Community Food Assessments: A Primer

What is a Community Food Assessment (CFA) and how does it help build local food systems?

by Szilvia Hosser-Cox

Community food assessments are used as a tool to examine food-related issues within a community. The goal of a CFA is to determine the quality of the food environment in a given locale – including flow, availability, healthfulness, cost, production and distribution. Ideally a multidisciplinary approach, investigators identify resources, needs and gaps within the system and mobilize long-range efforts to improve it.  Typically, a team of stakeholders from different backgrounds work together to research the local food system, publicize their findings, and implement changes.  The CFA is a powerful tool that provides the community with greater understanding of its food system while addressing a wide range of food-related issues and concerns.

One study in East Austin (Texas) called, Access Denied: An Analysis of Problems Facing East Austin Residents in Their Attempts to Obtain Affordable, Nutritious Food, was conducted in an inner-city community that is primarily Latino and African-American.  Data was collected from surveys, secondary sources and interviews with community members to identify concerns over access to food.  The study was conducted with modest resources, but by people who had great knowledge of and experience in the community.  Among the outcomes of the report were legislation that allowed state land to be used free of charge for community gardens or farmers’ markets; renovation of a grocery store in the neighborhood; establishment of a food policy council and a new bus route providing transportation for residents to big supermarkets.

Another successful CFA was conducted in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning (URPL) by graduate students, which evaluated how well the food system was working in the Madison and the surrounding Dane County. This report made recommendations for how to develop alternative food systems.  The researchers held focus groups with low-income adults and children and gathered data about establishments from food stores, community gardens, and local businesses.  The result was the Dane County Research, Education, Action, and Policy Food Group which focuses on promoting food security and a greater visibility of food system issues in Madison.

An extensive 5-year study in Milwaukee (WI) examined the root causes of hunger with the goal of promoting affordable food access and addressing the lack of economic resources that cause families to experience hunger.  The study developed a thorough picture of food insecurity in Milwaukee and its relationship to poverty.  Four reports were published for each of four stages of the study on consumer access to food, socio-spatial relationships, food pricing and availability.  Among the results were the formation of the Milwaukee Farmers’ Market Association, expansion of the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, increased partnerships between the university and non-profit groups, and development of a year-round food center, market and kitchen incubator (the Fondy Food Center Project).

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) partnered with a nonprofit education and advocacy organization to conduct a CFA titled Seeds of Change, in a low-income community of color in South Central Los Angeles.  A community with problems of hunger, inadequate support programs, lack of basic infrastructure with access to only a few supermarkets, high food prices, limited public transportation options, and no integrated policy framework to address these problems, a CFA became a useful tool to respond constructively and systematically to these issues.  They conducted surveys, interviews, extensive analyses, reviewed policy and agency activities and examined the structure of the food system.  Outcomes included the formation of a food security network, new community gardens and farmers’ markets, and increased food stamp outreach at farmers’ markets.

There are several sources available to assist the process of conducting these types of CFAs.  The Community Food Security Coalition is a longstanding leader and resource provider for communities wishing to undertake a community food assessment. They have a designated webpage with many resources at: Another valuable resources is the Community Food Security Assessment Toolkit created by the USDA.  The toolkit is designed to be used by anyone from community-based nonprofit organizations, business groups to government officials or private citizens.  It includes a general guide and materials for examining six basic assessment components related to community food security.  The tools include secondary data sources, focus group guides, and a food store survey instrument.  The Community Food Security Assessment Toolkit is a 166-page document available freely from the USDA-ERS website at

Kami Pothukuchi has written extensively on community food assessments. An excellent article that provides a comparative review of nine CFA studies can help communities determine their goals, approach, and needs, should they be interested in initiating one.

Source of examples:,%20A%20Guide%20to%20Community%20Food%20Assement.pdf


Kandiyohi County Food Assessment: A Case Study

by Szilvia Hosser-Cox

Kandiyohi County is an agriculturally critical region for Minnesota with a current population of over 40,000. In 2007, citizens came together to explore how they could develop an economically viable, environmentally friendly, socially just, safe, accessible, nutritious. To support and promote the growth of their local food system, county residents together undertook a community food assessment, investigating challenges and opportunities, identifying gaps and developing strategies for improvement. Their goals included strengthening the local economy and enhancing local foods culture. Furthermore, they wanted to increase the capacity of local farmers and entrepreneurs in sustainable agricultural practices, diversified farming operations, and potential for local foods-related businesses.

To fulfill these goals, citizens in Kandiyohi County would need to improve production and consumption of healthy, local and organic food and establish policies that incentivize would incentivize this transition. They partnered with a diverse group of organizations including federal, state and regional agencies and educational institutions. The team realized that a largely industrialized food system – where the control of production, processing, and distribution is concentrated in the hands of a few corporations – has replaced small-scale family farmers in the county.

According to their report – unlike transnational corporations who take their profits out of local communities, small scale farmers are generally better stewards of the land and spend their agricultural dollars in the local community. Over several decades the number of family farms in Kandiyohi County declined significantly, as large-scale farming operations increased substantially. This led to numerous social, economic and environmental problems for the residents. The assessment found that west central Minnesota’s economy, where only 271 farms sell directly to consumers, loses nearly $1 million annually through its citizens purchasing non-local foods. The study suggests that if only 15 % of food was grown locally and purchased directly from farmers, it would create $28 million in new income for the region.

Given the findings of the study, the team developed a series of recommendations designed to fulfill the overall aim of rebuilding a more localized food system that is economically, socially and ecologically sustainable. These recommendations touched on education and training, policy, public involvement, enterprise and new technology development, and the establishment of cultural institutions. A public education initiative will involve civic events like panels and film festivals, with individuals who can speak to these various issues from diverse perspectives. The intent of these events is to inform citizens and thus galvanize public action.

Moreover, the report suggests the development of local policies for grocers and restaurants to stock two percent of their merchandise with locally grown foods. They plan to establish new micro-enterprises based on local foods, create a year-round farmers’ market, and seek grant funding to facilitate the opening of a local dairy. Furthermore, they have set a goal to train new farmers and establish five new small-scale, diversified farms; implement a local foods procurement policy; and a region-wide organic tax rebate policy to supplement support in the Farm Bill. They would like to support sustainable environmental goals by expanding the number and size of community gardens and greenhouses, establish a farmers’ marketing association and build a bio-digestor and composing facilities.

Nutrition, health, social justice, cultural diversity were also regarded as very important by the team. They propose to incorporate food and health issues into the school curriculum, sponsor community educational events to inform the public on the costs and risks of unhealthy eating, and partner with the hospitals to purchase local foods for patient menus. On the issue of social justice, they would like to establish a policy for local foods procurement by food distribution agencies, locate a current vacant building for food distribution, and create children’s gardens.

Supporting the start-up of new farms managed or owned by representatives of diverse ethnic groups and promoting more ethnic foods in school lunches are ways of enhancing cultural diversity. The rise in Latino and Somali residents in Kandiyohi County have increased the demand for goat meat, thereby justifying the need for a new small-scale goat meat processing plant; this is included as a report recommendation as well. Moreover, they will obtain economic development funds for a facility and equipment for a tortilla factory/kitchen facility, with supplemental access to the necessary raw materials by supporting the local production of organic, non-GMO corn.

Why Plan Our Food System: What Urban Planners Say about It

A Planners’ Guide to Community and Regional Food Planning: Transforming Food Environments Building Healthy Communities –

A Seminar by Dr Samina Raja

Written by Szilvia Hosser-Cox

April 24, 2009, University of Minnesota – How do we build healthy, livable communities with sustainable and just food systems if urban planners are not recognizing food as a planning criterion? Dr Raja is actively involved in working on this particular hindrance. In her seminar at the University of Minnesota she emphasized the disconnectedness of production, processing, distribution, consumption and its strong implications to our broken food system. Technology and modernism – she says – removed us from getting engaged with our food system. Moreover, the way our food system is organized at a governmental level creates additional challenges: Dr Raja humorously describes the kind of blank faces she received when coming to this country from native India and inquiring which public agency is responsible for food. There is a Ministry of Agriculture, but where is the Ministry of Food?Dr. Raja is points to the faults of the power structure as well: the control of the distribution is in the hands of just a few.

Historically food was somewhat addressed within the field of urban planning. However, the concerns were not about the disconnectedness of the system, rather the focus was on food safety and food distribution issues within a metropolitan area. The solution to these problems was ultimately counterproductive: markets were moved out of the city due to the perceived health risks eventually disconnecting people from their food entirely. Dr Raja believes that Urban Planning needs to recognize the role it can take in the organization of the food in the community. According to Raja’s survey conducted in 2007-08 among Urban Planners, 70 percent agreed that they should be involved in the community planning system, yet only 30 percent could wholeheartedly say that they are involved. There are good recent advancements: the APA (American Planning Association) issued a food policy guide for planners in 2006 and in 2008 called a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning (available from

Dr. Raja also talked about a study she conducted in Erie County, NY concerning the racial disparities in neighborhood retail food environment. This research showed that although there is enough available food in racially diverse neighborhoods, what is available does shows a discrepancy. 71 percent of places that carry food in those neighborhoods are restaurants (the term restaurants is referred to everything that can be considered “eating out”, including fast food outlets). Black neighborhoods have only half the number of markets that carry fresh produce than white neighborhoods, 1.15 times more grocery stores and 1.37 times more convenient stores. The inequality comes from the fact that 60 percent of the people in black neighborhoods do not own a car and therefore can only eat what is available in these stores in their close vicinity. Another important question focuses on types of food available in poor, minority neighborhoods. Fresh produce is mainly available in supermarkets, less so in grocery stores (i.e. small mom & pop stores), and a very low amount of fresh food is part the offering of convenience stores. Furthermore, prices are higher in convenience stores and grocery stores. Thus, not only is there less fresh produce available in poor neighborhoods, the overall cost of food is higher.

As part of the solution, Raja emphasizes the important role of education and the need for a multi-disciplinary engagement concerning the issue. She is highly involved in connecting people with different disciplines and educating kids by teaching them about a healthy diet and how to grow their own food. As a positive note Dr Raja mentioned some good examples. In Madison, Cleveland and Seattle city planners seem to be starting to realize the importance that food should be an important part of the comprehensive plans. These good examples need to be replicated around the country to reconnect us with our food and relearn what was part of our lives for thousand years.

Qualities of a Robust Local Food System

There are the ‘hard’ qualities of a strong local food system, including adequate redundancies, efficient supply chain, profitable prices for farmers, fair wages for workers, sustainable farming practices, adequate supplies of fresh, healthy, unprocessed food, humane treatment of animals and workers, fair prices and widespread availability. This is what local foods activists and their supporters tell me after traveling throughout the state for the last year and a half. From the inner city of Minneapolis to the most remote rural counties, people agree on the positive attributes of this emergent food system.

There are also ‘soft’ qualities that speak to the strength of a local food system. Are there multiple, active relationships among many nodes and players? Are these relationships leveraged to strengthen and improve the ‘hard’ qualities? Is it well-integrated across sectors, communities, systems and institutions? Is there room for innovation to emerge, stable structures to develop, and outmoded aspects to atrophy? Is the type of knowledge used to build and sustain the local food system diversified – from agricultural to business to vision and concept? Are there processes for learning and adjustment built into the system?

These ‘soft’ qualities are the characteristics that embed intelligence into local food systems. Knowledge that is needed to strengthen local food systems is not just the ‘hard’ knowledge associated with growing, harvesting, processing, distributing and preparing food. The ‘soft’ knowledge includes relating, networking, leveraging, learning, integrating and adjusting. Those too are critical components to building a robust food system.