One of the things we have struggled with in my food network, is determining what is a real need in the community and what is simply a nicety. Because we are not a funded group, we tend to go by gut feel, what comes up around the table, or what someone is jazzed about doing. That may or may not be a reliable process. Based on my own neighbourhood explorations, I might think we need to have more effort around access, food recovery and composting. Someone else might think we need more farmers’ markets or community gardens or chicken keeping workshops, when in reality the root need might be elsewhere.
Many communities are embarking on formal food system assessments. These assessments set up a framework in which to evaluate each element of the food system and provide key baseline information on the various activities that make up that system. They measure not only the health of that food system, but also identify the assets and gaps, and make recommendations for research, policy and programs.
While I was at the Portland Food Policy Conference, I attended a session called Making the Grade: Using Report Cards to Assess Food Systems. The session compared a statewide process in Iowa with a localized one in San Diego County. It was an excellent presentation and the room was filled to overflowing. The Iowan presenters were Angela Tatlow and Susan Roberts from the Iowa Food Systems Council. The document they produced is called Cultivating Resilience: A Food System Blueprint that Advances the Health of Iowans, Farms and Communities. The San Diego presenters were Gail Feenstra from the Agricultural Sustainability Institute and Susan Ellsworth from UC Davis. Their study was entitled: Assessing the San Diego County Food System: Indicators for a More Food Secure Future.
Both of these comprehensive assessments connected the various sectors of the food system (production, processing, transportation, distribution, waste management, etc) with food security, health, environment, economics and social justice. Food system indicators were identified in a report card and would provide benchmarks for policy and programs and a process for on-going evaluation.
The Vancouver Food Policy Council has just launched their Food Secure Vancouver study too. It would be valuable to drill down even further and conduct neighbourhood assessments, that way groups working within those communities could better coordinate their efforts, working across the whole food system.