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Measuring the difference: community food projects in action

A project based in Yorkshire has made a huge difference in changing the way we see food. Incredible Edible, a community-led movement founded in Todmorden in 2009 and led by RSA Fellow Pam Warhurst, has attracted international attention. A “Do-It-Yourself” approach runs counter to the wider climate in the voluntary sector, which increasingly stresses the importance of evaluation and measurement – of being able to demonstrate how and to what extent community projects have an impact on the ground. This poses a problem: although Incredible Edible has clearly succeeded, other projects seeking to emulate their success will struggle to secure funding or support if they cannot demonstrate that they have a positive impact on the people they work with and the communities they grow from.

Research findings highlight:

  • How the experiences of food campaigners in Todmorden and York have differed.

  • What helped and hindered their attempts to get people growing food.

  • The common outcomes, shared by different groups and activities in different places as part of the Incredible Edible movement.

  • Useful evaluation questions which help community groups learn from their participants about how their activities contribute to change.

  • How and why collecting information on people’s social connections and networks can be useful to community groups.

  • How local government, business and voluntary groups can support growing.

Building on the concept of the “three plates” – community, learning and business – we have provided four ways in which Incredible Edible projects create positive changes for the individuals involved. Taken as a whole, these four outcomes are important ingredients in making a place strong and resilient. People are better able to deal with life’s challenges, and better able to the most of opportunities, when they are well-connected and engaged with what is happening in their area. It is our view, backed up through a range of wider studies, that participating in community group activities can lead to knock-on benefit in participating in the workforce and in politics, as well as social and family life.

  • Community connections: more people get involved in activities in their local community. Through this, they get to know new people and know existing people better.

  • Community leadership: more people take action and initiative to conceive, design and lead activities which improve the use of the landscape of a place, and involve active participation of people in providing food for their community. A growth in community leadership provides additional opportunities for community connections to be made.

  • Local learning: people are inspired to learn new things about the food system: how a place feeds itself. They are more engaged with the social and economic circumstances around the food system – the factors that make change possible and others that present challenges to overcome. Through the participatory nature of the programme, people pass on what they learn to others. Transferable skills include critical thinking, while engaging with the gaining and transferal of knowledge can increase self-confidence and changing perceptions of the ways in which learning can happen.

  • Business intelligence: people become entrepreneurial through seeking ways to make their projects pay for themselves, generating an income. They develop a better understanding the business environment which many organisations operate in, as part of the system of how a place feeds itself. In the most transformational examples, Incredible Edible participants will start their own business as well as making choices to support other local businesses.

In the next phase of the project, a pilot aims to provide a powerful evaluation approach through collecting and analysing data on the connections between participants in activities. We consider this impact – the strengthening of social networks – to be a very important outcome, but one where small and locally-based community groups often struggle to demonstrate evidence of their impact.

This RSA project is working in partnership with RSA Yorkshire Fellowship.