This project represents a collaboration among NC Cooperative Extension (NCCE), NC A&T State University (NCA&T), Clemson University (CU), 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 CU and VCE have held recent local food forums and statewide conferences to enhance value chain connections. Virginia Tech recently launched the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation to strengthen value chains, food system networks, and begin to address intractable systemic issues in the food system such as equity, fairness, and justice.
This project piloted, evaluated, and improved an online, local food systems (LFS) non-credit course series (adapted from a SARE-funded face-to-face LFS graduate course). In addition to enhancing the online course for North Carolina Extension and other stakeholders, we developed a regional course that includes materials and resources from all three states (NC, VA, SC). We also piloted a blended training program in VA and SC that used the online regional course as a base, and integrated site visits and participant dialogue to encourage face-to-face networking and collaboration.
The project moved NC, SC, and VA towards more community-focused food systems by providing comprehensive training for existing and pre-service LFS practitioners. The primary objectives were to: 1) build the capacity of NC, SC, and VA training providers related to their ability to support local food system development, and 2) develop, evaluate and update the online training and alternative delivery model to serve as a regional model.
This project utilized interdisciplinary and systems approaches to LFS education, including information about environmental, societal, and economic impacts. The evaluation plan utilized quantitative and qualitative methods to collect, analyze, and determine knowledge and confidence attainment, and attitude and behavior changes. Online and blended programs were updated based on evaluation results for future delivery and regional expansion.
The overall goal of this project was 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 moved 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 was 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 who 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; Bauman, McFadden, and Jablonski 2018), 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) and Schoolman (2018) suggest that, overall, farmers who sell directly to consumers are more likely to use organic management practices and are less likely to use pesticides and herbicides; furthermore, Low et. al (2015) also argues that farmers who participate in direct market channels 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 by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. 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; Lindsay et al. 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, our project team conducted a needs assessment in 2015 about online LFS training that was sent to respondents in NC, SC, and VA. The majority of the 197 respondents to this needs assessment 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 2015 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 in 2017. Our project team evaluated the pilot program and revised the online certificate series of courses based on pilot participant feedback. The courses were then launched through NC State for the general public in Summer 2018.
This project also developed, piloted, and evaluated a blended (online and face-to-face) program in 2019 in VA and SC that used the online training as a base, and integrated site visits and participant dialogue to encourage networking and collaboration. As part of creating this blended course, NCCE provided coordination support for incorporation of VA and SC specific content into the online courses so as to develop a new regional focus for the course series.
Through our collaboration with NC A&T State University, we tapped into faculty local food systems expertise through their development of new case studies based on two existing research projects. These new resources have been incorporated into the online course series and will be piloted once the regional model of the course series is relaunched in February 2020. 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, SC, and VA 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 (including non-profits, farmers’ market managers, community garden managers, food policy council representatives, farmers, and other government sectors) are the target audience for this project.
Coordinators, Project Advisors & Content Contributors (not including grant Cooperators listed in a following section)
We worked with numerous individuals from multiple disciplines to move this project forward.
NC Advisory Committee:
- Dr. Nancy Creamer, Co-Director, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolina State University
- Dr. Chyi (Kathleen) Liang, Co-Director, Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolina State University
- Abbey Piner, Director, Community Food Strategies, North Carolina State University
- Becky Bowen, Program Manager, Cultivate NC, North Carolina State University
- Debbie Hamrick, NC Farm Bureau Federation
- Jeff Bender, Farmer, Bender Farms
- Davon Goodwin, Sandhills AgInnovation Center / OTL Farms
- Jillian Mickens, Farmer, Open Door Farm
- Carlos Moses, 4H Agent, Durham County, NC Cooperative Extension
- Susan Kelly, ANR/CRD Agent, NC Cooperative Extension
- Morgan McKnight, FCS Agent, Brunswick, New Hanover, and Pender counties, NC Cooperative Extension
- Karen Stanley, Division of Health and Human Services
- Julius Tillery, Resourceful Communities
- Thomas Moore, Carolina Farm Stewardship Association
The advisory committees for both SC and VA were composed of the blended program pilot participants in order to help make further refinements and improvements to the program’s content and design.
SC Advisory Committee:
- Kelly Flynn, Clemson University
- Diana Vossbrinck, Clemson University
- Ben Boyles, Clemson Extension
- Rebecca McKinney, Greenville Technical College and Bon Secours St. Francis Health System
- Adair Hoover, Clemson Extension
- Chad Carter, Clemson Extension
- Carrie Larson, Lowcountry Local First
- Courtney Lee, VISTA and Catawba Farm and Food Coalition
VA Advisory Committee:
- Gabby Levet, George Washington University
- KC Whitsett, Shalom Farms
- Tracy Frey, Williamsburg Farmers Market
- Beth Schermerhorn, Cambium Collective
- Alia Chambers, Sun Path Family Farm
- Sandy Stoneman, Virginia Cooperative Extension
- Kimberly Haun, Arlington County Parks & Recreation
- Kathleen Reed, Virginia Cooperative Extension
- Elizabeth Dobson, Virginia Cooperative Extension
- Amanda Presgraves, James Madison University
- Renard Turner, Vanguard Ranch
- Jessica Schultz, Price’s Fork Community Kitchen
- NC State Extension, Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences – Dr. Dara Bloom (project lead, grant PI), Dr. K.S.U. (Jay) Jayaratne (evaluation support), Dr. Emma Brinkmeyer (Local Food Program Assistant)
- NC State Extension, Community & Rural Development Program – Hannah Dankbar (project coordinator), Becky Bowen (content contributor), Dr. Susan Jakes (content contributor), Joanna Massey Lelekacs (formerly with NC Extension; former grant PI; presently at the North Carolina Botanical Garden)
- NC State University, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics – Marne Coit (content contributor)
- Virginia Cooperative Extension – Eric Bendfeldt (project coordinator, content contributor), Dr. Karen Vines (project coordinator), Dr. Kim Niewolny (project partner), Joyce Latimer (project partner), Peter Callan (content contributor), Subrato Kuri (summer project assistant), Brad Clinehens (online curriculum development and IT), and Cyndi Marston (curriculum curator and review).
- Clemson Cooperative Extension – Dr. Dave Lamie (project partner, content contributor), Kelly Flynn (program coordination, video production), Bob Mcanally and Bob Schuster (video filming), Kayla Rutherford (video editing).
- Kentucky Extension, Department of Agricultural Economics – Dr. Timothy Woods (content contributor)
- NC Agricultural & Technical State University – Dr. Kenrett Jefferson-Moore (project partner)
- Colorado State University – Dr. Rebecca Hill (content contributor), Dr. Becca Jablonski (content contributor)
- Center for Environmental Farming Systems, NC State University – Abbey Piner (content contributor), Dr. Rebecca Dunning (content contributor), Shorlette Ammons (content contributor), Tessa Thraves (content contributor)
- Farmers – Bender Produce Farms, Jeff Bender (content contributor); Open Door Farms, Jillian Mickens (content contributor)
- On the Farm Radio – Jeff Ishee (content contributor)
- Carolina Farm Stewardship Association – Aaron Newton (content contributor)
- NC Farm Bureau Federation – Debbie Hamrick (content contributor)
- NC State University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Communication – Julie Hayworth-Perman (marketing plan support), Kenneth Ellzey (video editing)
- McKimmon Center for Extension & Continuing Education – Chip Futrell (LMS access and course registration support)
The Overview of Local Food Systems Online Training Certificate program is 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 certificate training program utilizes 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 Overview of Local Food Systems online training certificate program is designed to provide a solid general foundation of knowledge about local food systems practice to local food systems educators and service providers.
The objectives of the Overview of Local Food Systems online training certificate program are for participants who completed the training to:
-- understand and be able to knowledgeably explain the benefits and challenges of localized food systems;
-- 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
-- be able to effectively lead or facilitate a collaborative process aligning local food systems structures and components with agricultural and general community strengths for local food system expansion.
The pilot of the Overview of Local Food Systems online training certificate program 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 pilot certificate 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 pilot evaluation and feedback, in 2017-18 we revised and reframed the training program from five courses to three courses. In doing so, we reorganized course content and revised multiple activities to better serve the online format. This included re-doing content from the original face-to-face course in order to tailor it to the online learning experience. Each course offers an individual Certificate of Completion that highlights the tri-state partnership, and is managed by NC State University’s McKimmon Center for Extension & Continuing Education. We opened the revised course series for registrations in summer to winter 2018, and launched again in summer 2019. The revised certificate series is composed of the following three courses:
- Foundations in Local Food Systems Development
- Farm to Fork: Foundations in Local Food Supply & Value Chains
- The Bottom Line: Economic Realities & Other Considerations of Local Food Systems
The first course, Foundations in Local Food Systems Development, is a prerequisite to the other two courses and is estimated to take 14-15 hours to complete. To develop this new, first course in the training program, we incorporated condensed versions of the original introductory course and our courses on community engagement (Food as a Common Denominator) and policy (Understanding Regulatory Policy & Frameworks), 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). This course provides a brief history of the U.S. and global food systems, as well as an overview of the sectors and influences of the food system, approaches to community development, and an introduction to how to educate communities about potential food systems change at the policy level.
The second course in the series, Farm to Fork: Foundations in Local Food Supply & Value Chains, is a revised version of the Value Chains: From Farm to Fork course. The course is estimated to take 8-9 hours to complete. The new version of the course introduces participants to the concept of a value chain, and explores what values drive supply chain configuration in different contexts, as well as how value chain development can support community and economic development. This course walks participants through the process of providing technical assistance to producers about adding value and upgrading in a local food value chain context.
The third course in the series, The Bottom Line: Economic Realities & Other Considerations of Local Food Systems, is a revised version of the The Bottom Line: Opportunities & Challenges of Local Food Systems course. This course is also estimated to take 8-9 hours to complete. In this course, participants learn about legal structures for local food value chain businesses, the case for triple bottom line impacts of LFS, and traditional and alternative financing methods. Participants also explore basic business planning and risk management, and some keys to marketing local food products, including regional branding.
The content knowledge originally provided in the pilot series was reinforced primarily with North Carolina examples. Clemson and Virginia Cooperative Extension services then developed parallel state-specific content to embed in the online training program to provide more of a regional focus. The regional online training program was then delivered as a blended program (online + face to face) through Clemson and Virginia Cooperative Extension services in February to May 2019. The Virginia and Clemson grant project teams decided to use the first course in the series, Foundations in Local Food Systems Development, as the basis of their pilot of the blended program delivery, as it is a prerequisite for the other courses and its introductory content would give participants an idea of the work involved in the course series if they wanted to enroll in the other courses.
The Virginia and South Carolina grant project teams worked to identify possible gaps in the existing course modules and activities in which Virginia- and South Carolina-specific content could provide new subject matter or add specific state-based examples to reinforce existing material. Before launch of the blended program, the Virginia team gathered resources and developed educational material and activities in content areas such as: food system history and heritage; impact assessment; community, local, and regional food systems; policy and systems change; and youth involvement in food systems. The Clemson grant project team gathered resources and developed educational material and activities in content areas such as: food system history and heritage; community, local, and regional food systems; policy and systems change; supply and value chains; and youth involvement in food systems.
The Virginia and Clemson grant project teams then developed a timeframe for the blended program delivery that included face-to-face sessions paired with the content modules of the Foundations course; the rationale behind this shared schedule for moving participants through the online course was so that participants could start to construct a regional network of LFS professionals. Below are the schedules for the VA and SC blended programs; the topics of the face-to-face sessions; and any corresponding field trips:
Virginia Blended Program:
- Module 1. Introduction of Food Systems: Timeframe for completion of online module: 2/4/18-3/2/18.
- Face-to-face training: February 21, 2019:
- Location: Virginia Cooperative Extension Northern District Office, Harrisonburg, VA. This face-to-face meeting included a brief review of the online material and an introduction to Virginia’s Community, Local, and Regional, Food Systems Model. The presentation was followed by a panel of producers and food system stakeholders who shared their experiences and insights on local and regional food systems. In addition, Jeff Ishee of On the Farm Radio and Virginia Farming shared a 20-minute podcast entitled, The Evolving Heritage of Food and Farming in Virginia.
- Field Trip: Meat processing facility tour of True & Essential (T & E) Meats in Harrisonburg to explore and learn about local food system infrastructure challenges and opportunities, particularly in assisting small and mid-size livestock growers with their processing and marketing needs.
- Face-to-face training: February 21, 2019:
- Module 2. Community Engagement and Food Systems Change: Timeframe for completion of online module: 3/4/18-3/30-18.
- Face-to-face training: March 21, 2019:
- Location: Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA The training involved a short presentation by Dr. Leonard Githinji of Virginia State University on urban agriculture initiatives. There was also facilitated discussion about Whole Measures of Community-Based Food Systems, which led to deeper conversation about inequity and structural racism in the food system. Beth Schermerhorn also shared her experience in assessing food equity as a community planner and developing the Everyone at the Table: A community food equity assessment for Harrisonburg, VA.
- Field Trip: A tour of the Harding Street Urban Agriculture Center in Petersburg, VA was planned for the afternoon was planned but, unfortunately, there was a miscommunication so a short virtual tour was provided via conference call.
- Face-to-face training: March 21, 2019:
- Module 3. Introducing Regulatory Policy & Frameworks for Local Food Systems Development: Timeframe for completion of online module: 4/1/18-4/27/18.
- Face-to-face training: April 25, 2019:
- Location: Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. As an introduction, Eric Bendfeldt shared a short presentation entitled, Food systems thinking, leadership, and change. This presentation was followed by presentations by Michelle Edwards of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Planning Commission on regional food system plan development and Eddie Oliver of the Virginia Federation of Food Banks on advocacy and policy development.
- Field Trip: A small group of participants visited Shalom Farms in the afternoon and met with Dominic Barrett the executive director. Shalom Farms is a faith-based group that reaches out to marginalized food systems communities in the Greater Richmond Area. Their programs include: 1) A Healthy Corner Store initiate, 2) a Produce Prescription Plan, 3) A Grown to Go Mobile Market, 4) a Kitchen Clinic, and ) Soil Health and Season Extension work with high tunnel farming.
- Face-to-face training: April 25, 2019:
South Carolina Blended Program:
- Module 1. Introduction of Food Systems: Timeframe for completion of online module: 2/4/19-3/2/19.
- Face-to-face training: March 1, 2019:
- Location: Clemson University, Clemson, SC. Participants were invited to participate in the Food Forward Research Symposium, Clemson University’s inaugural system-wide symposium highlighting food systems-focused research and outreach programs and activities. Immediately following the event, participants met with the project lead, Dr. Dave Lamie, so that the participants could be introduced to each other, discuss their progress with the online LFS course and how what was presented in the Food Forward relates to what they are learning in the course and how both the course and the Food Forward presentations relate to their grassroots food systems work.
- Face-to-face training: March 1, 2019:
- Module 2. Community Engagement and Food Systems Change: Timeframe for completion of online module: 3/4/19-3/30/19.
- Module 3. Introducing Regulatory Policy & Frameworks for Local Food Systems Development: Timeframe for completion of online module: 4/1/19-4/27/19.
- Face-to-face training: August 22, 2019:
- Location: Atlanta, GA: Participants were invited to a study tour of LFS projects in Atlanta to review the urban agriculture and food systems development projects associated with the Mayor’s Office of Resilience, thus complementing the course module’s subject matter of how to implement food systems change at the policy level.
- Field Trip: The tour included visits to: Marta Farm and MARTA Market (farmstands available in public transport stations); Truly Living Well Collegetown Farm (an urban farm); Gangsta to Growers (food and agriculture programming with formerly incarcerated youth); and Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill (a city park and community farm).
- Face-to-face training: August 22, 2019:
After the conclusion of the blended programs, the Virginia and Clemson grant project teams worked to finalize any new state-specific content to embed in the new regional model of the online course series, in part based on evaluation feedback from course participants.
NCA&T has also developed content to contribute to the revised online course series. NC has incorporated this content, which includes two case studies, in anticipation of the regional series relaunch. The first case study is on local value-added processing using goat dairies, and will help participants to evaluate the feasibility of entering an alternative agricultural enterprise. This content has been embedded within the Farm to Fork course. The second case study is about farmer decision making about value-added and enterprise diversification, using urban agriculture as an example. This content is designed to help participants to assess how to develop LFS programs to encourage the consumption and production of healthy foods, including a better understanding of urban consumers and potential distribution channels for urban farmers. This content has been embedded within the Foundations course.
Moving forward, NC is currently revising the online course series to finalize all the regional content additions; NC anticipates opening the regional model of the online course series for registration on February 1, 2020. NC is working on outreach strategies to potential participants in all three states, as well as to other sectors in which professionals may be working LFS, such as public health.
Based on evaluation of the training programs (both NC online and VA and SC blended versions), the curriculum successfully increased participants’ knowledge about local food systems, confidence, and aspirations to change their behavior and how they work with their communities to support local food systems development. The following section reports the evaluation results from pre/post course tests and quizzes. For the courses that were offered through North Carolina’s online system, we had 57 usable evaluations from the Foundations in Local Food Systems Development course, 8 usable evaluations from the Farm to Fork: Foundations in Local Food Supply and Value Chains course, and 6 usable evaluations from the The Bottom Line: Economic Realities and Other Considerations of Local Food Systems course. We had 9 usable evaluations from the VA and SC Blended Program online portion.
The majority of NC online course participants and participants who took the online course as part of the Blended programs in SC and VA indicated increased knowledge on how to support local food systems development in their regions after completing the online training series (Figure 1). Knowledge was measured by comparing pre- and post-module quiz grades.
Module quizzes were designed to assess:
- 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.
The majority of NC online course participants and participants in the online Blended program also indicated increased confidence to support local food systems development in their regions after completing the courses in the training series (Figure 2).
We asked participants questions to gauge increases in confidence along the following parameters:
- 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.
As part of course assessments, overall mean score of confidence (skill) in these areas improved from pre-test to post-test (Figure 2).
Aspirations (behavior change):
In general, NC online participants’ and Blended program 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 also increased (Figure 3). We assessed participants’ intention to change their behavior, including those who indicated “yes” and “maybe,” in the following areas:
- 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.
On average, NC online course participants and Blended Program participants indicated satisfaction with the overall quality of all three courses in the online training series. An average of 90.8% of NC course participants for all three courses in the certificate series indicated that they were “Satisfied” or “Very Satisfied” with the overall quality of the courses. An average of 66.6% of participants in the Blended Program indicated that they were “Satisfied” or “Very Satisfied” with the overall quality of the courses.
In response to open-ended questions regarding satisfaction with the online certificate training program , many participants indicated that they appreciated the courses’ self-paced nature as well as opportunities for communication and networking among participants. One course participant wrote that the Foundations course “is an excellent primer to the nature of food systems and food systems work, and it makes a great networking tool as well.”
Educational & Outreach Activities
As indicated by course evaluations, this project moved NC, SC, and VA toward a more economically and socially beneficial food system by successfully strengthening the capacity of Extension educators and other LFS practitioners to support LFS work in their communities. We anticipate that the training’s secondary impacts will be that local food system actors who are educated by training participants will adopt system approaches and practices or include LFS concepts in their work. These changes will likely occur beyond the grant project period. Possible long-term impacts beyond the project period that will address the sustainability of agriculture and the food system may include improved:
- Market, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities for agricultural producers (including opportunities for value-added and niche marketing in LFS);
- Economic well-being for producers and food-based businesses;
- Access to local food for consumers, which builds demand and the market for local agricultural products;
- Community engagement to determine localized strategies to improve food system performance for both producers and consumers; and
- Capacity of organizations of project participants (resources, staff) to support LFS programs and efforts.
In the short term, course evaluations indicated that a majority of participants intended to incorporate lessons learned from the courses in their own educational and outreach efforts. Open-ended evaluation responses also suggest that the online certificate training program encourages participants to incorporate a systems approach into their work that will help them support high functioning local food systems. Participants noted how the online certificate training program’s emphasis on a systems approach can help them communicate more effectively with community members to help facilitate local food system development in their region. One participant wrote, “It [the program] helps to see the bigger picture in terms of equity and the systems that overlap [to] create the local food systems and communities. If you want [to] improve your ability to engage the community on identifying and improving important issues and problems or know the basics of how to be part of the solution, this course is the place to start.”
Participants also noted that they have already begun to use what they learned; one participant wrote, “Learning all of the terminology was really important and has allowed me to be more ‘fluent’ in local food system development. I was also able to incorporate a lot of the material in this course into a class I co-instructed on farm economics.” In a 6-month post-course interview, one Extension agent participant stated that she revised a teacher-training curriculum based on what she learned in the certificate training program; due to the training program, she added “other resources that are available to them as educators [to show] how they fit into that whole bigger systems thing… I’ve definitely branched out and widened my own training, vocabulary and offerings to those teachers.” A non-profit participant in a 6-month post-course interview stated that “there were several good resources that I wasn’t aware of before the course, that I have either shared directly or I’ve bookmarked to be included in this one-stop shop kind of farmer resource site.” This participant also shared several business-planning resources gleaned from the certificate training program with new and beginning farmers because “they had no idea where to start when it comes to that.”
Based on these results, NC feels confident that a regional model will benefit future participants in the development of their local food programming skills, ultimately building their capacity to contribute to a more sustainable agricultural and food system.
Overall, the evaluation of the pilot blended programs in VA and SC indicated that the participants valued the face-to-face meetings to further conversations and deepen their understandings of topics, to draw on the strengths of the group, and to network. However, our experiences with the blended program also highlighted the challenges for working professionals to fit multiple face-to-face meetings into their busy schedules, as attendance at the face-to-face sessions declined over the course of the programs. In order to facilitate a successful blended program in the future, we would recommend that any participants who receive scholarships should pay some portion of the registration fee so that their financial investment encourages them to complete the program. Coordinating face-to-face meetings with events that participants may already be, or have an interest in, attending can also help motivate attendance. In their evaluation of the programs, blended program participants also suggested that the face-to-face requirements could be made more flexible; for example, participants could be required to attend 2 of 3 meetings.
While face-to-face meetings brought value to the course participants, the difficulties participants faced to attend all the face-to-face sessions justify the continued offerings of the online training series as a mode of professional development that is more adaptable to the schedules of busy professionals.