Online Planning Tool Aides in Developing Local Food Systems
RICHMOND, Virginia – Communities throughout Virginia and North Carolina interested in developing a local food system have access to an online planning tool that allows them to identify their assets and effectively assess the factors required for developing and implementing a system that supports healthy food, enhances local businesses, and conserves the environment.
Researchers with Virginia Tech, North Carolina A&T, and North Carolina State University have developed the Community Food System Explorer (http://www.cfse.ext.vt.edu/).
“The website helps local food advocates, community leaders, local officials, farmers, and consumers develop a strategic plan that addresses the opportunities and challenges they may face in forming and sustaining a community food system,” said Jonah Fogel, a community viability specialist with Virginia’s Cooperative Extension Service. “The tool is unique in that it focuses on an integrated approach to food system development rather than just one specialty area, such as food security or food production.”
The Community Food System Explorer is the result of surveys and a focus group study of six communities in North Carolina and Virginia with well-established local food systems. The project, funded by a $155,481 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant, was conducted to determine how the local food system “actors” in each community came together to create their community food system.
“We wanted to know that their perceptions were both of the business climate and public policy; what factors have helped the community change its food system; what were the public expectations; and other factors,” said Fogel. “We wanted to know what kinds of things enhanced the development of a community’s food system.”
As a guideline, the researchers used the “Community Capitals Framework” – seven diverse areas in which a community has assets and can make investments for future growth. They include natural capital, built capital, financial capital, social capital, human capital, cultural capital, and political capital.
“What we found was that although each community may have been different in terms of identifying one or two areas as important (there was no one right food system development process), all the elements supported each other, and that was the key to their success,” said Fogel. “Communities interested in developing their own food systems need some aspect of each of these seven factors to be innovative and profitable.”
The Community Food System Explorer incorporates these seven community capitals and aids users in exploring the boundaries of developing a community food system.
“What do they already have that they can capitalize on? What is holding them back? Is it infrastructure? Public policy? Institutional support? What we found in our surveys and focus groups was that for many of the communities, it was the social and economic interactions with the farmers that were challenging factors, rather than public policy, which initial rhetoric would have seemed to indicate,” said Fogel. “The farmers wished they had more money to grow the capacity needed to secure business support, and the institutions and the businesses wished they had access to more growers to meet the demand.”
The Community Food System Explorer is a planning tool that helps local food advocates, community officials, farmers, and consumers work across such interest areas to identify goals and strategies, draw boundaries, and evaluate the work that needs to be done in order to effectively address opportunities and challenges of developing their community’s food system. It consists of two interrelated pieces: a GIS mapping system that provides an inventory of food system assets in Virginia and North Carolina; and a facilitator’s guide that instructs users on how to conduct a community-based planning process.
“The GIS has 170 map layers between the two states. We cataloged many public sources of information into one place. It’s pretty extensive,” said Fogel. “The partnerships we’ve generated in creating this tool have been wonderful, as it has helped produce something that community food system stakeholders find useful. It really opens up the dialogue that is needed to develop projects across multiple groups and interests.”
To date, over two dozen Extension agents from Virginia and North Carolina have been trained to use the Community Food System Explorer. In addition, the planning tool has been used to site five community-based farm incubators in North Carolina; by University of Virginia in supporting a graduate student service-learning project; and in Arlington to develop a local food system work group.
For more information on the SSARE-funded project, “Sustainable Agriculture in Virginia and North Carolina: A multi-state assessment of the economic, social and political context,” visit the national SARE project’s database and search by project number LS08-206.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region.