This project represents a collaboration among NC State’s Cooperative Extension Service (NCCE), NC A&T State University (NCA&T), Clemson Cooperative Extension (CCE), and Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE). Local food represents one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture in the nation. In response, NCCE named local foods a flagship program in 2012, and both CCE and VCE have recently held local food forums.
This project is developing, piloting, evaluating, and improving a new multi-state online, local food systems (LFS) non-credit training program for use in NC, VA, and SC (adapted from a SARE-funded face-to-face LFS graduate course). In addition to enhancing the online training program in NC, we plan to develop a blended training program in VA and SC that uses the online training as a base, and integrates site visits and participant dialogue to encourage face-to-face networking and collaboration.
The project is moving NC, SC, and VA towards more community-focused food systems by providing comprehensive training for existing and pre-service LFS practitioners. The primary objectives are to: 1) build the capacity of NC, SC, and VA training providers, and 2) develop, evaluate and update the training programs and delivery models to serve as a regional model.
This project utilizes interdisciplinary and systems approaches to LFS education, including information about environmental, societal, and economic impacts. The evaluation plan utilizes quantitative and qualitative methods to collect, analyze, and determine knowledge and confidence attainment, and attitude and behavior changes. Online and blended programs will be updated based on evaluation results for future delivery and regional expansion.
The overall goal of this project is to build the capacity of NC, SC, and VA Extension educators and other professionals including non-profits, other state agencies, and private sector employees working on LFS development to work with and educate growers, processors, distributors, buyers, and community members in the development and facilitation of high performing local food systems.
The following represent primary project objectives:
Objective (1): Develop, deliver, expand, and improve the LFS training programs (online and blended programs) in order to create sustainable delivery models, serving as a template for other states to emulate.
Objective (2): Use pilot evaluation data to confirm the effectiveness of this training for building participants’ capacity to support local food systems development.
This project is moving NC, SC, and VA toward a more economically and socially beneficial food system by strengthening the capacity of Extension educators and other local food systems practitioners to support local food systems work in their communities.
The primary intent of this project is to create and train a learning network of local food systems (LFS) professionals who can assist farmers and their communities in analyzing their existing community food systems and can lead a collaborative, participatory process to align existing assets with community strengths for LFS expansion.
Local food systems are increasingly the focus of interdisciplinary, multi-sector projects and initiatives that are expected to achieve multiple outcomes to benefit producers, consumers, and communities. For example, research has shown that food localization can contribute to: 1) improving the profitability of production for local farmers (King et al, 2010), 2) increasing the affordability and accessibility of healthy food for consumers (Creamer & Dunning, 2012), and 3) enhancing community economic development through the multiplier effect (Meter 2010; Jablonski, Schmit, and Kay 2015; Martinez et al. 2013). Economic benefits extend to the broader rural community, reducing farm loss and creating opportunities for the next generation of farm owners. Additionally, Low et al. (2015) suggest that, overall, farmers who sell directly to consumers are more likely to use organic management practices and have higher business survival rates than farmers who sell into non-direct markets.
Localized and community-focused food systems also make important non-monetary contributions to the well-being of consumers and rural communities. Research has shown that when consumers know the origins of their food, through direct contact with farmers at farmers markets or when they are involved in growing it, through participation in a community garden or living in the household of a community gardener, they are more likely to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables (Ruelas et al. 2012; Ban et al. 2013; Brown and Miller 2008). This outcome is particularly strong for involvement with community gardens, where people tend to increase the amount of fresh produce that they eat in addition to getting physical exercise. This outcome is also strong with consumers who can use their SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets, particularly when those farmers’ markets have a type of program that matches SNAP dollars so as to provide consumers an incentive to shop at the farmers’ market (Muldoon et al. 2013; Community Science 2013). Adding SNAP benefits to farmers’ markets offers the additional benefit of building market opportunities for farmer vendors.
Evidence of Need
A 2012 training needs assessment (LFS topics) of NC Extension educators and a 2014 NC 10% Campaign county educator evaluation (Ingerson, et al.) found that training is needed to support Extension county educator work within local food systems. This finding led to the development of a face-to-face local food systems graduate course in NC (SARE PDP ES13-119) in 2015, with cooperation from SC and VA. Evaluation of this graduate course demonstrated that Extension educators improved their confidence and knowledge on a number of local foods topics and applied course content to their own Extension practice. Additionally, the majority of 197 respondents (NC, SC, and VA) to a 2015 needs assessment about online LFS training indicated interest in an online training course, with 55% indicating a high level of interest and 39% a moderate interest.
Online and Blended Training Programs
Based on the results of the needs assessment, the syllabus and content from the local food systems graduate course were adapted into an online, professional development training program, Overview of Local Food Systems.
Through this project, the online training program was piloted and NCCE is now focusing on evaluating and making needed revisions to the online certificate series of courses
This project has piloted and evaluated the online training program and will develop, pilot, evaluate a blended (online and face-to-face) program in VA and SC that uses the online training as a base, and integrates site visits and participant dialogue to encourage networking and collaboration. NCCE will also provide coordination support for incorporation of VA and SC specific content into the online courses. These state-specific components are currently in development.
Through our collaboration with NC A&T State University, we are tapping into faculty local food systems expertise through their development of new case studies and a toolkit based on two existing research projects. These new resources will be incorporated into and piloted through the online course once they are complete, in mid to late 2018. NC A&T will also utilize content from the online course to bolster existing undergraduate and graduate LFS courses, thereby supporting local food systems training of pre-service ag educators.
Our experiences in NC highlight both the willingness of and desire for Extension educator community engagement and partnership on local foods projects. Extension educators across all Extension program areas and other local food systems service providers are the target audience for this project.
Coordinators, Project Advisors & Content Contributors (not including grant Cooperators listed in a following section)
We are working with numerous individuals from multiple disciplines to move this project forward. The list below is representative of the types of collaborations we are establishing in our work. The content contributors to the online training program goes beyond those listed here.
- NC State Extension, Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences – Dr. Dara Bloom (project co-lead, grant Co-PI), Dr. K.S.U. (Jay) Jayaratne (evaluation support)
- NC State Extension, Community & Rural Development Program – Joanna Massey Lelekacs (project lead, grant PI), Emma Brinkmeyer (online course coordinator), Becky Bowen (project advisor, content contributor), Dr. Susan Jakes (content contributor)
- Virginia Cooperative Extension – Eric Bendfeldt (project partner, content contributor), Dr. Karen Vines (project partner), Dr. Kim Niewolny (project partner), Joyce Latimer (project partner). Virginia has solidified their internal advisory team to get representation from different departments and Extension programs (i.e., Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Agriculture, Leadership, and Community Education, Horticulture, Food Science and Technology, Agriculture and Applied Economics) to identify resource persons who can contribute to the development of the blended program. Additionally, the grant project team has reached out to three persons with several non-profit organizations and food related businesses to serve as external advisors.
- Clemson Cooperative Extension – Dr. Dave Lamie (project partner, content contributor), Kelly Flynn (program coordination). The Clemson team is currently formulating their statewide advisory committee. They are seeking representation from targeted audience groups: Extension Agents, NGO, Local Government, LFS volunteers (e.g. Americorps).
- NC Agricultural & Technical State University – Dr. Kenrett Jefferson-Moore (project partner), Dr. Chyi (Kathleen) Liang (project advisor)
- Center for Environmental Farming Systems, NC State University – Dr. Nancy Creamer (project advisor), Abbey Piner (project advisor, content contributor), Dr. Rebecca Dunning (content contributor), Shorlette Ammons (content contributor), Tessa Thraves (content contributor)
- Farmers – Jeff Bender, Bender Produce Farms (project advisor, content contributor), Open Door Farms, Jillian Mickens (project advisor, content contributor), Sandhills Ag Innovation Center, Davon Goodwin (project advisor)
- Extension Agent – Susan Kelly (ANR/CRD) (project advisor), Morgan McKnight (FCS) (project advisor), Carlos Moses (4H) (project advisor)
- Carolina Farm Stewardship Association – Thomas Moore (project advisor), Aaron Newton (content contributor)
- Division of Health and Human Services – Karen Stanley (project advisor)
- NC Farm Bureau Federation – Debbie Hamrick (project advisor)
- NC State University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Communication – Julie Hayworth-Perman (marketing plan support)
- McKimmon Center for Extension & Continuing Education – Chip Futrell (LMS access and course registration support)
The training programs are designed to enhance understanding of systems approaches and provide concrete tools to support application of newly gained knowledge and better informed decision-making, thereby maximizing intended societal, economic, and environmental impacts of local food systems development and minimizing unintended consequences.
The training programs utilize a transdisciplinary approach to encourage participant’s critical thinking about local food system development, share solid research and successful community-based projects, and highlight other resource materials and human resources.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
The training program is designed to provide a solid general foundation of knowledge of local food systems practice to local food systems educators and service providers.
The objectives of the Overview of Local Food Systems online training program are for participants who completed the training to:
- understand and be able to knowledgeably explain the benefits and challenges of localized food systems and be able to assess and act on the key leverage points of making food systems change in their counties.
- be able to identify the structure and components of food systems and effectively lead or facilitate a collaborative process aligning these structures and components with agricultural and general community strengths for local food system expansion.
The pilot of the online training program, Overview of Local Food Systems, was completed in late 2017. This pilot included the following five course topics:
- Introducing Local: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going,
- Food as a Common Denominator
- The Bottom Line: Opportunities & Challenges of Local Food Systems,
- Value Chains: From Farm to Fork, and
- Understanding Regulatory Policy & Frameworks.
The first course in the series, Introducing Local: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going, offers a brief overview of the history of the global, U.S., and North Carolina food systems, as well as introductions to key concepts of local food systems, methods of program and project planning, and a systems approach to local foods work. The second course in the series, Food as a Common Denominator, introduces the importance of community-based leadership in local food projects and the structural causes of injustice in the food systems; the course also introduces the concepts of community capitals and the collective impact model, as well as methods for engaging youth in local food systems interventions. The third course in the series, The Bottom Line: Opportunities & Challenges of Local Food Systems, summarizes business legal structures for local food value chain businesses, shares the potential for triple bottom line impacts of local food systems, and introduces traditional and alternative financing methods; the course also introduces basic business planning and risk management, and some keys to marketing local food products, including regional branding. The fourth course in the series, Value Chain: Farm to Fork, introduces the values of and collaboration within local food supply chains, and explores what values drive supply chain configuration in different contexts, as well as how value chain development can support community and economic development. The fifth and final course in the series, Understanding Regulatory Policy & Frameworks, offers a review of basic civics as it relates to agriculture and food systems, including definitions of government and explanations of policy and the law, and introduces tools, practices, and frameworks that can support strategies for taking action in the local food system.
The content knowledge provided in the pilot training was reinforced primarily with North Carolina examples. Clemson and Virginia Cooperative Extension services are actively developing parallel state-specific content to embed within the online training program. The online training program will be delivered as a blended program (online + face to face) through Clemson and Virginia Cooperative Extension services, with anticipated implementation in fall 2018.
The Virginia grant project team has been working to identify possible gaps in the existing course modules and activities in which Virginia-specific content can provide new subject matter or add specific state-based examples to reinforce existing material. The Clemson grant project team has completed 36 video interviews and substantial “b-roll” video that will be used to develop their state-based content.
Presently, areas where Virginia is looking to develop educational material and activities include: community, local, and regional food systems; whole measures; creating a vision for your community and region’s food systems; systems leadership; basics of food safety from farm to plate; market readiness; issues of seasonality and season extension; models of cooperation; and examples of communities and voices of innovation with specific case studies of one to two counties ( e.g., Montgomery, Roanoke, Rockingham, etc.).
Moving forward, Virginia is working to finalize a timeline for professional development and opportunities to capture video of content presentations and field trips on a 6 to 8-week timeframe. This work will be coupled with efforts to build internal and external capacity to develop strong, vibrant food systems. Clemson is targeting September 2018 for a pilot of their blended (online and face-to-face) program.
The learning and action outcomes and impacts of the online and blended training programs are summarized below.
Upon successful completion of this training program, at least 85% of project participants will gain or increase their:
- Knowledge of the benefits and challenges of creating a local food system, utilizing a systemic approach to educational programming and community development; and
- Knowledge of the various types and components of local food system initiatives that are occurring across the three states.
Upon successful completion of this training program, at least 85% of project participants will gain or increase their:
- Confidence in ability to support development of local food system initiatives that span disciplines and multiple food system sectors;
- Confidence in ability to identify and mobilize community assets as they relate to building a more community-focused local food system;
- Confidence in ability to support local food systems efforts by working with and/or educating growers, buyers, and community members in the development of high performing local food systems; and
- Confidence in ability to identify various types of local food system initiatives that are occurring in participant’s region.
Initial post-training actions, or behavior changes, of participants who successfully complete the training will include at least 80% indicating that they plan to use information learned to:
- Conduct educational programs about local food systems that includes principles, practices, technologies, and resources;
- Incorporate information into educational and communication tools;
- Share project materials and other local food systems resources with other trainers, mentor-farmers, farmers, and other educational providers; or
- Develop and/or strengthen professional collaborations and involvement in teaching and demonstration of local food systems topics, principles, practices, and resources.
Secondary actions, or behavior changes, resulting from the training will be that growers, processors, distributors, buyers, community members or other local food system actors who are educated by training participants will adopt system approaches and practices or include local food systems concepts in their work. These changes will likely occur beyond the grant project period. Possible long-term condition changes, or impacts, that will go beyond the project period may include improved:
- Market, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities in agriculture and in communities;
- Economic well-being for producers and food-based businesses;
- Quality of life for producers and communities; and
- Capacity of organizations of project participants (resources, staff) to support local food systems programs and efforts.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Based on evaluation of the pilot training program, the curriculum successfully increased participants’ knowledge about local food systems and confidence and aspirations to work with their communities to support local food systems development.
The majority of training participants indicated increased knowledge and increased confidence to support local food systems development in their regions after completion of each course in the training (Figure 1). By the end of the training program, participants on average increased their confidence to lead or facilitate a collaborative process among community members to build local food systems by 23%. The highest rate of confidence increase after completion of the training series was in participants’ understanding of the benefits and challenges of creating a local food system; in this area, participants’ knowledge increased 40.6%.
In general, participants’ aspirations to incorporate course information into products and educational tools and to develop and strengthen professional collaborations and involvement in teaching, research, and/or demonstration of local food systems topics and practices increased over the course of the training (Figure 2). After the completion of the pilot training program, 100% of participants indicated an intention to incorporate course information into products and educational tools, to share training materials with farmers and others, and to develop and strengthen professional collaborations and involvement in teaching, research, and/or demonstration of local food systems topics and practices.
On average, training participants indicated satisfaction with the overall quality of all five courses in the training. The course with the highest level of satisfaction was Value Chain: Farm to Fork. In response to open-ended questions about satisfaction with the training, many participants indicated that they appreciated receiving tools and resources as well as the variety in the types of activities used to convey the content. Several participants noted that they had already shared course materials and resources with members of their local food community as a way to educate and strengthen local foods systems development in their region. For example, one participant wrote that “I have already used parts of this class in local food policy council meetings and advisory council meetings.”
Participants noted how the training’s emphasis on a systems approach to local foods can help them communicate more effectively with members of their community to help facilitate local food system development in their region. For example, in evaluating Course 5: Understanding and Influencing Regulatory Policy and Frameworks, one participant wrote, “This course was extremely helpful in preparing me for the opportunity to educate the community on how to develop a high performing local foods system by equipping me with knowledge of direct examples, community impacts and terminology on how the system operates.”
Qualitative responses to the evaluation reinforced the interpretations of the quantitative results, indicating that the training program has great potential to successfully serve the audience we are targeting. One participant wrote that “This course was extremely helpful in preparing me for the opportunity to educate the community on how to develop a high performing local foods system by equipping me with knowledge of direct examples, community impacts and terminology on how the system operates.” Speaking about the importance of the NC-based content, another participant wrote that “I have more knowledge of NC’s food and farm history, so I have more context to work from. I also have a greater understanding of one local food project in my community and can network resources or people there when it’s appropriate.”
A follow up evaluation with the pilot participants, targeting how they used the knowledge gained and resources provided in work and education programs, is planned and can be reported upon in the Year 2 report.
Participants also provided quality feedback on potential improvements to the training’s design and content. For example, several participants expressed the need to incorporate content that ties the course together across modules. Additionally, several pilot participants indicated that the courses were somewhat long for working professionals, and several were challenged to complete the five course training in a timely fashion due to the time involved in taking all five, eight-hour courses in order to achieve the certificate of completion.
The pilot training program’s learning activities primarily included recordings and activities captured through the original face-to-face graduate course that was the precursor to the online training program. Based on the success of the pilot program and constructive feedback provided through the evaluation of the pilot, we are currently honing the pilot program into a strong distance education model, tailoring interactive learning activities specifically for the online audience.
Based on pilot evaluation and feedback, we are currently revising and reframing the training program from five courses to three courses, each of which will offer an individual Certificate of Completion that highlights the tri-state partnership, and will be managed by NC State University’s McKimmon Center for Extension & Continuing Education.
The first course, Foundations in Local Food Systems Development, will be a prerequisite to the other two courses. To develop this new, first course in the training program, we are incorporating condensed versions of the original introductory course and our courses on community engagement and policy, thus providing a focus on community development and other foundational competencies for local food systems professionals. These foundational competencies were described by a national group of local food systems leaders at the 2017 NACDEP annual conference (NAFSN, 2017). Registration for this first course will be opened in mid-spring 2018.
We are making revisions to the other two courses, The Bottom Line: Economic Opportunities & Challenges of Local Food Systems and Value Chain: From Farm to Fork, based on the pilot evaluations. We anticipate these courses to maintain an estimated 8 hours for completion, and registration for these courses is estimated to open in late summer 2018.