Convenient, affordable, and reliable access to safe nutritious food is important to the long term health of individuals, families and communities. How that food is produced and distributed can reveal a lot about the overall equity and sustainability of communities, regions and nations as a whole. Many are also recognizing the role food production and provision can play as an engine of economic and cultural renewal. A growing number of efforts are underway to assess and intentionally shape food systems based on this awareness, while increasing community capacity and resilence. The initiatives and resources listed here offer support and insight into this community and regional development work.
To better understand needs and opportunities, many communities and regions are conducting systematic assessments of their food systems. Exact terms and approaches vary depending on the participants and priorities, including assessments focusing on food systems, food security, and foodsheds. Many of these also contain elements of a local economic assessment.
One of the more commonly used terms, Community Food Assessment (CFA), has been defined as:
“a collaborative and participatory process that systematically examines a broad range of community food issues and assets, so as to inform change actions to make the community more food secure" (from Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) publication What's Cooking in Your Food System: A Guide to Community Food Assessment).
Though each assessment process is unique, with the shape and outcomes defined by the communities themselves, most CFAs have three basic characteristics in common (WHY Hunger Food Security Learning Center). They:
Asset Based Approaches
Asset based programming is critical to many community and regional development initiatives, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, shifting priorities, perspectives and approaches to grassroots organizing. As stated in the Southern SAWG document Growing the Community Food Movement:
“All-too-often, very well intending individuals and organizations plan their work with an intent to 'fix' communities through food. Invariably, the assets of people who do not have access to quality foods on a regular basis are overlooked. This leads to a great deal of resentment and further distance between the food have's and have not's. Most important, it further drives a deeper wedge into the local food system. This does little to increase the affordability and availability of foods. Furthermore, it perpetuates an important myth in community food systems-we are helping them. You cannot improve the local food system without helping yourself-we are them...Deficit based language creates hierarchical thinking and behavior. But, it is also suggests how power dynamics are demonstrated on the ground. Asset based language is powerful. It is inextricably linked to asset based approaches to community food organizing.”
Systems approaches seek to understand the broader complex social, economic and environmental dynamics of food production, provision and consumption as an interrelated system, not simply as a combination of elements. Some CFAs offer very linear or compartmentalized views of food issues. Systems based assessments should draw on a tradition of systems analysis (there are many), explicitly defining what makes a food system systemic, and what tools are used in analyzing those systems. Depending on the approach and methods used, different things in the system will be revealed. GIS (Geospatial Information Systems) and other databases are sometimes created and used to assist in this process.
These resources offer an introduction to application of systems approaches to food systems and related project development:
The following sites provide general examples and supporting materials related to food systems/food security assessment:
An increasing number of communities, regions and states are forming "Food Policy Councils" to collaboratively evaluate and improve their food system. According to the (now defunct) North American Food Policy Council:
"Food Policy Councils (FPCs) bring stakeholders from diverse food-related sectors to examine how the food system is operating and to develop recommendations on how to improve it. FPCs may take many forms, but are typically either commissioned by state or local government, or predominately a grassroots effort. Food policy councils have been successful at educating officials and the public, shaping public policy, improving coordination between existing programs, and starting new programs."
The following sites offer examples and supporting resources related to Food Policy Councils:
While CSAs, farmers markets and farm stands have provided a jump start to the local food movement, many (including farmers) are recognizing the need for infrastructure that better supports the longterm needs and interests of communities and food systems stakeholders, and enables regional scaling. “Food Hub” projects are becoming an increasingly popular approach in addressing weaknesses, or the “missing middle” in local and regional food systems. Their focus can vary widely from a narrow emphasis on supporting market efficiency to goals of building an inclusive, equitable and diverse food culture. Food hubs can consist of physical facilities, community services and/or communication/coordination systems. Information technology is increasingly being used as part of this effort to bridge gaps in food networks –some of these are listed in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) section of this guide.
The USDA Agricultural Marketing Resource Center defines food hubs as:
“activities supporting the coordination of value chain activities along the value chain, including the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”
The National Food Hub Collaboration, a partnership among USDA, the Wallace Center at Winrock International, National Good Food Network, National Association of Produce Market Managers, and Project for Public Spaces, is working to promote food hubs in the US. The Collaboration collects and analyzes the latest data, research and activities related to food hubs and works to ensure the success of existing and emerging food hubs in the United States.
Many initiatives and resources listed elsewhere in this guide (including Assessment and Food Policy Council sections) provide examples of how spatial analysis and mapping can be used to better understand and support local and regional food systems. In some cases formal application of GIS (Geospatial Information Systems) technology is used. The Data section of this guide provides a list of other sources to draw from in conducting these types of analysis, including many social and environmental indicators.
Here are resources specifically relating to the spatial analysis and mapping of food systems and related indicators. Most are relevant to New York State or the US. Mann Library maintains this separate list which includes more sources of international data.
Information and communications technology (ICT) is increasingly being used to inform, connect and empower food systems stakeholders, and to support sustainable and resilent farms and communities. This guide and the resources listed within constitute one example of this approach. Here are a few resources articulating the range and relevance of their application more explicitly.