategies—in New Jersey, in-service support was primarily provided through conversations with individual educators and through membership by project personnel on advisory boards such as that of the Mid-Atlantic States Food Systems Education Center. In New York, local food system programming emphasized farm-to-school efforts based on collaboration among nutrition educators and school food service personnel at the local and state levels. In addition to in-services and presentations primarily reaching family and consumer science and community development educators, technical assistance was provided on request. For example, in a hands-on in-service, participants drafted a questionnaire for local use and Geographic Information System mapping to pinpoint local food and farming activities within a county, which could then be useful when involving local residents in conversations on the food system. In another Penn State in-service, a rapid market assessment demonstrated how to engage farm market shoppers and learn why they shop at these markets.

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.