Community Food Systems

The Community Food Systems Program is a multi-phase, multi-year program that partners with communities to design and develop their local and regional food systems.


About the Program

Devoted to long-term community empowerment and lasting impacts, the program requires deep community engagement. The program is designed to develop trust and coalitions, research and assess existing conditions and goals of the health and food system context, design and implement priority projects related to the coalition's mission and vision. 

This multi-year process is completed in two phases:

Phase 1: Research and Coalition Development

  • Develops trust within communities and generates a place-base vision, mission, and core values
  • Assesses existing conditions and goals of the food system
  • Determines priority projects through a facilitated evaluation meeting

Phase 2: Design and Implementation

  • Designs priority projects as a project team
  • Creates momentum and capacity for program development and implementation of projects

Outputs and Outcomes:

  • Coalition development: developing a name, mission, visiion and core values along with logo design
  • public input session materials
  • Community food system assessment and snapshot
  • up to five priority projects determined for implementation in Phase 2

Outputs and Outcomes

  • Design development and assistance in implementation of priority projects
  • Project management and design
  • Grant writing
  • Consultation with ISU faculty and staff experts

Menu of Services

We offer a range of services to support food systems development in communities.

Coalition Development

It is critical for food systems and community development that community members agree upon a vision, mission, and core values; name recognition; and accountability. The development of a coalition assists in this process, as well as confirming what the coalition wants to make happen in the community. This includes understanding the reason behind why the group wants to exist: for example due to a local challenge, issue, or idea.

Outcomes include the development of a coalition, name for the group, collective mission, vision and core values, logo, and beginning brainstorming on next steps and what the coalition should do together.

Community Food Systems Assessments

In order to know what a coalition or community would like to see happen, it is critical to understand what already exists. The Community Food Systems Assessment evaluates the existing conditions of the community based food system sectors (production, transformation, distribution, consumption, and resource management) and how those aspects relate to community food system program values (education, policy, public health, built and natural environment, and the economy). Outputs include: Community Food Systems Assessment and Community Food Systems Snapshot reports. Includes one public input session (see description below).

Assessment resources include:

Tactic Checklist and Review

Data Resources for Assessments


Public Input Sessions

Creative ways to hear from the community about what residents would like to see in their community. The public input session hosted by the Community Food Systems program includes posters of tactics researched (24), a large 6′ x 6′ or 9′ x 9′ map, color coded stickers and postcards, as well as several survey questions. In addition, a Community Food Systems team member will participate in one input sessions to educate on the process.

Technical Assistance

Communities may have already determined particular projects that fit with their coalition’s values and needs. In partnership with the Iowa State University Community Design Lab, the Community Food Systems Program offers design assistance for projects that can range from market and brand promotion to landscape or building assessment, and schematic design. Please download the application and submit to Courtney Long if you are interested in participating in the CFS program.

Project examples include:

  • Community gardens and orchards
  • Public edible landscapes
  • Collaborative or incubator urban farms
  • Site assessments for project development: shared-use kitchens, processing facilities, etc.
  • Awareness campaigns
  • Branding and promotional materials
  • Community or site master plans Program development and facilitation, workshop series, etc.


Food Systems Framework

Circular diagram that includes the five sectors and seven assets

The Food System

Food systems are complex, dynamic, and involve numerous interactive sectors across the food supply as well as interactions across and within community assets. 

The food system is comprised of five different sectors, ranging from production to resource management, typically viewed as a cycle or process. Similarly, food systems are embedded in our communities and both impact, and are impacted by, community assets such as our economies, natural and built environment, and equitable resource and decision making abilities. Overall, these complex systems influence the potential benefits and challenges for food access, sovereignty, business viability and general food supply and consumption.

Food System Sectors

Due to the complexity of food systems, our work seeks to understand the various components and sectors within the food system and how they connect, impact, and are impacted by, community assets. 

We recognize and define five food systems sectors:

  1. Cultivation and Harvesting: science, art, or occupation of cultivating land, hunting, foraging, and fishing; raising crops, feeding, breeding, raising livestock, or maritime practices.
  2. Processing and Transformation: physical change of raw ingredients, physically or chemically, into a new product.
  3. Aggregation and Distribution: movement of products including the gathering and delivery to markets and buyers.
  4. Purchasing and Nourishment: consumer oriented use of foods including purchase, culinary activities, and programming.
  5. Conservation and Stewardship: care of natural resources to ensure access to energy, food, and water.
Food Systems Sector Icons

Community Assets

The Community Food Systems Program has been developed based on community engagement practices of public interest design, strategic doing, and collective impact. Additionally, the community capitals framework informed the initial pilot in terms of determining assets to research within communities. The initial 7 capitals evolved to include 7 asset areas based on strategic partner participation and critique in the pilot phase.

We recognize seven community asset areas:

  1. Built Infrastructure: developed buildings, roadways, and systems.
  2. Culture and Wellness: individual and population health through traditional and western practices.
  3. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: same status and equal access to goods, services, and power.
  4. Economy and Finance: Wealth and resources for both personal and community. 
  5. Government and Policy: Democratic practices and principles or actions adopted by groups, communities, and government.
  6. Knowledge and Wisdom: Experiences, formal education, and historical knowledge.
  7. Natural Environment: interactions of climate, living species, weather, and our natural resources.
Food Systems Asset Icons

Projects & Research

View our previous projects and research.


Projects & Research

A person writes in a notebook while on a working on a laptop

Food Systems Core Competencies

The Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) cooperative agreement brought together a group of individuals with expertise and knowledge in food systems. In the fall of 2019, partners worked to collectively identify core competencies needed for practitioners working in food systems, created a set of learning objectives for each competency, and identified existing curricula around the nation that met the objectives described. 

This project resulted in the development of the Food Systems Practitioner & Education Resource Database, a free, national database for practitioners and educational resources in food systems.

Learn more

A person checks seedlings growing in a tray

U.S. Virgin Islands

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach partnered with Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition  to support food systems development in the territory. From 2018-2020, research was conducted to complete a community food systems assessment and snapshot, along with a Hurricane History Farmer Preparedness Checklist. 

Learn more

A vendor at a farmers market hands off local produce to a customer

Fort Dodge Farmers Market

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach partnered with the City of Fort Dodge in Iowa to conduct a farmers market feasibility study to assess the need and current conditions for expanding the Fort Dodge Farmers Market, including both increased vendor and consumer participation, as well as lengthening the market season to year-round. The final report (2022) shares findings, site assessments, and recommendations.

Read the full report