Community Food Assessment: Tips for Information Gathering

What questions should we ask? What type of data and information does a CFA collect? Get the basics on where to start.

A community food assessment represents the diverse communities and questions that people are asking about access to healthy, affordable food. Some are very localized and ask specific questions, others are broad and look at the overall food environment in relation to a larger community needs assessment. In either case, there are plenty of examples and case studies to reference. The questions your team is looking to answer will shape the information you choose to gather, and CFAs can have many different purposes:

  • Research to better understand key issues
  • Needs assessment—inventorying needs, trends, and gaps
  • Opportunity assessment—anticipating possibilities
  • Tracking of population-level data
  • Evaluation to improve programs or policies
  • Coalition building
  • Advocacy and awareness building

What if you don’t have rigorous research skills or food system expertise? Not a problem! Many CFAs are carried out through a process of community-based participatory research which values the personal experience and on the ground reality of communities, not just data that can neatly fit in an excel spreadsheet. Among the guiding principles of this type of community-based research:

  • Build an Effective Partnership
  • Use Asset Identification to Focus on What’s Working
  • Reflect Local Ways and Values
  • Use Multiple Methods of Data Gathering
  • Demystify the Policymaking Process
  • Engage Children and Youth
  • Rely on Visual and Social Media
  • Think on a Regional Scale

For more on community-based participatory research, download PolicyLink’s report: Community-Based Participatory Research: A Strategy for Building Healthy Communities and Promoting Health through Policy Change.   As you’re developing an assessment, the What’s Cooking in Your Food System? A Guide to Community Food Assessment is an invaluable resource to guide your process. Developed with support from the Community Food Security Coalition, this resource covers the following practical themes:

  • Getting Your Assessment Team Together
    • Clarifying Assessment Goals, Interests, and Decision Processes
    • Planning the Assessment Budget and Mobilizing Resources
    • Planning the Assessment Research
    • Planning for the Use and Evaluation of Your Assessment
  • Designing and Doing the Assessment Research
    • Mapping Out Your Research Questions
    • Translating Questions Into Indicators
    • Using Primary and Secondary Sources of Data
    • A Brief Overview of Research Methods
    • Some Considerations in Ensuring Quality Research
    • Community Participation in Research
    • Assessing Food Access in Your Community
  • Putting Your Community Food Assessment to Work
    • Disseminating Your Assessment’s Findings
    • Putting Your Assessment to Work


Tips for Collecting, Analyzing, and Reporting CFA Data Here are some tips and the pages in the manual where you can get more information on “how to” act on each one.


Page Numbers  in Guide
a. Use questions and indicators to define what you will research. Pages 59-65 Appendix 3
b. Be realistic in determining how and where to get the data you will need. Pages 66-68 Appendix 2
c. Choose easy-to-use data collection methods that encourage broad and meaningful community participation. Pages 68-69 Appendix 1 & 5
d. Data analysis requires certain skills—here is where your evaluator or technical assistance might be helpful. Page 69 Appendix 6
e. Know the audience(s) for your CFA report and tailor the contents accordingly. Pages 77-80
f. Reports can take many forms—written reports, media or policy briefs are the most common. Page 81
g. Create a plan for using your results to develop change actions. Pages 82-84


The USDA Community Food Security Assessment Toolkit also provides helpful tools for gathering existing data, choosing what data your team will collect, conducting focus groups or food surveys with local stores. If you choose to go with any of these methods, the following resources will be useful:

Steps To Get You Started When Collecting Existing Data

Tools for Collecting Socioeconomic and Demographic Data
Tools for Assembling a Profile of Community Food Resources
Tools for Assessing Food Resource Accessibility
Tools for Assessing Community Food Production Resources

Data Collection and Analysis Guide: Deciding What Data To Collect

Finding and Using Data Data Collection Techniques
Beginning the Data Collection Process
Analyzing and Interpreting the Data
Basic Components of a Community Food Security Assessment

Steps To Get You Started When Conducting a Focus Group

Key Informant Focus Group
Focus Group on Household Food Security
Focus Group on Food Shopping Patterns
Focus Group on Household Food Assistance
Focus Group on Community Food Production

Food Store Survey Instrument and Materials

Steps To Get You Started When Conducting a Food Store Survey
Survey Preparation Guide
Instructions for Data Collection
Instructions for Data Analysis
Food Store Survey Instrument and Materials

See the tip sheet on recommendations on using food assessment findings in planning from Rainbow Research. Finally, be open to conducting updates to your CFA. New questions are bound to emerge both through the initial process and as you plan and build support for change actions.

Tip Sheet Source: Rainbow Research, Healthy Eating Minnesota Resources

  Updated 6/2013