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: http://www.foodsecurity.org/cfa_home.html. 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 http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/efan02013/efan02013.pdf.

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: http://www.thefoodsource.org/-Food_Assessment_files/What%27s%20Cooking%20in%20Your%20Food%20System,%20A%20Guide%20to%20Community%20Food%20Assement.pdf

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