Learn what a community food assessment is and how it can be a powerful tool for leveraging food system change.
The purpose of a community food assessment (CFA) is simple: in order to develop programming or policy that addresses food system needs, you need to know what those needs are. A CFA can be an important tool to get a pulse on the current food environment and learn what is working well, which populations don’t have access to healthy, affordable food, and what can be changed to shift toward more just and sustainable food systems. Equally as important as capturing these ideas is the process of bringing together a key mix of stakeholders, ensuring diverse perspectives and voices are represented. Once equipped with a full picture of the existing resources and gaps of a particular area, local leaders often create a tailored plan to change the food environment of a town, city, or even an entire region. With these recommendations front and center, communities can organize for resources and policy change that will strengthen local food systems and access to healthy food.
Photo: Community Food Forum planning in La Colonia, CA with Community Roots Garden
Diverse communities around the country are making bold changes around how food is grown and distributed. Often, these changes emerge from observations about what is out of sync with the current food environment:
- Are your city streets are lined with fast food restaurants and convenience stores with little or no produce?
- Is it impossible to get bus service or public transportation to a supermarket in your neighborhood?
- Do farms cover most of the land in your rural county, but the selection of vegetables in your grocery store comes from the other side of the world?
- Are rates of obesity in your community skyrocketing, yet you notice that the number of hungry people is also on the rise?
- Do you hear people talking about how great it would be to have a local farmers market, but nothing has come of it for years?
- Is the question “what did they serve for lunch at school today?” met too often with “pizza” or “nachos”?
Any of these sound familiar? Many CFAs start from exactly this point: people asking questions, connecting the dots and aiming for solutions on the local level. As communities become more engaged and aware of their food choices, ideas turn to action. People take ownership and build food democracy in concrete ways – whether partnering with a farmer to start a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), working with schools and hospitals to source from local farmers (Farm to Cafeteria), or bringing stakeholders together into an ongoing food policy council (Food Policy Councils).
The Shape of the Community
Community food assessments often have three basic characteristics in common. Many CFAs:
- use an asset building approach, seeking ways to tap into and build on existing community resources;
- engage community members to help set priorities, conduct research, and develop recommendations;
- create an action plan, including recommendations for changes — many also include necessary organizing efforts to help implement the action steps that emerge.
That said, no two CFAs will be exactly alike — the shape and scope of a CFA is as diverse as the communities that carry them out. Some may start with an informal community meeting, others will be conducted over several months of robust planning and data collection. In other words, there are guiding questions and examples, but no specific formula that must be met to carry out a successful CFA. Community food assessments are led by rural counties, suburban towns, city blocks, Native American reservations and immigrant communities — often covering areas that are both racially and economically diverse. A CFA can be initiated by a local government entity, or result in creation of a government-based food policy council. Research can be conducted by youth, community volunteers, university students, city officials, or a group that brings together all of these stakeholders and others. Research can be comprised of formal document review, observation, questionnaires, community events, statistical analysis, government records, interviews, focus groups, surveys, photo diaries or knocking on doors and having conversations with your neighbors. Ideally, this means anyone who has a stake in food (otherwise known as everyone!) is at the table: businesses, churches, teens, seniors, parents, farmers, gardeners, food store owners, SNAP recipients, food pantry patrons, community-based organizations and city officials. No matter the details, CFAs can be a critical catalyst to start the conversation about what local food systems could look like and bring necessary stakeholders together to make it happen.
Community Food Assessments: Catalyst for Community-Based Transformation
Some community food assessments begin as a broader analysis of community needs. In 1998, the low-income, mostly minority central Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York conducted a community planning project looking at how to create solutions for local needs based on existing local resources. Some of the needs defined included a lack of programming for youth and a lack of healthy food options. Meanwhile, 30 percent of the neighborhood population was under 18 and East New York included the most community gardens in all of New York City. And with that, a lightbulb went off. In the years since, the neighborhood has used this information to transform the community by harnessing the power of its youth to grow healthy food. And lots of it. East New York Farms! has created a youth farming training program, two successful farmers’ markets, two urban farm sites, a CSA, and support for a network of community and backyard gardeners — and they’ve conducted a formal youth-driven community food assessment. Phew! In 2013, East New York still struggles with community challenges, but it has become a strong model for youth development and community-led urban agriculture locally, regionally and nationally.
Photo: East New York Farms! Farmers’ Market