Building capacity with Iowa’s local food coordinators

May 17, 2019

by Leigh Adcock, communications specialist

It’s a job title that didn’t exist a decade ago. Now Iowa’s local food coordinators play a unique and crucial role in the development of robust local food systems statewide.

Right now, about 10 coordinators serve 75 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Some work for extension. Others report to local governments or non-profits. They all share a passion for connecting stakeholders, facilitating food systems planning and project management and increasing community awareness through educational and promotional marketing.

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But with so few practitioners scattered over such a large geographic area, opportunities for mutual support and professional development are few and far between. Turnover can be high. That’s why in 2015, our team gathered the group for a learning circle. We asked them, “What support do you need to be successful?”

We learned that new local food coordinators, especially those who are the first in their position, often feel frustrated, isolated and discouraged. Causes include unclear expectations, differing priorities from stakeholders, and having no peers to talk to in their office or region.

We listened and brainstormed, and applied for funding from North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s (NCR-SARE) professional development program. Our project won a grant in 2016, and we embarked on a two-year pilot to build capacity among Iowa’s local food coordinators.

The pilot project ended this spring. We wrote two full reports, including evaluation results and best practices. Here are some of the highlights from those reports.

Mentoring

Group of adults touring vegetable packing shed.
One mentorship pair visited Good Acre Farm’s packing shed in Minnesota during a farm to school tour. They worked on regional farm to school planning together during their mentorship year.

Learning circle participants came up with the idea of creating peer-to-peer mentorship opportunities. We matched three experienced local food coordinators with three less experienced ones for a full year (different pairs in both 2017 and 2018). Our grant allowed us to pay mentors a stipend for their time.

Our evaluations showed that both mentors and mentees overwhelmingly found benefit in the mentorship program. They expressed the hope that it can continue.

Five participants said the mentorship program helped them to clarify their role. Surprisingly, two of the five were mentors rather than mentees. One mentor explained, “You are trying to make explicit what’s implicit. In helping [the mentee] understand his/her work; we had to make our work clearer. Working with someone makes you explain why you do what you do.”

As for mentees, three felt more focused in their work because of the mentorship. One said, “This mentorship helped me figure out what areas I need to pursue and what to say no to. I am more focused, more prioritized… [I’m experiencing] less of feeling really busy and not getting anything done.”

During the pilot, several other state extension units and community food system non-profits contacted project coordinator Caitlin Szymanski about developing similar mentorship programs. This supports the conclusion that peer mentorship opportunities in food systems work are important for nurturing leadership and collaboration nationwide.

Read our full overview and see the tools and best practices we developed to manage the mentorship program.

Peer learning

Local food coordinators also told us they wanted more frequent opportunities to learn together. Due to distance, we created a bi-monthly series of peer learning calls/webinars. Participants suggested topics and took turns leading the calls. Over the course of the pilot, we held eight 90-minute professional development presentations. They ranged in topic from conflict management to grant-writing to equity and inclusivity.

The coordinators requested local, “boots on the ground” presenters rather than national “experts” — in other words, peers.

Our evaluation results showed that 182 unique individuals participated in these calls, attending a cumulative total of 228 times. The Racial Equity and Inclusivity in Food Systems webinar drew the highest attendance (73). Many were outside Iowa and had never participated in one of our peer learning calls before. Attendance increased with every call.

The seven archived videos of these webinars (one was not recorded) have racked up more than 700 views to date.

Evaluation surveys showed participants thought the topics were useful and wanted more chances to ask presenters questions. They’d like the series to continue, and had lots of suggestions for future topics. The top-rated suggestions included project management, strategic planning and organizing events.

Read the peer learning call guide and evaluation.

What’s next? We’d like to keep this professional development project going, but we will need funding support to do that. If you have questions about the reports or the project, contact us.