Introduction to Building Food Security

Across the country, people are working in their com- munities to increase the availability of healthy, locally grown food for their fellow residents. Some are helping small farmers successfully market their prod- ucts in underserved areas, while others are engaging urban youth in growing vegetables or learning how to prepare healthy foods. Yet others are adding fresh fruits and vegetables to the food boxes that low- income families can obtain from local food pantries. Many are developing community food assessments to document their area’s food resources and needs so as to help develop local policies to increase food securi- ty and strengthen the local economy.

These efforts can be found in inner city and rural communities, and they span geographic scales from a neighborhood block to an entire region. They typi- cally involve partnerships with public, private, and nonprofit agencies, and deliver community goals in health, economic development, sustainability, and social justice. These initiatives are supported by many different sources, including governments, foundations, private businesses, and committed indi- viduals who volunteer their time and skills.

This report focuses on a particular group of commu- nity-based food initiatives: those funded by the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This Program has been a major funding source for community-based food and agriculture projects in the country over the last ten years. Community Food Projects (or CFPs) have developed and honed practices to strengthen local food systems by linking local producers and con- sumers, improving access to nutritious foods, and fostering self-reliance. In sharing these practices and other experiences at national conferences and local meetings, CFP participants also have helped grow a national movement in community food security.

This report documents some of these experiences and the lessons learned from them.

Based on an analysis of five years of CFP grantee report summaries, this research report provides basic information on Community Food Projects, their activities, and key factors that explain their successes and challenges. Although greatly diverse, Community Food Projects generally share a few core objectives. These include meeting the food needs of low-income populations; linking local producers and consumers in entrepreneurial relationships; increas- ing the food self-reliance of communities; and pro- viding comprehensive solutions to food, agriculture, and nutrition-related problems. These objectives overlap with community food security goals, which seek food systems that promote health, sustainability, local self-reliance, and social justice. Hence, this report also looks at ways in which Community Food Projects are able to deliver community food security and the constraints they face.

Community food security (CFS) is a relatively new and evolving field, and there is not yet one broadly accepted definition of the term. The following is one that is widely used by practitioners:
Community food security is defined as a situa- tion in which all community residents have access to a safe, culturally acceptable, and nutri- tionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes self-reliance and social justice (Hamm and Bellows 2002).

Looking at Community Food Projects through a community food security lens is useful for at least two reasons. First, the Community Food Security Coalition and the emerging CFS movement played a key role in the creation of the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program. Because of this, there is a great deal of overlap between the CFP Program objectives and community food security concepts and practices. Second, Community Food Projects are a key source of illustrations, models, and inspiration in community food security discussions and practice.
This report is a summary of research that sought to answer the following questions: • Who leads, participates in, and is served by Community Food Projects (CFPs)? • What types of food system and community change activities are typically offered by CFPs? • In what ways do CFPs contribute to community food security and what constraints exist to their contributions to community food security? • What factors underlie successes in CFPs and what challenges do CFPs typically face? • What are some broad lessons derived from CFP practice?

Over the decade of the CFP Program’s existence, some of these issues have been informally discussed at conference sessions and on electronic listservs by CFP grant recipients, program supporters, and com- munity food security advocates. Reports that have profiled CFP projects also explore some of these issues (for example, World Hunger Year, no date; Community Food Projects 10th Anniversary Production Team, 2007; and Tauber and Fisher, 2002).

In 2005, a reporting system called the Common Output Tracking Form (COTF) was instituted to systematically gather data on outputs across CFPs. However, to date there has not been a comprehensive attempt to review the accomplishments of CFPs and draw lessons from those data. This report partly addresses that gap by analyzing and reporting on results from 42 CFP projects.
The research for this report was undertaken in 2006. It is based on a content analysis of project report summaries submitted by organizations funded by the CFP Program, as well as a focus group of representa- tives of diverse projects conducted over two sessions. (For more information on how the project report summaries and focus group discussions were obtained, see Appendix A: Research Methods.) The 42 projects span those awarded from 1999 to 2003 and completed by 2005. They constitute 17 percent of the total projects funded by fiscal 2006. The research also is informed by the author’s active involvement in the CFP Program as a reviewer of multiple rounds of applications, and as a provider of technical assistance to prospective applicants in other years. The author is an active participant in the community food security movement, as a two-term board member of the Community Food Security Coalition and a volunteer with local efforts in the Detroit area and elsewhere.

This report is aimed at audiences involved in the national community food security movement: those currently or previously associated with the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program (including grantees, administrators, and applicants), and sponsors, supporters, and students of community food security initiatives in general. We hope that this report will help community groups leading food projects to learn from the expe- riences of others, and to plan and act more effective- ly to reinforce successes and overcome challenges. We also hope that it will contribute to broader dis- cussions about how to: enhance community food security, increase the scale of activities and impacts across food sectors and communities, and embrace communities currently underserved by the Community Food Projects program.