Food security through collective impact

Working toward collective action and success within the food system allows stakeholder to address complex food access challenges.

In order to generate long-term solutions to complex social problems like food access or food insecurity, multi-organizational and diverse community collaborations must be present to have lasting results. Shrinking resources and competition for funding all but demand that business as usual be re-evaluated and that collaborative partnerships become essential.

In the winter of 2011, John Kania and Mark Kramer published a paper in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Collective Impact. They wrote, “large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination”. To achieve this type of coordination they describe the notion of collective impact as the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Kania and Kramer share that there are typically five conditions that exist to produce true alignment and meaningful change:

  1. Common agenda across organizations – Committing to a shared vision and mutually reinforcing actions brings more collective attention and effort into an initiative.
  2. Shared measurement systems – Sharing results on a common platform ensures efforts are aligned, accountable and meaningful.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities that build synergy – Stakeholders do not all have to do the same thing, but instead take on differentiated activities that build on and reinforce the work of each other.
  4. Continuous communication – Ongoing dialogue and transparency builds common motivation, common vocabulary and fosters an environment of co-learning.
  5. Backbone support organizations that foster the synergy – Having an organization support the collective work through planning and management facilitates focus, synergy and collaboration between sectors.

Access to food is a social problem that many Michigan residents and communities face. One organization trying to solve this may provide temporary relief and an isolated impact. However, the collective impact that could be realized when a group of diverse stakeholders take on mutually-reinforcing activities that build upon one another’s work is farther reaching and more sustainable.

To address food access issues, one should delve into understanding the food system for starters. This system consists of the people, processes and places that interact to move food from the farm to the table. It is often characterized as being comprised of six sectors: growing food, processing, distributing, preparing, retailing and eating. In order to have the greatest potential for powerful solutions that address food access issues, the food system sectors must work collectively alongside the decision-makers, businesses, community groups, educational bodies and entities outside of the food system in order to address the complexities of food access issues.

One of the more prominent tactics addressing food access and insecurity across the nation is through the convening of a food (policy) council. These collective, collaborative bodies are becoming more and more prevalent. In Michigan, almost half of the counties boast some form of a food council. To assist in food council creation Michigan State University Extension staff on the Community Food Service team are available to assist communities with understanding the community food system language and exploring the collective impact framework.

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