What Keeps Community Change Going?

Posted: March 13, 2013
 What Keeps Community Change Going?

From the W.K.Kellogg Foundation Annual Report
An interview with Ann Mansfield project coordinator, Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative, Decorah, Iowa

The Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative (NEIFFI) was created to address two ironies. The first: that children in the six Iowa counties comprising part of one of the world's most productive agricultural areas are, in fact, growing up in a food desert. The second: that the rural, relatively healthy physical environment in which these children live does not automatically offer opportunities for healthful living.

Yet having achieved significant success in addressing these issues, NEIFFI has encountered a third irony: even once generated, momentum for change is a challenge to sustain.

NEIFFI is pursuing three strategies to drive change which will increase the communities' and schools' wellness: building a local food system; engaging communities in active transportation to school and work as a way to increase physical activity; and changing local schools' policies and practices regarding wellness. Five years after its successful launch, the initiative has accomplished some notable achievements, including:

  •     A significant increase in the number of children who walk or bike to school in the six counties.
  •     An increase in locally-sourced food, which is now served in 17 of the region's 20 school districts.
  •     Sixteen school districts with school gardens, producing more than 4,000 pounds of produce used in school meal programs.
  •     Annual continuing education classes in wellness training for K-12 teachers.
  •     Creation of active wellness teams in 90 percent of the region's school districts, most of which include school administrators, teachers, nurses and school food service staff, in addition to local youth and parents.

Part of the challenge in sustaining the momentum for such change, according to Project Coordinator Ann Mansfield, is the sheer complexity of the major tasks on which the initiative focuses. That complexity is compounded by the diverse needs of six counties and 20 school districts, making "cookie-cutter" solutions impossible.

Citing one strategy building a local food system for all of the region's school districts Mansfield listed the component tactics required for a single task:

"Say we want schools to serve broccoli three or four times in the month of September. This is a region of small farms. We won't get this done with one producer. So we have to start by aggregating producers. Then we have to work with each of 20 school districts' procurement systems to help them design bid requests that recognize the difference between a local food product and a commodity product; coordinate refrigeration and distribution; and deal with preparation challenges, especially in schools that are all about heat and serve.

"And then we have to get people to taste and try healthier local foods. So that one task comes down to understanding and intervening in five or six key dimensions of the food system. This is a very fundamental shift for us. Yet, it's very exciting long-term."

But while thinking in terms of systems helps dimension the task, the challenges often come down to specific interpersonal interactions.

"We've been challenged to get to a sustainable model, where we're no longer looking for outside investment," Mansfield said. "So for the past five years, we've been building multiple stake-holder groups, everything from producers to schools to health providers, city councils, county supervisors and employers, and having conversations about why wellness is so important. Then facilitating discussions that really develop buy-in and commitment and build capacity to the point where we have people starting to advocate for change.

"The reality is, people don't want to be told what to do without understanding why. And in order to understand the why, it takes slowing people down and having a good conversation."

Singling out parents as one albeit one very important group of stakeholders, she described the process as "more like silver buckshot than a silver bullet. It's parent-teacher conferences and inviting parents into school gardens and setting up experiential meals where we get eight parents around a table with a high fat, high sodium heat-and-serve meal to have a thoughtful discussion about food value and the importance and implications of change.

"It's multiple conversations with one parent at a time, and then trying to understand how to leverage that parent as a messenger and an advocate."

Corry Bregendahl, an evaluator for the initiative, pointed out that the process of education is continual and ongoing for each group of stakeholders, and that it must remain relevant to each, even as contexts change.

"For example, our schools are changing before our eyes. In five years, consolidation could make our schools look very different from the way they look today. We're developing school champions who may not have a job in the fall."

A second challenge is the continual negotiation over boundaries and control. For example, NEIFFI's food systems work requires the involvement of leadership from virtually every stakeholder group, against a constantly shifting political background.

"There's a real issue of who is going to control what processes and systems," Bregendahl said.

Ultimately, both Mansfield and Bregendahl agree that promoting conditions that support healthy lifestyles requires first promoting conditions that support what Bregendahl called "stable domains for change," built on stable partnerships and relationships.

The ingredients?

  •     A common vision that is nurtured over time as new relationships are formed.
  •     Trust between partners that they will act in each other's interests.
  •     An appreciation of diverse perspectives, and an ability to de-personalize judgments and decisions.
  •     And a commitment to process, with faith that desired outcomes will follow.

"This isn't about changing an individual's behavior," said Mansfield. "(What) we hope to achieve is for people to embrace this idea of why our environments need to be healthier and why it's so important that the healthy choice is the easy choice."

Bregendahl characterized the work of creating that change as twofold. Building "muscle" is the process of actually changing community behavior. The relationships that drive and sustain that effort is what she called "building the connective tissue."

"It's messy work," she said.

View the Iowa Food and Fitness Calendar