Building Capacity for Local Foods Infrastructure Development

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $171,079.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Kathryn Draeger
University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships
Greg Schweser
Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships

Annual Reports

Information Products


Not commodity specific


  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, networking, study circle, workshop


    This education/demonstration project built and sustained a three state collaboration of Extension, researchers, and advocates of local foods from Minnesota, North and South Dakota. This collaboration engaged three rural communities in Design Thinking workshops where information and feedback translated into content for the University of Minnesota Extension’s Community and Local Food Resources online toolkit. Farmers and community participants piloted this toolkit at a Learning Summit held during the 2013 Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society meetings in Aberdeen, South Dakota. The completed toolkit will be used by Extension and community groups working to build capacity of their local food systems.


    At the time of the submission of the initial project proposal in 2009, the local foods movement had a degree of edginess captured by an eager media. The New York Times alone published well over 300 articles between 2007 and 2009; Time magazine ran a 2007 cover story on the topic; a 2008 MacArthur Genius Award was given to Will Allen, one of the farmer visionaries of the Good Food Movement. The years in which this project has been implemented have been a fundamental formative period for what was once the nascent food movement.

    As a result, over the course of this project some unanswered questions on local foods systems have been resolved. For example, in 2010 the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships hosted the Models and Methodologies symposium to address the question of whether local foods could feed local populations. Foodshed modeling in the Red River Valley and in the Western Lake Superior region has determined that, yes—with between 3% and 25% respectively of existing agricultural lands—those regions could produce enough food (produce, meat, grains, eggs, dairy, oils) to feed the population a healthy diet (Stark, Abasz, and Syring, 2010; Superior Foodweb, 2011). From that point, we moved ahead with this project knowing that local food systems represented a theoretically sound approach to community food resiliency.

    We also felt it was important not to temper our work with overly-optimistic jingoism. We understood that amid the starts and stops frequently evident when community food systems develop, overly optimistic reports and news stories do not help communities when success cannot be validated. In our initial proposal (as can be seen in the following ‘context, background, and rationale’ section) we hastily cited the innovative policy achievements and economic development initiatives in Woodbury County, Iowa. We followed this up and produced an investigative case study where we learned of the shortcomings of these policies. This case study is presented in our Community and Local Food Resources website to teach people of the risks and lessons learned of those early local food trail blazers so that others will not make similar mistakes.

    In retrospect, our original proposal (conceptualized in 2008, submitted in 2009 and started in 2011) demonstrated the strong sense of novelty and high mindedness of work that engages and supports communities to realize and build a locally-based food system. In our initial proposal we stated:

    A new form of thinker has emerged –‘food philosophers’ – who have given rhetorical shape to the creativity and innovation in communities across the country. Whether stinging critiques of the industrial food system like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) or Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) or culinary visionaries like Carlo Petrini (founder of the Slow Food movement) or concerned nutritionists like Marion Nestle, or activist gardeners like Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), these authors have galvanized widespread public action and debate around a redesign of our food system.

    While early local food efforts felt to many to be elitist big city propositions, we focused our input at the rural community level where neighboring farmers worked in commodity agriculture and few had ever heard of or called themselves ‘food philosophers’. We did not consult the New York Times to determine how best to facilitate local food systems, we consulted with the people of Napoleon, North Dakota; Spearfish, South Dakota; and Bemidji, Minnesota.

    The needs that we identified are rooted in the actual struggles of farmers and rural residents on the ground seeking to build local food systems, strengthen farm sustainably, and create access to healthy local foods for their communities. The primary investigator on this grant was the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships – an organization that is rooted in working to identify and harness community-based innovations to sustainable development issues. The rural community-based sentiment of those communities with which we worked is represented in this report and in the resulting toolkits, proposal, materials, and other efforts that are ongoing as a result of this grant. The Community and Local Food Resources toolkit was vetted and tested in the field with both community cohorts and farmer advisory committee members at the project summit in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

    Context, Background, and Rationale from Original Project Proposal
    Nationally, there is a growing momentum of people interested in what is now commonly called the local foods movement (Pollen, 2008). The local foods movement emphasizes knowing where your food comes from, reducing the “food miles” from production to plate, considers the importance of a food culture, and encourages creating relationships between the farmers who grow local foods and consumers. The momentum of this movement is embraced by the Obama administration and by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who recently announced a new USDA initiative called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” In his remarks at the Freeman Lecture on Oct 5th 2009 at the University of Minnesota, Secretary Vilsack described this initiative in terms of regional food systems that can service both families and institutional purchasers like schools and hospitals. He also referred to the alignment of strengthening capacity at the regional level and common sense rural development investments.

    Americans are interested in food – its gastronomic, agricultural, preservation, environmental, cultural, and economic aspects – like never before. This interest has coalesced as a cultural phenomenon – one which the Kellogg Foundation, as one of its angel investors, refers to as the “Good Food” movement (W. K. Kellogg Foundation, 2009). This movement has received significant media coverage – both in traditional print media and particularly online, through formal media outlets, and informal blogs and social networking applications, and a broad range of both commercial and informal blogs and print.

    The New York Times alone has published well over 300 articles in the last two years on this subject. In 2007, Time magazine ran a cover story on the topic; a 2008 Macarthur Genius Award was given to Will Allen, one of the farmer visionaries and beacons of the Good Food Movement. A new form of thinker has emerged –‘food philosophers’ – who have given rhetorical shape to the creativity and innovation in communities across the country. Whether stinging critiques of the industrial food system like Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) or Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) or culinary visionaries like Carlo Petrini (founder of the Slow Food movement) or concerned nutritionists like Marion Nestle, or activist gardeners like Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), these authors have galvanized widespread public action and debate around a redesign of our food system.

    Interest in where food comes from and who is growing it comes at a time when food insecurity and hunger exist alongside declining farmland for food production in the United States (Center for a Livable Future, 2009). According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 12.2% of all individuals were food insecure one or more times in 2007. Food insecurity occurs in either individuals or families when, “Access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources.” Concurrent to food insecurity is the perplexing and intractable problem of overweight and obesity leading to almost 400,000 deaths per year and costing our health care system almost 93 billion in 2002 dollars (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009).

    The United States Department of Agriculture drives food and nutrition programs and policies through the Dietary Guidelines and by recommending consumption of 5-9 servings/day of fruits and vegetables. Yet, domestically we do not raise enough fruits and vegetables to even meet these guidelines, nor do we import enough (because consumption is so low). Adding to the lack of available fruits and vegetables is the high cost of accessing these healthy foods. Food insecurity contributes to overweight or obesity due to the overabundance of inexpensive foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium (otherwise known as SFASS).

    Living in rural areas today does not guarantee access to more farm fresh fruits and vegetables since the vast proportion of agriculture is for commodity crops and the lower populations levels often makes supporting a well stocked grocery store difficult. Rural areas span great distances where mainly agricultural crops are grown and shipped out for feed, fiber, and fuel. The economies of many rural areas, including Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, are colonial in nature, where much of their agricultural products are sent to other parts of the world and the food consumed by residents is shipped in from far away. This can result in food insecurity tied to factors such as the presence or absence of grocery stores that sell healthy foods.

    Rural areas are especially prone to the loss of grocery stores and hence access to healthy foods. Kansas State University (K-State) through their Rural Grocery Store Initiative ( is seeking ways to stem the loss of more stores while building sustainable models for maintaining or founding grocery stores in towns under 2000 residents. Initiatives like K-State’s are important for rural towns who seek to maintain their independence, reduce poverty, and provide healthy opportunities for residents. The K-State’s Rural Grocery Store Initiative is confronting issues of food insecurity, sustainability, and health in rural areas through developing local community food system models.

    Rural communities are increasingly committed to food self-sufficiency, requiring a shift in production from commodities to more diverse crop and animal systems. This civic interest is spurred by concerns about public health due to highly processed diets; interest in agricultural practices that contribute ecosystems services - like improved soil, air and water quality and wildlife habitat; and potential for ‘green’ economic benefits from relocalized agriculture. While rural communities want to strengthen regional food systems, many lack the knowledge to develop scale-appropriate infrastructure; nurture support of local and regional policymakers/agencies; and build a local foods culture in their community. This program is designed to fill this educational gap, so local citizens together can develop informed strategies for a sustainable, regional foodshed.

    This excerpt from an article in Science speaks to the role our project and land grant universities can play in building community-based groups in addressing food security.

    Innovation. Initiatives in which local communities effectively set the agenda, alongside science and technology developers, have emerged in the last decade. . . . It is not the technologies that are innovative here, but the pathway to their development, which involves continuous on-site cycles of learning and change.

    The assessment’s message is clear: Innovation is more than invention. Success is not based on technological performance in isolation, but rather how technology builds knowledge, networks, and capacity. Simply put, plant breeding and natural resource management practices are very “blunt tools for social change;” innovation demands sophisticated integration with local partners (Kiers et al., 2008).

    Some would say the land grant university’s mission is to catalyze civic engagement in the food system and that Extension and other agricultural educators should be at the forefront of restructuring community food systems. Colasanti, Wright, and Reau (2009) recently explored the role of Extension educators who engage in “catalytic” or “leaderful” work for food system revitalization.” Their work highlights the idea of “civic agriculture,” which provides new market opportunities for producers through enhancing social capital in the community where agriculture is embedded (Lyson, 2004).

    Colasanti et al.’s (2009) reference to a leaderful framework to catalyze community change around food systems looks foremost to the idea of facilitation of a process in an unbiased minimally influential manner. Second, is a learner focus that emphasizes “co-discovery” where knowledge becomes the province of all involved, not just the experts. Third, is a team leadership focus that creates and implements strategic action plans. Fourth, is an issue or action focus with mutual respect around varying value systems (e.g., organic vs. conventional agriculture). This approach is non-prescriptive and values the process as actual content when working toward catalyzing change in the food system.

    Andreatta, Rhyne, and Dery (2008) also build their work off of Lyson’s (2004) notion of civic agriculture in their exploration of advocating Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) for low-income and food insecure households. Their project was about “forging new relationships around food connections” (p. 143) through building a social network between the farmers, volunteers, low-income household, and other community members. Direct contact between farmers and consumers enhanced self-reliance in the low-income participants by building food literacy and forging community connections (e.g., social capital). Our current food system places substantial barriers between consumers and farmers and prevents people from accessing fresh, healthy, and affordable food.

    One way to increase people’s knowledge and trust about food and then to also increase access to healthy foods is through thoughtful planning of local food systems to accommodate consumer and producer needs through food policy councils or similar civic groups. Communities have the capacity to use citizen-based advisory groups to bring ideas and best practices to the governmental level. Policymakers require information in order to make evidence-informed decisions, which a food council can easily facilitate through its role as information-gatherer and networker. Schiff (2008) states, “One potential role for food policy councils to fulfill is to raise the awareness of government as to policy, changes to policy, and implementation mechanisms that can enhance food systems sustainability” (p. 212).

    Woodbury County, Iowa is an example of a county that drove successful change through policies that promoted local and organic foods in the community. A slowly dying community was brought back to life through a commitment to developing and implementing local foods policies. Woodbury County is now a model of economic vitality through their shift in focus to successful local agricultural endeavors. Growing food for local people became the focus. Buying food at all levels (e.g., individual and institutional) from local producers became the standard practice. This economic boom was accomplished through policy changes that commit resources to local producers who grow and process food for people who live in Woodbury County -- showing us that policy, social networking, and careful planning matters.

    Our project will use the idea of civic agriculture and build social capital through social networks that stimulate innovations in order to revitalize the local food system in three rural North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota communities. We propose to use best practice tools to bring through a leaderful approach rather than a top-down approach. The project team will be available to facilitate the process through “non-influential” guidance, best-practice awareness, and structured time to plan community engagement projects around local foods.

    Project objectives:

    1. Establishment of collaborative partnership among ND, SD, MN local food advocates and researchers
      Establish community cohorts in each of the three states to pilot local foods innovations and infrastructure
      Cohorts participate in Learning Circles
      Convene all community cohorts for Learning Summit
      Create and disseminate innovative e-learning and online resources for community local foods
    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.