Strengthening Community Engagement in Sustainable Local Food Systems

2004 Annual 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

Strengthening Community Engagement in Sustainable Local Food Systems


This project will increase public dialogue among community residents regarding sustainable localized food systems in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The value of expanding public conversations regarding community food systems is that such conversations enable residents to define, and thus, create the type of community they desire, including the role of 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 diverse local foods to satisfy consumer demand or to support a locally vibrant economy and quality of life. The desired long-term outcome for Extension educators and communities is to build community consensus in order to develop a common vision for a sustainable local food system. This project will provide Extension educators with the knowledge, program resources, and strategies a) to facilitate community conversations and b) to seek greater media coverage regarding the local food system.

This project will provide the foundation on which to expand Extension programming on local food systems through collaboration with other organizations in local communities. Data from the 2003 e-survey of field-based Extension educators in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania identified, from the perspectives of extension educators, local food system priorities, support and barriers to local food system programming, extension’s involvement in local organizations, and demographic and programmatic information. Local food system issues are perceived as important to field-based educators yet local residents, county planning commissions, and the media are perceived as having little interest. Understanding one’s local environment as well as individual differences among extension educators regarding the local food system is providing direction to subsequent program development. The objective of the e-survey and other initiatives is to enhance the capacity of Extension educators in collaboration with others in their communities to carry out local food system programming. Community defined needs for local food system programming must be a priority.

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, agriculture and the food system are commonly overlooked as communities define their futures. Agricultural land tends to be preserved for its open space rather than for its economic potential to provide diverse local foods to satisfy consumer demand or to support a locally vibrant economy and quality of life. Few counties or municipalities in Pennsylvania include agriculture in their planning. In fact, both county and municipal planners in Pennsylvania (Abel, 2000) 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 such local community interests. To facilitate Extension’s involvement on the local food system in their communities, Extension educators should be aware of their views on the food system and those of their colleagues as well as the perceived support for such programming within Cooperative Extension and their communities. The 2003 e-survey begins to provide this information. In addition, the Project Advisory Council continued to share program strategies and resources via conference calls.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Thirty Extension agents and 30 community collaborators at 15 sites in three states will engage with the project as described below.

1. Extension educatos will commit time to the initiative through a Plan of Work.

2. Educators and community collaboratos will work to enhance media and community awareness of local food issues, and specifically the use of Our Food: Our Future programming.

Success for this project is defined as an increase in appropriate community-defined initiatives that support continuing public dialogue on a sustainable local food system. The specific initiatives Extension educators and community collaborators undertake will be based on their own communities’ current involvement in such concerns.

Those involved in local action to address food system issues might a) initiate a process in the community to identify assets and needs for a sustainable local food system; b) determine the type, structure, and inclusiveness of community groups that may already exist and could explore food system issues at the community level; c) work in collaboration with community groups to initiate local programming on relevant food system issues; d) initiate contacts to expand media coverage of local food system issues; e) seek resources to expand community dialogue on the local food system.


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

During 2004, the Project Advisory Council, established in 2003, held four conference calls to discuss programming strategies and resources and use of the e-survey (Milestone 2) in local food system programming.

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

This tri-state e-survey determined the perceptions of Extension educators regarding public engagement with food system issues within their states as well as assessed their own perceptions and participation in food system programming.

Community support for local food system programming among educators and administrators was perceived by Extension personnel to be greater than from state-level Extension personnel. Local governments as well as local residents, Extension educators perceive, provide only limited support. The lack of both professional knowledge and program resources was perceived to be a moderate barrier. Just as important, Extension educators questioned whether or not local food system programming is part of their professional responsibilities.

Responses to the e-survey indicate that Extension educators across all of the three states perceived each of the 21 local food system issues to be important. However, differences existed among Extension educators based on gender, area of program responsibility, education, and geographic location within states. For example, female educators place higher importance on food access, hunger, and food preparation skills than do male educators. Male educators, on the other hand, view viable local ag-related businesses as most important. Just as different issues resonate with different stakeholders; similar diversity exists among extension educators; such differences must be acknowledged as programs are defined and implemented. Incorporating diverse interests and expertise can strengthen the resulting community initiatives.

Each state is continuing to analyze responses to the e-survey for their own state as well as determine how this information and its implications can be shared in order to be most useful for their own educators.

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

Within state in-services supporting local food system programming in order to address local needs has met with limited success. In New Jersey, such 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. New York emphasized “farm to school” programming to strengthen local food system initiatives through Extension.

In Pennsylvania, resources were shared at the annual in-service for community development educators and with individual field-based educators, particularly those associated with the Keystone Agricultural Innovation Center (KAIC). Talking points on local food system education in Pennsylvania, primarily drawn from this project’s e-survey, were provided, per request, to the Director of Cooperative Extension.

During the January 2005 economic and community development in-service, a “hand-on” session on drafting a questionnaire for local use and GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping to pinpoint local food and farming activities in a county provided strategies for educators to use in order to involve local residents in conversations on the food system. Involving participants, regardless of their role in the food system, can facilitate communication across stakeholders within communities.

Food system resources from Penn State and Cornell were provided to the Farm Foundation to add to the NPPEC (National Public Policy Education) web site. Program resources and program ideas were also shared among members of the three state Project Advisory Council via conference calls as well as during within state in-services.

Milestone 4. Extension educators and community representatives from across 15 counties in the three states (total: 30 agents; 30 community members) will identify, initiate, and carry out at least two appropriate community-based programming strategies on the food system within 12 months following the in-service.

Given the limited success of attracting educators to in-services in Pennsylvania, alternative strategies to address barriers to local food system programming cited by the educators in the e-survey are being explored. These barriers include 1) local food system programming does not fit within my responsibilities as an educator and 2) lack program resources and 3) knowledge to carry out local food system programming. Participating in in-services others offer provides opportunities 1) to share resources and programming ideas in order to demonstrate how local food system programming can be incorporated into already on-going programming on the economic viability of the food and fiber system in the community and 2) to explore the use of language and its importance in involving local residents in conversations on food and agriculture as well as to increase local media coverage. Support for local food system programming is increasingly based on requests from individual educators. For example, a purposive face-to-face survey to gain insight into interest in buying local foods was conducted at a local shopping mall during the mall’s annual agricultural fair. Data analysis and interpretation of the survey in order to support local food system programming are being provided through the project.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

In New Jersey, where institutional contractual participation in the project ended June 2004, the culminating event was an evening forum “Farms and Farmers in South Jersey: Planning for Agriculture in Your Community” held in October 2004. This forum occurred through the initial efforts of the Advisory Board of the Mid-Atlantic States Food Systems Education Center in Pennsville, NJ, to initiate local programming on issues relevant to the food system. Through the Advisory Board’s efforts, other organizations and institutions became involved in planning the forum. This forum focused on preserving farms and those who farm in South Jersey, particularly the role of municipalities in creating a favorable climate for agricultural businesses. Approximately 150 from the three-county area attended. The New Jersey Farm Bureau agreed to facilitate follow-up activities among those interested. In addition, this forum generated interest in replicating similar forums in other New Jersey counties.

Feedback from Extension educators participating in this project contributed to a multi-program grant to carry out a family garden and nutrition program at three local schools. Another educator utilized program information from this project and other sources to support Easton (PA) farmers market vendors (This market is located in an urban center with no supermarket and a significant minority population.); Adventures in Agriculture, held annually at the Easton (PA) mall; Open Gate Farm Tour; Farmers of the World initiated to reach the immigrant farming community; and the Future of Agriculture, addressing the economic viability of agriculture in two Pennsylvania counties.

As extension programming across states gradually shifts to include local programs on sustainable food and fiber systems, educators individually are seeking resources to support such programming. Addressing issues from a community perspective involves collaborating with others and building partnerships, distinct from direct programming with clientele. Often initial awareness regarding the importance of the food system to a local area is based on one-to-one contacts in order to build broader community support. The time intensive nature of such programming discourages many Extension educators. Not only does Cooperative Extension need to ensure that its personnel have the skills to carry out such programming but that Extension communicates the value of such programming to the educators as professionals as well as for the communities in which they live.

Building on the diverse interests and expertise within communities can strengthen resulting community efforts. A local food system reflects the community of which it is a part. All who are involved in this food system must participate in creating a shared vision of the local food system in order to develop consensus on, as well as acceptance of, local action. Defining the community’s “food future” depends on such engagement.


Inciong, L.O. (2004). “Pennsylvania Extension Educators: Strengthening Community Engagement Toward a Sustainable Local Food System.” M.S. thesis, The Pennsylvania State University. December.


Thomson, J.S., RB. Radhakrishna, L.O. Inciong, and A.N. Maretzki. (2004). “Extension Educators’ Perspectives on Local Food System Issues: Implications for Programming and Research.” Proceedings of the National Agricultural Education Research Conference. St Louis. May. CD-ROM.

Thomson, J.S., R.B. Radhakrishna, L.O. Inciong, and A.N. Maretzki. (2004). “Views of Extension Educators on the Local Food System: Implications for Programming and Research.” Abstracts for joint meeting of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) and the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society (AFHVS), page 39.

Maretzki, A.N. (2004). Invited presentation in “Community Agriculture and Food Systems, Integrating Farm Policy, Food Policy and Family Policy” session. Farm Foundation’s National Public Policy Education Conference, St. Louis, September 21.

Maretzki, A.N., J.S. Thomson, R.B. Radhakrisha, C. Homitzky, and J.L. Wilkens. (2004). “Perceptions and Expectations of Our Food System: Strengthening Communities’ Engagement in Sustainable Local Food Systems.” Presentation at Future of Our Food and Farms Summit, Philadelphia. December 3.

Inciong, L.O. and J.S. Thomson. (2004). “Community Engagement in Local Food System Programming.” Poster.
– Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and Gamma Sigma Delta Research Exhibition, March 17, 2004.
– Penn State Graduate School Research Exhibition, March 28, 2004. Third place, Social and Behavioral Sciences Division.

Thomson, J.S. and R.B. Radhakrishna. (2004). “Engaging Communities in Local Food System Dialogue: Strategies for Cooperative Extension and Outreach.” Outreach Scholarship Conference, University Park, PA. October 4.

Thomson, J.S., A.N. Maretzki, R.B. Radhakrishna, J.L. Wilkins, and C. Homitzky. (2004). “Engaging Communities in Local Food System Dialogue: Strategies for Cooperative Extension and Outreach.” Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) Conference, Burlington, VT. October 20-21.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Eating Right Here: Moving from Consumer to Food Citizen.” Presidential address to the joint meetings of the Association for the Study of Food in Society and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society. June 10-13. Hyde Park, NY.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Increasing Acres to Decrease Inches: The Land Requirements of Low-Carbohydrate Diets.” Panel presentation at the joint meetings of the Association for the Study of Food in Society and the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society. June 10-13. Hyde Park, NY.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Understanding the Cost of Food.” Panel presentation at the 37th Annual Conference of the Society for Nutrition Education, July 17-21. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Sustainable Agriculture: What Dietitians Should Know and Why.” Panel presentation given as part of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Practice Group Priority Session at the American Dietetic Association Annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. October 2-5. Anaheim, CA.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Connecting New York Farms and Schools.” Seminar given with Katherine Asher (CCE-St. Lawrence County) to Cornell faculty and county-based agriculture and nutrition educators via teleconference as part of Cornell Cooperative Extension Week Seminar Series. October 4-8, 2004.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Farm to School Connections in New York State Survey Results.” Presentation given to food service professionals at the New York State School Food Service Association annual convention, Oct 8-10, Buffalo, NY.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Farms to School Programs in New York State.” Presentation given at the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education (SARE) Conference, October 19. Burlington, VT.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Consumer Preferences for Pastured Animal Products.” Presentation given at the Animals in Agriculture Conference. Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University. November 3. Hickory Corners, MI.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “The Northeast Regional Food Guide: How Eating Seasonally and Locally can Build Local Food Systems.” Soul of Agriculture Conference. November 7-9. University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH.

Wilkins JL. 2004. “Benefits of Farm-to-School Approaches to Child Health.” Presentation given as part of a SPIN (Schools + Professionals In Nutrition) Training Workshop for the New York State Action for Healthy Kids Initiative. November 12. Ithaca, NY.


Lucinda Baron-Robbins

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Community & Economic Development Educator
Penn State Cooperative Extension--Fayette County
61 East Main Street
Uniontown, PA 15401
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Leslie Hulcoop

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Extension Issue Leader
Dutchess County, NY, Cooperative Extension
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Millbrook, NY 12545
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Luanne Hughes

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Family and Consumer Science Agent
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Gloucester County
County Government Services Building
1200 N. Delsea Drive
Clayton, NJ 08312-1095
Office Phone: 85630764502
Audrey Maretzki

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Professor of Food Science and Nutrition
The Pennsylvania State University
Department of Food Science
205 Borland Lab
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 8148634751
Ellen Williams

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4-H Agent
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Monmouth County
20 Court Street
Freehold, NJ 07728
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Jennifer Wilkins

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Senior Extension Associate
Cornell University
Division of Nutritional Sciences
305 MVR Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4401
Office Phone: 6072552142
William Tietjen

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County Extension Dept Head & Agri'al Ext Agent
Rutgers Cooperative Extension-Warren County
Administration Building, Suite 102
165 County Road 519 South
Belvidere, NJ 07823-1949
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Craig Altemose

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County Extension Director/Agronomy
Penn State Cooperative Extension--Centre County
Willowbank Building
Room 322, 420 Holmes Avenue
Bellefonte, PA 16823-1488
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Frances Alloway

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Family and Consumer Science Educator
Penn State Cooperative Extension--Delaware County
Smedley Park
20 PaperMill Road
Springfield, PA 19064-2705
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Claire Homitzky

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Community Food Projects Director
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
New Jersey Urban Ecology Program
Dept of Nutritional Sciences, 96 Lipman Drive
New Brunswick , NJ 08901-8525
Office Phone: 7329321688
Jonathan Laughner

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Agricultural Entrepreneurship
Penn State Cooperative Extension--Indiana County
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Indiana, PA 15701-1765
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Phyllis Laufer

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County Extension Director & 4-H Educator
Penn State Cooperative Extension--Northampton Co.
Gracedale Complex
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Rose Marie Kendall

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Community-Based Agricultural Development
Penn State Cooperative Extension--Indiana County
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Indiana, PA 15701-1765
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Liberty Inciong

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Master's candidate
Penn State Dept of Ag and Extension Education
323 Agricultural Admin Bldg
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 8148628404
Jennifer Reardon

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Nutrition Education Team Leader
Genesee County, NY, Cooperative Extension
420 E. Main Street
Batavia, NY 14020
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Rama Radhakrishna

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Associate Professor of Agricultural & Extension Ed
The Pennsylvania State University
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
323 Agricultural Administration Bldg
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 8148637069
Alison Harmon

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Senior Extension Associate
The Pennsylvania State University
Department of Food Science
203A Borland Lab
University Park, PA 16802
Office Phone: 8148637782
Michael Hamm

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C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture
Michigan State University
312B Natural Resources
East Lansing, MI 48824-1222
Office Phone: 5174321611
Joan Doyle-Paddock

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Senior Extension Associate
Cornell University
3M26 Martha Van
Ithaca, NY 14853
Office Phone: 6072557715