There are many ways to conduct a community food assessment. The approach will depend on numerous factors, including the purpose and scope of the assessment as well as the resources available for carrying out the assessment. This section provides some basic guidelines along with links to resources to get you started.
- Assess Your Readiness
- Define and Build Your Coalition
- Develop a Workplan
- Define the Boundaries
- Document What You Already Know
- Common Characteristics of a Successful Food Assessment
For more in-depth guidance on how to use some of the tools included here, please download the Getting Started on A Food Assessment Guide.
Before you embark on what can be a lengthy and expensive process, review this Readiness Checklist to help determine if you really need a community food assessment, if you have the necessary resources, and if it will get you where you want to go.
Across the country, the most effective and impactful assessments typically have been developed with, by, and for existing community coalitions. When a group of stakeholders has a shared need for information to improve their work and a shared vision of how they want to carry that information forward to strengthen their food system, assessments are stronger, better developed, and much better implemented once completed. That said, assessments can also be used to help build, grow, and define a coalition. Either way, it is critical for any process to start with a group (large or small) of committed stakeholders who are prepared to implement the findings of an assessment.
Once a decision has been made to pursue a community food assessment, the next step is to articulate and document the following: Why are we doing this? Why did people come to the table in the first place? What is so important to us in our community that we are going to spend the time it takes doing this assessment? Make sure everyone can articulate the compelling need to complete the assessment.
With a clear foundation set, the next step is to draft a limited number of specific questions that the assessment will answer. Articulating and prioritizing the 1-3 questions that you will start with is a challenging but crucial step. Learn more by reading Case Studies about questions that others have asked.
Before data collection can begin, you need to define the boundaries of your “community.” For some, a community will be a town, a city, or a county, for others it will be a region (multiple contiguous counties), and still others will be concerned about specific areas within a city—a neighborhood or two. Once you have determined the geographical area of your food system assessment, you’ll want to learn about the socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the residents. Depending on your focus, you may also want to know about their health status and behavior. You can use this worksheet to help define and prioritize the boundaries for your assessment.
Once you have determined the boundaries of your assessment, it is time to pull basic health and demographic data about your community for your community food assessment. Before you go any further and ask any more questions—figure out what you already know.
Community Data: Work with your coalition to identify and compile existing assessments, studies, and reports that might help inform or focus your food assessment. These could include local data from food banks and pantries and human services, existing surveys of local producers, and more. A good first step in any assessment is to collect and analyze existing studies, and then summarize what you already know.
Secondary Data: Health Indicators: Data sources such as the Colorado Health Information Data Set (CoHID) or the Colorado Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) can provide some initial relevant information about the health of your community.
Secondary Data: Demographic Profile: Using the geographic boundaries of your community food assessment, you can pull down key socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of residents from the U.S. Census American Community Survey (ACS). ACS data is also available on the Community Commons national reporting tool and the Community Commons interactive maps.
Assessments that have been observed to lead to local policy or environmental changes and have informed the work of those involved have some common characteristics:
- Employ community-based research methods
- Provide context and tell the story of your community
- Ask questions that are answerable and lead to action
- Work from within an existing coalition with established goals and values
- Rely on “clean” data—valid, reliable questions and data
- Integrate existing food systems data and indicators (national, secondary data)