This article is the second of three in a series on developing successful food networks.
Across Minnesota, food and agriculture coalitions—also called food networks—are cropping up all the time (pun intended). With ~70 food networks in Minnesota in various phases of development and activity, communities across our state recognize the value and potential that these networks offer for undertaking exciting healthy food access work at local and regional levels.
Some of these networks are highly active, focused on implementing Food Charter strategies that create healthier food environments, a more robust regional food infrastructure, and healthy food skills for their community. Other networks reflect a range of focus and activity, ranging from dormancy after a few years of activity to infrequent get-togethers.
So, what makes a food network successful? What constitutes success? How does a food network sustain momentum and actualize lasting, hoped-for change? These questions are common for food networks—and, fortunately, there are some answers!
There are plenty of ways to think about success when it comes to food networks. Here are a few:
Outcome: Strong, shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities associated with a community or region’s food system.
Does your food network “know” its food system? Has the network systematically gathered information to gain a clear understanding of issues, needs, and potential? Are members of the network informed of these findings and do they understand that they can be used to develop a focused strategy?
- Pro Tip: Connect with your regional Extension office to identify an Extension Educator who can point you to existing resources. See if your regional economic development agency will support an assessment of your community or region’s food system.
Outcome: A strategic, long-range plan that includes desired outcomes, goals, and activities that can address the above challenges and realize the opportunities to create a healthier, more equitable food system.
Given what the network has learned about its food system, have the members identified and agreed to a few key strategic priorities to focus on, and spelled out clear action steps and outcomes? This is where the Minnesota Food Charter really comes in handy for food networks—if you know your priorities and desired outcomes, you can select from the Food Charter’s proven strategies.
- Pro Tip: Check out what food networks across the country have done to get a handle on how to develop a long-range plan and what it can do.
Outcome: Consistent, growing participation of stakeholders.
Ongoing engagement of grassroots and grasstops leaders from across the food system (from seed to table, from neighborhood to institution).
Productive networking that generates positive, new connections.
Have you designed meetings to promote networking and productive working sessions? Do your members continue to reach out to individuals who are passionate about healthy food environments and to leaders from nearby organizations positioned to help identify and implement change strategies reflected in your plan? Do the people involved in the network reflect the food system, ranging from farming to institutional food service to wholesale and retail foods to community food assets (such as farmers markets, community gardens, or school gardens)?
- Pro Tip: Think carefully about the design of your food network meetings. Don’t just develop agendas; think about the process of how people can get their work done together. Having people work in small groups on specific tasks can help the group as a whole move along more quickly. To see how this can work, check out the St. Paul/Ramsey County’s Food and Nutrition Council’s website for how they designed and convened their meetings during the first year of work . You can find the 2010 meeting agendas here.
Outcome: Clear, regular communications to stakeholders and decision-makers about the activities of the network.
Has your network set up a systematic, regular way to communicate with its existing and new stakeholders? Ask your members how they prefer to get their information—via social media? Email? What kind of influencers and decision-makers need to know about your food network? Who are they? What is the best way to inform them and keep them in the loop?
- Pro tip: The Minnesota Food Charter Health Equity Guide offers an easy to use framework for network communications. Check out page 12!
Outcome: Effective partnerships, efforts, and knowledge that result in active participation in the food network from diverse communities and a shared agenda that focuses on advancing health equity.
Does your network reflect the diversity of age, gender, and ethnicity in your region? If not, what do members of your network need to learn in order to build a truly representative food network?
- Pro tip: Pages 10 and 11 of the Minnesota Food Charter Health Equity Guide offer helpful checklists that can get your network thinking about effective practices for inclusion.
Food networks that are able to be focused and strategic about each of these areas are the ones most likely to make measurable, durable impacts on their community’s food environment, food infrastructure, and food skills.
How can food networks get there? It’s okay to beg, borrow, and steal! Here are some effective ways to help your food network get moving:
- Build a relationship with an Extension Educator charged with helping food networks.
- Invite representatives from local healthcare organizations, local public health agencies, regional service cooperatives, and district school wellness committees to your food network meetings. You may be able to identify an individual who can use some staff time to help support the network’s activities.
- Contact a representative from another food network in Minnesota who can join your group by speakerphone to talk through their successes, lessons learned, and effective practices.
Looking ahead to the future of Minnesota’s food networks, there’s only upside and forward progress. If you want to make a difference in your community, the time to start is now.