What difference does a local food conference make?

By:  Peter Andrée, Carleton University

Thanks to a FLEdGE-sponsored research undertaken by an undergraduate student from Carleton University, organizers of this week’s Bring Food Home Conference in Ottawa (http://bringfoodhome.com/) will be in a much better position to measure their event’s economic, social and environmental impacts.

As part of his 2016-17 Honours research project, Omar Elsharkawy from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University, helped the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs develop a new evaluation tool for measuring the impact of the annual Local Food conference that they organize alongside local partners. For the last six years, the Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference (EOLFC) has brought together practitioners from the region to network and learn new skills with the aim of supporting the local food sector. This year, the EOLFC is combined with Sustain Ontario’s Bring Food Home conference. Bring Food Home takes place Oct 26-29 in Ottawa, and is co-organized with Just Food.

Working closely with his supervisor, Prof. Peter Andrée, and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) agriculture and rural economic development advisor Katie Nolan, Omar undertook a series of in-depth interviews with local food experts, conference organizers and past EOLFC participants. His goal was to better understand the full range of impacts a conference like this can have on participants. The evaluation tools used by conference organizers in the past tended to focus narrowly on a few specific metrics, like the number of ‘retained or newly created jobs’ that resulted from working with information gleaned at the conference. These tools yielded limited useful data, since it is often difficult to trace the creation of a specific job to a session an entrepreneur may have attended at a conference.

The research team chose to draw on Sustainable Livelihood Theory, an approach typically used for evaluating development projects in the global South. Sustainable Livelihood Theory holds that a broad range of social, financial and cultural assets are required for farmers and other food system actors to thrive. The outcome of Omar’s research is a more holistic, open-ended, approach to local food conference evaluation. The survey tool, which is intended to be used alongside follow-up telephone interviews, is now available on the FLEdGE website.

In July, the research team met with core OMAFRA staff from Eastern Ontario to review the research results and proposed evaluation tools. OMAFRA staff were eager to bring the insights of this piece of research into their own work, and to share the findings with other government staff from across Ontario.

If you have ever organized a local food conference or networking event, and you’d like some tips for how to evaluate the long term impact of your event, six months or more later, click on the link below to find the tools developed through this research:

OMAFRA Report final