University of Minnesota

Report date
August 2016

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Case studies. Our part-time employees for this project interviewed 10 case study subjects and wrote up 4-page stories on each. Six of these were farmers or food enterpreneurs, and four were staff people from food regulatory agencies in Minnesota. They also summarized the results of a focus group study into the same case study format. That focus group study focused on access to healthy food and was conducted separately by Minnesota Department of Health and U of MN Extension staff people under different grant funding, but the same staff people were also involved with our project and recognized similarities in the issues and concerns raised in their focus groups. The case studies of entrepreneurs were absolutely invaluable for raising issues about the regulatory system and providing concrete examples of where people had trouble getting through the system. Specific examples, rather than generalities or abstractions, are what enabled the advisory group for this project to really grasp and grapple with the situations that lead to frustration with the system and delay or failure in the launch of new enterprises.
Early release of drafts. We scheduled advisory committee meetings every two months, with work done by the coordinating team and the two part-time employees in between those meetings to generate materials for discussion. Advisory committee members requested that early drafts of new materials be released as soon as possible. This was a different way of working than many of the folks involved, especially regulators, were used to. In fact it caused quite a bit of anxiety within the regulatory agencies about four months into the project, when an early draft of models for major change in the regulatory system were released to the group. That early release, though, enabled us to shake loose all of the objections to those models. It gave us time to regroup and take a different direction for the remainder of the project term. It was cathartic and seemed to help everyone to feel as though all options were on the table and all voices were heard. It also enabled the advisory group to understand that they truly had power over the process, and we had strong engagement from the majority of the advisory group members right through the final meeting of the group.
Four-hour meetings of the advisory committee. Each of these felt like a marathon, but having that substantial chunk of time for the advisory group to meet also enabled them to really dig into the materials that were developed in between meetings. The meetings were two months apart, so people had time to recover from one before heading to the next one. The coordinating team met twice before each advisory group meeting to plan the agenda and plan how to facilitate the meetings so that essential discussion could happen and progress could be made. Shorter meetings probably would have necessarily been more perfunctory and scripted. The longer time allowed people to explore ideas and develop concepts during the meeting, and to become very engaged with the topics. Six-hour meetings might have even been better, but then again there might have been too much fatigue setting in by the end of six hours.

Key lessons learned

Distributing workload and trusting people involved to hold up their end was critical to this project. That was a little out of the ordinary for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. We have a small staff and have always operated by staff people taking on a project and managing virtually all aspects of it. It was a luxury, this time, to have funding to support two part-time staff people, several co-coordinators, and robust involvement of an advisory committee; but that luxury spawned the necessity of quickly learning how to divide up tasks, stay in close communication with many players at once, hold each other accountable, and adhere to a timeline. I would characterize this key lesson as a success. Our part-time staff were both fabulous, we succeeded in sticking to the ambitious timeline that this project required, and the three co-coordinators and the two part-time staff worked together nearly seamlessly. It helped that those three already had a history of co-coordinating the Local Food Advisory Committee, so already knew each other's strengths.
We learned we need more training and education on how to engage with minority communities. We failed to fully engage with the people of color on the advisory committee. Including representatives of minority communities on the advisory committee was an early priority. We secured commitments from a person from the Hmong farming community and a person from the Native American farming community. Both of those individuals attended the first advisory committee meeting, and one attended the second, and after that neither attended. Our staff people were able to have two face-to-face meetings with one of these committee members outside of the regular advisory committee meetings, but repeated attempts to contact the other went unanswered. Clearly something was awry. Perhaps the issues being discussed weren't the ones that seemed compelling to those committee members; some comments made suggested that might be the case. Progress was slower during the first two meetings, which might have frustrated them. Something about the conduct of the meetings may have made them uncomfortable. We just aren't sure of the reasons, and that is frustrating; we are hoping to learn how to do better.
We learned one way of being successful at outreach to minority communities. We had requested help from the advisory committee to help us find case study subjects who were people of color, believing that their stories of difficulties with the food regulatory system would be important ones to tell. We failed at finding any case study subjects by that route. When one of our advisory committee members expressed disappointment that we had no case studies of people of color, we launched a rapid and wide-ranging effort to contact anyone we could think of who might possibly know someone who would make a good case study subject. We eventually succeeded in interviewing and writing case studies of three very interesting women. Two of those case studies are not yet published on the project website because we have some follow-up work to ensure that the wording doesn't create regulatory difficulties for these entrepreneurs. This I would characterize as failure leading to success -- we learned that we can connect with minority communities if we work through a wide range of contacts rather than sticking to the most well-known gatekeepers to those communities.

Reflections on the community innovation process

The "Collaborative" wheel on the diagram is the most important aspect of this work. Progress in improving the local food regulatory system does not happen unless farmers/food entrepreneurs and regulators work together to identify problems and craft solutions. Regulators often don't understand the operational constraints that farmers/food entrepreneurs have; and farmers/food entrepreneurs often don't understand the reasons for the requirements placed upon them by regulators. Those collaborative conversations often start out being uncomfortable. Regulators are sometimes defensive and don't like being viewed negatively, while food entrepreneurs feel anxious and exposed when they share details of their business with regulators. It takes courage from both sides to meet face-to-face, agree to be honest and work through the issues. We created space for these groups to work with each other, and they found that they could.

Progress toward an innovation

We have made progress toward establishing the principle that regulators and farmers/food entrepreneurs should proactively talk through issues of regulations and food safety with each other on a regular basis. One of the eight priority actions coming out of this project is "Joint Educational and Problem Solving Forums 2x Per Year in 8 Locations in MN." A logic model was developed for that action and a Food Safety Outreach grant proposal was submitted to USDA's National Institute for Food & Agriculture in early June, with supporting letters from MN Dept. of Agriculture (MDA) and MN Dept. of Health (MDH). Related to this principle, a pilot project based on the Wabasha Farmers Market case study is in implementation right now. It involved meetings between farmers, farmers' market representatives, U of MN staff, and regulators from MDA, MDH and City of Minneapolis. The goal of those meetings was to address likely regulatory issues up front and create a fact sheet documenting the solutions arrived at, so that farmers' markets in any location can legally implement Wabasha's innovative business model. Proactive discussion to accommodate food business innovation may just be a breakthrough.

What it will take to reach an innovation?

The likely breakthrough mentioned above is not the only one that could eventually come out of our work. As mentioned, there were eight priority actions agreed upon by the advisory committee. Many of them require sharing the group's vision more widely and achieving buy-in from communities, policy-makers, and funders. A major area that needs a breakthrough is a system-wide, really society-wide, focus on education and support systems for food entrepreneurs in order to achieve better food safety and business success outcomes. Our advisory group recognized that the support available for new food entrepreneurs is thin, and non-existent in some areas. The group clearly identified that new food entrepreneurs need support not only in understanding and complying with food safety regulations, but also in other aspects of business development: for instance financial management, understanding insurance, working with zoning regulations and building codes. Existing economic development agencies in Minnesota often decline to work with food businesses. Major funding and infrastructure-building will be needed, and in this project we did not go farther than identifying the needs.

What's next?

As mentioned, a Food Safety Outreach grant was applied for to advance the priority action of establishing regular, regional meetings of regulators and food entrepreneurs. If that is secured, we and others involved in this grant project will work to implement the twice-yearly regional meetings of regulators and food entrepreneurs at eight locations around Minnesota, and to secure additional funding to make it long-term. Detailed information about that project proposal: Whether or not that grant is secured, we will continue to promote the eight priority actions through the Local Food Advisory Committee (LFAC). That committee includes people with tremendous reach into food, farming, regulatory, legal, and advocacy systems within Minnesota. The LFAC group met jointly with the advisory committee for this project at the end of June, and LFAC agreed to make the work of this project a regular agenda item for its quarterly meetings for the foreseeable future. The plan is that ad hoc committees will spin off of LFAC to work on particular priorities discussed during LFAC meetings.

If you could do it all over again...

I would tell myself to spend more time early on in the project distilling the objectives and goals down into shorter memes and articulating those to more people outside of the advisory committee. That might have helped to get more early buy-in and to alleviate some of the anxiety that erupted within the agencies in the early stages of the project. It's important to note, though, that I am not certain that would have worked. Part of what took a long time in the early stages of the project was relationship-building and building of common understandings of the issues among the members of the advisory committee, and without building that base, we couldn't have made the progress that we did in the later stages. There would have been a time that was too soon for that distilling and articulating, but I think we may have left it for a little bit too long. I would tell myself to push the advisory committee members a little harder, a little sooner to start explanations and outreach to their networks.

One last thought

During the interview process for this grant, I said at the end of this project I wanted to be able to see how to "get there from here." The group spent some time articulating the vision of "there:" "Minnesota promotes food safety and economic development through a user-friendly food business regulatory system that is coordinated, reliable and efficient. Entrepreneurs of small and large food businesses successfully navigate Minnesota’s easy-to-understand, transparent and streamlined system. Operators obtain the appropriate licenses and certifications and produce safe food for consumers. Regulators from agencies across Minnesota (MDH, MDA, and delegated local agencies) freely share knowledge and work a timely manner with entrepreneurs of food businesses and with each other." This project was a tremendous experience that I think gave us -- "us" meaning everyone involved in local food systems and the regulation of them -- a solid base to build upon for moving toward that vision. All materials generated through this project are available here: