Best Practices Learned
from Regional Food Assessments
Regional food assessments can provide a useful compilation of data, stories, and connections. They can also help direct future funding, resources, and priority areas.
Food councils across North Carolina are engaging in regional food assessments or strategies for multiple counties and regions. Representatives involved in several recent food assessments connected to hear what has worked best, what they wished would have been different, what they learned, and ideas about how these assessments can work together.
The following is a list of best practices from our recent experiences.
1: Learn about authentic engagement.
- Review the Food Access Change through Authentic Resident Engagement toolkit by Healthy Food Policy Project. They clearly define authentic resident engagement and explain four key working principles:
- Address power imbalance.
- Build trust.
- Take an anti-racism stance.
- Use an asset-based approach.
2. Clarify intent and goals.
- Manage expectations for the process.
- Narrow and focus the goals as best as possible given the resources available. Acknowledge that you won’t be able to do everything or reach everyone well.
- Define the geographic scope.
- Make the purpose explicit.
- Examples include: relationship building, fundraising & leveraging resources, gaining momentum for collaboration
- Define how the assessment will be used at the end.
- Name the assessment as baseline information that will continue to change with new partners and information. Any documents or platforms created can be updated, as food systems and communities evolve.
- Use this opportunity to build an identity as a region.
- The act of developing an assessment can be a relationship-building and networking tool or activity that begins to create and connect a more functional, dynamic regional food system. After the assessment is done, the relationships endure.
- Make the audience explicit.
- Ask and clarify how the audience would use the assessment.
- Understand the challenge and limited ability to make a single assessment relevant to several different audiences.
- Craft realistic timelines, budgets, and SMART goals.
- Remember relationship building takes time and resources.
3. Prioritize and maintain community engagement.
- Community engagement takes time, resources, and skills.
- Community engagement will take many people to do well.
- Dedicate realistic funds, likely more funds than you think.
- Funds may be needed for marketing, incentives, hiring community champions, compensating for people’s time, input, and expertise, translation of materials, interpretation at meetings, technology & software, meals, childcare, etc.
- Include professional facilitation familiar with community-level engagement during the planning process.
- Clearly define ‘stakeholders’ that relate to your purpose, audience, and scope.
- Look for non-traditional and intersectional partners.
- Examples: youth, economic development, farmers/processors, elected officials, and policy advocates
- Engage residents as systems experts.
- Conduct interviews with local practitioners.
- Recognize that these different stakeholders aren’t often talking to each other. Invite the ‘light bulbs’ and new ideas that can happen when these new conversations occur.
- Engage participants throughout the whole process.
- Bring all the stakeholders to the table at the beginning.
- Offer participants the opportunity to give feedback on the draft document.
- Make sure the outreach plan has appropriate mechanisms to reach all communities represented in the geographic scope, considering language, technology needs, and other barriers.
- Use printed flyers, translation services, word-of-mouth strategies, social media, network and agencies listservs, amongst other communication channels to connect your audience, and with those most impacted by the food system.
4. Take time for survey and research design.
- Language & context matter. Design survey tools with different audiences in mind, and use everyday language. Terms like ‘food systems’, ‘equity’, or ‘justice’ may not be common.
- Have someone who does not work in food systems help edit the language. This is an opportunity to work with community members.
- Invite more conversation and thinking. This assessment may be the first time someone thinks about ‘regional food systems.’ This can be an opportunity to invite more collective thinking and conversation on the topic of food systems or regional collaboration.
- Consider the survey length and the amount of time it will take to complete.
5. Be thoughtful and strategic with data collection.
- Research and reach out to other regions at the start to understand the value and learnings from their food data sets.
- Start with community strengths and assets.
- Collect quantitative and qualitative data.
- Clearly define data and metrics.
- Collect disaggregated data whenever possible.
- Account for the time and money necessary to collect meaningful data from ‘harder to reach’ places and people. Remember community engagement takes time and money. (See #3.)
- List existing data sets used & what was collected for better transparency and use by others.
6. Share and disseminate findings.
- Share results with participants & invite feedback to make sure they see themselves in the work.
- Consider the format of the end product to include user interaction and data visualization.
- Consider how to connect and align results/recommendations across the state.
- Build connections across regions as well as within regions.
- Offer opportunities for future involvement in the next steps and implementation of collective vision.
- Sustainable Food System Assessment 2019, particularly Assessing Food Systems as Adaptive Systems chapter
- Healthy Food Policy Project’s Food Access Change through Authentic Resident Engagement toolkit