To work with local growers and food service directors in building a hub that will aggregate and distribute local foods to schools, healthcare organizations and other nonprofits in the region
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
The first key activity that was instrumental in making progress was to hire a part-time person to handle the logistics of matching orders of fresh produce from food service directors to supply from local growers. This is a key aspect of the food hub service and is very time consuming. We had identified this as a priority after our pilot year. It was an aspect that we knew that we could not continue with volunteer help alone. It was important to have a person doing this work to promote continuity and relationship building. Ideally it would be a full time position. However, the project has not generated enough funds to fill the position full time. We did find that this communication piece is a crucial aspect of the food hub and requires a person who is dedicated to the daily work of managing the hub while it is running, in order to free others to build interest, analyze and evaluate the project and other “big picture” work.
Another activity that we think will continue to be key as our project evolves was to seek out and meet with others who are doing similar work. We met with several other hubs that have like goals and work under similar conditions and gleaned a tremendous amount of information from them. One in particular was ahead of us by several years and was tremendously helpful in sharing their history as well as advice on what has worked well for them and what did not work well. In observing their operation we could see areas of our operation that we needed to take immediate steps to change, as well as areas in which we were on track. This type of networking and exchange of best practices in a very new and quickly evolving community project is something we have found invaluable and will continue to practice as we proceed.
A third activity we found instrumental was maintaining and strengthening our connection with stakeholders and community partners. This is an area that we discovered to be both more important and, frankly, a little more difficult to achieve that we expected. We were able to communicate well with immediate stakeholders, such as food service participants and grower participants. At least one partner was excellent at creating a two-way conversation with us and that was extremely helpful. We learned that overall it would take a much greater effort from us to maintain the enthusiasm and communication with community partners as our project progressed. We found that we received a great deal of attention in our early project stages, but that as the project moved into its operational phase we had less time to devote to involving outside partners and they, in turn, became distracted by new ideas. Keeping all partners and interested parties “on board” and working toward meeting goals is an area we will focus on more heavily in the year to come.
Key lessons learned:
We learned many lessons this year. Key among them are these:
1. Learn to balance the immediate (usually operational) needs of your project with the long-term (community/partner relationship building) aspects of the project. We found that the operational side of the project can became very time and resource consuming, but it is just as important to make sure that partners are staying involved and are active. We want to spend more time this year working on including partners in building the food hub than we did last year.
2. Seek out information from others working on similar projects and stay flexible. One of the most effective things we did this year was to visit a food hub that was several years older than ours, but was working under similar conditions as ours.
3. Stay focused on a limited number of articulated goals. It is seductive to try to want to address many issues with one project, especially when you are working toward change in a very complex system such as the food system. We learned that it is important to take time to reassess our efforts in light of the goals we want to achieve in order to keep the project manageable and on track.
Many of our original conceptions about how this project might proceed were challenged this year. This is probably not unusual in a community project that is experimental, so we hesitate to call them failures. However they have caused us to challenge our assumptions and think of how to achieve our goals in different ways. For example, we found that to meet our goal of supplying healthier products to schools and other institutional organizations, we will have to expand into retail venues and/or fundraise to help cover the cost of purchasing good from smaller growers who have a higher cost of doing business. As we gain more experience we find ourselves go around the loop of “test and implement” to continually hone our project.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving:
We think that we have found that each takes on a different ranking depending on the stage of the project. Collaboration is the element that that is most relevant and valuable for our project at its current point of development. We are in the implementation and testing phase. For the Food Hub to work, we need to have the key stakeholders, food service personnel and local growers believe in what we are doing and spend time to communicate, follow through and understand their role in the process. Collaboration is essential for us at this time. As we run into challenges in our implementation and testing phase, resourcefulness is gaining increasing importance. Difficult challenges are presenting themselves as we test our original ideas.
Other key elements of Community Innovation:
We think that these three sum it up nicely. We do talk often about communication as being essential, however communication seems implicit in all three elements.
Understanding the problem:
The ability to move from the feasibility research stage to the actual implementation/testing stage has been invaluable in understanding both the need and the challenges in enough detail to drive change. We believe that the original need – to have a system to deliver sustainably produced, healthier foods directly to local consumers – continues to be validated through our direct experience. This community effort has been successful in increasing the amount of regionally grown produce used by schools, healthcare, and others by creating and operating the Fresh Connect Food Hub. Also, through the experience of operating the Hub, we have developed a far finer understanding of the cultural, governmental and economic challenges to moving the food system toward one that is healthier for the community and for the environment. We are using this knowledge to continually refine the original concept of the food hub. We know we are at an early stage of change in the food system and feel that our project is contributing to the effort.
If you could do it all over again...:
Put more effort into building a solid foundation in the collaboration phase. We had lots of verbal support in the early, “idea” stage of the project. That support did not always translate into action from partners as we moved into the test and implement stage. We are now having to go back and invite others to engage more actively in supporting the project.
One last thought:
Thank you for the support we have received during this project. The networking and information we received at Bush Con was energizing and helpful to our project.