Research Looks at Shepherding as Way to Maximize Iowa Food Systems Work

Benefits of shepherding documented in ISU Extension and Outreach local foods program case study.

March 23, 2017, 9:36 am | Corry Bregendahl, Alice Topaloff

AMES, Iowa – The term shepherding calls to mind images of fluffy white sheep grazing on a hillside, watched over by a keen-eyed caretaker and his dog. In a case study conducted by the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Local Foods Program team, shepherding refers to a method of developing strategic partnerships between a paid staff member of an organization such as extension, and local food systems stakeholders.

The local foods program team says shepherding can be used to engage a multi-county region to create change in food systems.

“Shepherding is the intentional process of fostering trust, connecting food systems actors, tracking readiness, and making strategic requests to help interested community members define active food system roles for themselves,” said Alice Topaloff, local foods team member and co-author of “Shepherding Community Engagement to Strengthen the Local Food System in Northeast Iowa, the recently published case study.

Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness InitiativeIn northeast Iowa, shepherds usually have been paid staff of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative partner organizations. “Some literature characterizes leadership by paid staff as an asset,” said case study co-author Arlene Enderton, an evaluator for the Local Foods Program. “But it can also limit community engagement and empowerment.”

In order to accomplish real change in a community’s food system, its residents need to share not only an awareness of and commitment to the goal of a healthier food system, but feel that they share responsibility for creating the changes, and are valued partners in making them happen.

Participants of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, a community coalition facilitated by ISU Extension and Outreach, have learned many lessons in shepherding over 10 years of food systems work with diverse partners in six counties. The case study offers evidence that often the best use of staff time can be to connect partners who already have the capacity and willingness to implement change. They point to Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative efforts that resulted in the sale of $2.58 million in local food sales by area farmers in 2015, and were facilitated by a thriving food hub, along with strong farm-to-school programs in area school districts.

The case study research has been published in the March 2017 edition of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. Authors  Arlene Enderton, Corry Bregendahl, and Alice Topaloff are all evaluators on the Local Foods Program team. The paper is open-access and freely available to everyone. Access it at .

PHOTO: Food and Fitness Weekly Bits January 13, 2017, the initiatives weekly newsletter, features the Decorah 8th grader cafeteria coaches who did an excellent job coaching the 3rd and 4th graders to try the new Romaine Crunch Salad. The Food and Fitness Weekly Bits newsletter is filled with examples of the benefits of shepherding.

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