Food policy councils (FPCs) are a component of local food networks emerging across the United States that seek to coordinate policies affecting the various components of a food system. Food policies are often siloed within disparate government offices responsible for overseeing agricultural production, food processing and distribution, nutrition education, food residual recovery, and environmental protection (Clayton, Frattaroli, Palmer, & Pollack, 2015). The result is policies and programs that target problems in isolation, creating gaps and inefficiencies within the system as a whole (Harper, Shattuck, Holt-Giménez, Alkon, & Lambrick, 2009; Lang, Barling, & Caraher, 2009). This haphazard food policy environment contributes to the poor wages for food system workers, chronic hunger, diet-related diseases, environmental damage that impact community and individual well-being (Anderson, 2008; Neff, Palmer, McKenzie, & Lawrence, 2009; Lang, Barling, & Caraher, 2009). While specific goals of FPCs vary, their primary aim is to provide a place for a variety of stakeholders to engage in dialogue and act collectively on local food system development initiatives.
The number of active local FPCs is growing as a way for local communities to exercise their voice over policies that promote economic development, promote social justice, and reduce the prevalence of food insecurity (Clayton, Frattaroli, Palmer, & Pollack, 2015). However, few FPCs engage in systematic evaluation and little is known about their actual impact (Dharmawan, 2015; Harper, Shattuck, Holt-Giménez, Alkon, & Lambrick, 2009; Scherb, Palmer, Frattaroli, & Pollack, 2016; Sussman & Bassarab, 2016). Shared evaluation processes that elicit stakeholder participation are important elements of effective collective action on food policy strategies (Kania & Kramer, 2011; Ventura, 2013). Furthermore, because many food policy councils receive public support in the form of meeting space, volunteers from public agencies, and sometimes grant funding, it is important to understand how they engage in evaluation of their work and its impact on the public good.
Evaluation is process of systematic inquiry for judging the value, worth, or merit of a program or strategy (Cousins, Goh, Elliott, Aubry & Gilbert, 2014; King & Volkov, 2005). It can take on many forms, including measurement of needs, performance, programs processes, outcomes, and cost-benefit analyses. However, even when organizations manage to conduct evaluations, the results and recommendations are not always used to enhance organizational learning or improve performance. Even though evaluation reports are an important source of information that contribute to evidence-based policy-making, evaluation results have had little impact on political decision-making (Daigneault, 2014; Weiss, 1990). Evaluation capacity is important as part of the broader theories of empowerment, participatory, and utilization-focused evaluation in which the contributions of all stakeholders are solicited and valued in the evaluation process (Preskill & Boyle, 2008). Within empowerment evaluation theory, self-determination is fostered through a process designed to “help people help themselves and improve their programs using a form of self-evaluation and reflection (Fetterman, 2001, p. 3).”
Food policy initiatives warrant special attention when it comes to evaluation because of their ability to cause great benefit or great harm to society (Werkheiser, 2016). Outcomes such as innovation, inclusiveness, self-determination, and community empowerment should be factored into the evaluation measures of these new political spaces (Cohen & Reynolds, 2014; Werkheiser, 2016). However, few FPCs report engaging in evaluation of their networks or policy efforts (Dharmawan, 2015; Scherb, Palmer, Frattaroli, & Pollack, 2016; Sussman & Bassarab, 2016). Lack of time, funding, expertise, and low organizational priority are common constraints (Calancie, Allen, Weiner, Ng, Ward, & Ammerman, 2017; Webb, Pelletier, Maretzki, & Wilkins, 1998). Despite some recent advancements in self-assessment survey tools for FPCs, is important that individual councils and their stakeholders develop the internal capacity to design evaluation plans, criteria, and data collection methods that are meaningful in their particular context and promote engagement in the organizational learning process (Patton, 2008). Without consistent and credible evaluation, is unclear whether FPCs are truly promote sustainability, economic development, and social justice within local food systems.
The local food system movement has been criticized for its equation of the proximity or scale from which food is derived with desirable characteristics such as social justice, nutrition, quality, and environmental sustainability (Born, & Purcell, 2006). This un-reflexive conceptualization of local food systems can overlook elite privilege and contextual differences in food systems, which may undermine the movement’s ability to challenge existing structural inequities and affect meaningful change on a large scale (Allen, Fitz-Simmons, Goodman, & Warner, 2003; DeLind, 2011; Rice, 2015). Furthermore, food policy councils without a lens for equity may inadvertently reinforce existing privilege by overlooking opportunities to advocate for indirect policies that improve food security, such as living wages in food industries, land ownership, access to healthcare, and historical traumas (Hoey, Colasanti, Pirog, & Fink Shapiro, 2017). To address criticisms of the local food movement and demonstrate their value for improving economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and social justice, FPCs need to engage in transparent evaluation of their processes and outcomes. Evaluations can be used to determine program impact, inform future action, persuade stakeholders, and legitimize the existence of the council in the eyes of the community (Fleisher & Christie, 2009; Højlund, 2014; Patton, 2008).
Cookie-cutter approaches to evaluation and external experts are often perceived as inappropriate or unhelpful to local food policy councils. Empowerment and participatory are bottom-up evaluation methodologies that aim to bolster self-determination and community empowerment by actively involving food policy council members in evaluation decision-making (Fetterman, 2001; Patton, 2008). Effective empowerment processes and evaluation use require substantive participation from a diverse range of stakeholders (Cousins & Chouinard, 2012; Patton. 2008; Emerson & Nabatchi, 2015). Substantive participation refers to the broad, equitable, inclusive, and balanced representation of stakeholders whose needs are formally reflected in the official agenda of the organization to be actively involved in the collaborative process (Koski, Siddiki, Sadiq, & Carboni, 2016; Ventura, 2013, p. 21). The use of empowering processes and attention to substantive participation in institutional and community relationships promote well-being through fostering self-determination, respect for dignity, and expression of voice and choice in personal and social affairs (Prilleltensky, 2007).
So what? Evaluation Capacity & Food Policy Councils
It is easy to get excited about new solutions to the problems facing our food system. However, without systematic evaluation of these strategies, efforts can be misappropriated and distract from solutions capable of having a greater impact. Food policy councils are relativity new in the food system landscape and evaluation has so far been limited. Many councils focus on building relationships that increase awareness of and access to farmers’ markets, urban gardens, food pantries, and SNAP. While these are certainly valuable programs, they are largely reactionary or piece-meal solutions that overlook the root causes of chronic food insecurity, unintentionally reinforcing the status quo of food dependency. This begs the questions: are the strategies advanced by food policy councils making a substantial and worthwhile contributions to the improvement of local food environments and food security of marginalized communities? How sustainable or long-lasting are these improvements? And, given scarce resources, are there other programs or policies that would lead to more significant health outcomes at an equivalent or lower cost? Building the evaluation capacity of food policy councils and other collective impact networks in the food systems arena is one important action that could leverage the passion and commitment for a more just food system in ways that provide substantial benefit in terms of innovation, economic development, self-determination, and inclusive institutions. Systematic and consistent evaluation of food policy council strategies would provide the much needed evidence that they meaningfully impact their local communities.
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