Monitoring Local Food Systems

“Since we get what we measure, we should measure what we want” – Charting Growth, The Wallace Center

What do we want in our rural communities? Do we want to be in control of our own destinies or do we want to live our lives at the mercy of far-away policy-makers and corporations? What do we want for our children? What do we want our legacy to be? In order to take control, we need a vision of what we want our future to be.

The Local Food System Monitoring Project was developed out of this vision that we need to know where we are and what the local trends and patterns are in order to know if we are going where we want to go, as well as for recognizing opportunities and challenges as they come up.

In recent years, the importance of defining and measuring the outcomes of a project or an organization’s activities has been recognized and emphasized both nationally and internationally. Many partner organizations, members and financial donors want to have evidence of the impact that their support and involvement are creating within a community or population. Community stakeholders want to know that the organization is doing worthwhile work if they are to give it their support. Organizations should be held accountable for their work and also want to assure themselves that their work is making a real difference for the communities they serve. This general recognition of the benefits of monitoring and evaluation has led organizations around the world to make it an integral priority for their projects.

The impact that an organization has can be measured through a specific and generally accepted process. Indicators are part of that process and are measures that keep track of an organization’s progress toward a specific goal. Depending on the indicators’ specific function, it can be used after or during specific activities, on an annual basis, or even every three to five years, in order to assure that progress is being made and this progress is the result of the activities of the organization. After this data is gathered and compiled, it is analyzed in order to look for trends relating to the measures, and ultimately quantify the impact of the activities and projects of the organization.

At the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE), we know it is crucial to measure the impact of our activities through the monitoring and evaluation process. Being a relatively new organization, it is an ideal time to initiate and implement such a system. Specifically, the CAE wants to measure the health and vitality of our local food system and the impact that it is making on the local community. In this way, CAE will have evidence that taking certain steps to increase local self-sufficiency with an emphasis on sustainable agriculture makes a positive impact on the social, economic, and environmental health of our community. This information can be used to justify certain projects, to know what is working and further successful initiatives, or for other communities to use if they are looking to follow a path similar to the Hardwick area.

Gathering the recommended data will establish a “snapshot”, or baseline, of where the Hardwick community is today in regard to the strength of the local food system and the vitality of the agricultural economy in the area. In the future, these same systems and measures will be implemented at regular, pre-determined intervals. This will allow CAE to measure the progress that our community has made.

Although the particular indicators of the monitoring system were developed with Hardwick and the surrounding towns and the Northeast Kingdom region of Vermont in mind, much of this framework would be transferrable to other regions.

-Heather Davis, Graduate Research Fellow