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Measuring Systems-Level Change

Addressing food access at the systems level requires engaging with and targeting more than one of the six sectors of the food system in the U.S.:

  1. Production
  2. Processing
  3. Distribution
  4. Retail and market
  5. Consumption
  6. Waste and recovery

The more sectors of the food system that are included in any initiative or program, the greater the potential for comprehensive, sustainable change. Because of the complexity of the food system, food policy councils or other diverse collaborative workgroups often spearhead and oversee the work.

Evaluation of systems-level work can easily feel daunting, so it may be helpful to consider the food system as a program like any other in need of evaluation. Most programs utilize a variety of traditional evaluation designs that often involve collecting data pre-, post-, and sometimes mid-program to monitor change over time. Please see the Rural Community Health Toolkit for examples of different traditional evaluation designs.

Systems evaluation, on the other hand, is gradual, and change is slower. As a result, tracking of trends will be more robust if data collection occurs multiple times and at regular intervals during the initiative. For this reason, some investigators may find it useful to follow a Developmental Evaluation design. Michael Quinn Patton created Developmental Evaluation to evaluate complex, dynamic environments. The work is messy, nonlinear, and therefore uncomfortable to many investigators. Evaluators are key team members in programs employing Developmental Evaluation, since collecting, analyzing, and incorporating evaluative data is part of the program design.

It is possible to create a hybrid of Traditional and Developmental Evaluation that combines and customizes concepts from both methods so they are applicable to systems-level change.

Identifying a clear, overarching goal to the work is critical before embarking on systems evaluation. Once specified, it will be easier to determine what each sector of the food system can contribute toward that goal. From there, unique evaluation plans can be developed for each sector being targeted. Ideally, some indicators will apply to all sectors and can be collected across the board. Qualitative and quantitative data from a variety of sources should be collected and included in the analysis.

Resources to Learn More

Food Sovereignty Assessment Tool, 2nd Edition
Document
Toolkit designed to help Native communities understand the data collection process and assess their local food systems. Discusses issues related to food access, land use, food policy, and more.
An accompanying document provides guidance on how to conduct food sovereignty assessments. Registration required to view some tool resources.
Author(s): Bell-Sheeter, A., Romero, V., Segrest, V., & Foxworth, R.
Organization(s): First Nations Development Institute, WK Kellogg Foundation
Date: 2014

From Farm to Table: A Kansas Guide to Community Food System Assessment: Food System Assessments
Document
Describes the concept and importance of local food systems, and explains how communities can use food system assessments to strengthen and enhance their local food systems.
Author(s): LaClair, B.
Organization(s): LaClair Consulting Services
Date: 7/2016

Whole Measures for Community Food Systems (WM CFS)
Document
Shares the experiences of community partners who have used WM CFS to measure or plan a community food system.
Author(s): Embry, O., Fryman, D., Habib, D., & Abi-Nader, J.
Organization(s): Community Food Security Coalition
Date: 2009