April 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA5

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Edible Connections: A Model to Facilitate Citizen Dialogue and Build Community Collaboration

Edible Connections Changing the way we talk about food, farm, and community is a model that was created to facilitate dialogue on the local food system by involving those whose lives and livelihood are influenced by food. The authors outline the model and offer examples of how it has been used. They also detail how it can benefit Extension educators by enhancing work and community collaboration across Extension's program areas. The authors offer resources to help communities around the country apply the model to their specific situations.

Joan S. Thomson
Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Internet Address: jthomson@psu.edu

Jennifer L. Abel
Associate Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Virginia Cooperative Extension
Arlington County, Virginia

Audrey N. Maretzki
Professor, Departments of Food Science and Nutrition
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania
Internet Address: anm1@psu.edu


Hunger. Economic development. Job creation. Farmland and open space preservation. Proper nutrition of children and adults. All of these are issues that concern communities throughout the country and on which Extension seeks to have an impact through its programs. Whether or not they are major concerns for a community depends in large part on the strength of its local food system, or "the process by which food is produced (grown, raised, harvested, or caught), transformed by processing, made available for purchase, and eventually discarded," (Harmon et al., 1999).

Citizens often have different views on how best to address these concerns. These differences can lead to conflicts that can limit discussion, identification, or implementation of strategies to address community problems. Moving from individual conversations to community forums can help local residents define their environment within their own context. Over time, through such discussion consensus should evolve. "Citizen dialogue can play an important part in helping community members shape their common vision and resolve their common problems by providing an opportunity for them to come together to share their views, learn from each other, and prepare themselves to be able to make more informed decisions and choices" (Smith & Maretzki, 2000).

In Pennsylvania, both county and municipal planners (Abel, 2000) have indicated that incorporating food system issues into the planning process is likely to occur only through government mandates, citizen pressure, or expanded funding. Thus, the quality of individual and community life can be significantly influenced by individual and public actions at the local level.

Edible Connections: Changing the way we talk about food, farm, and community is a food communications forum that brings together the media, the public, and many food system stakeholders from within the community. The intent of the forums is to increase awareness and understanding of the local food system, strengthen connections among food system stakeholders, and initiate programs and activities to address food system problems identified by a given community.

The Edible Connections model, developed in 1998, has been used by diverse groups to initiate conversations about and to take action on critical food issues. The Edible Connections model is designed to generate changes at both an individual and community level. Evaluations of forums held indicate that many who participated now consider the impacts their buying decisions have on their local food system. Several groups have subsequently made plans to explore ideas raised at the forums. This article details the components of the model and its usefulness to Cooperative Extension.

Why Is Edible Connections Useful for Extension Educators?

Because of the variety of programs Extension carries out with children, youth, and families, as well as with businesses and community organizations, Extension educators have a unique perspective on the needs of a community and its members. Many Extension programs are related in some way to the food system. Thus, the action plans and ideas that emerge from Edible Connections forums can strengthen Extension's community programming in agriculture, natural resources, nutrition, economic development, workforce development, 4-H, family and consumer sciences, and horticulture programs.

In addition, by bringing together such a diverse array of individuals via an Edible Connections forum, Extension educators can establish collaborations with organizations and individuals to develop joint strategies to address community food system issues. Such collaborations can be useful to attract funding for projects focused on alleviating hunger, supporting local economic development initiatives, or supporting family farms.

Edible Connections addresses several of the current National Initiatives of USDA's Research, Education, and Extension programs. For example, the Workforce Preparation Initiative seeks to address communities' workforce issues by focusing on community strengths and partnerships among federal, state, and local agencies and organizations (USDA, 1999e). Edible Connections forums can focus on ways to connect the jobless with local food businesses.

Forums can also be used to address a community's food safety concerns (Food Safety and Quality Initiative) or to empower youth to take leadership roles in their communities, for example, through community-wide gardening projects that could lead to food donation or marketing initiatives (Children, Youth and Families at Risk Initiative). Probably the national initiative that Edible Connections addresses best is Healthy People...Healthy Communities because of the forums' focus on the local food system, health, economic development, broad-based community initiatives, collaboration, and strengthening leadership (USDA, 1999d).

Plans of work, through which the national initiatives are realized, provide the mechanism for incorporating the Edible Connections model into state programs. In Pennsylvania, Edible Connections was initially integrated into the 1999 plan of work, The Pennsylvania Food System: In Search of Our Common Wealth. This plan of work seeks to meet the following educational goal: "Enable people to reach informed public judgments on complex issues by fostering public dialogue" (Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, 1998). Meeting this goal is precisely what Edible Connections is designed to do. In the 2000-2004 plans of work for Pennsylvania, Edible Connections is incorporated into the Forces of Change–Improving Public Understanding of the Food, Fiber & Forest Products System plan of work (Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, 1999).

What Is Edible Connections?

Edible Connections, developed through collaboration among university faculty and citizen groups, was created as a model for communities to use to help formulate solutions to food access, hunger, open space preservation, economic development, and other food system-related issues. Involving a broad cross-section of the community–consumers, the media, agricultural producers, food retailers and wholesalers, educators, nonprofit organizations, and local government–is the foundation on which to build dialogue on local food system issues. Edible Connections forums also help develop local leaders who can spearhead actions around ideas that emerge from the forums.

The forum, typically a 1-day event, includes six elements.

  • Setting the Table defines the goals of the forum and the topics that will be addressed. This element also presents an overview of the state of the local food system and how it has changed over time.
  • Food as Lifestyle is a segment that focuses on how participants interact with the food system as consumers and members of families and organizations. The topics that can be covered during this segment include diet and health, time pressures, ethnic diversity, food as ritual, hunger and food security, food as a part of celebrations, and nourishment and learning (Nunnery et al., 2000).
  • Food as Livelihood is a segment that attempts to show that the food system represents a point of common connection for many workers in a community. This element highlights the way those in different food-related professions communicate within and among the professions and with the public.
  • Food as Connection explores how food connects consumers to "the local environment, the local food system, and to each other" (Nunnery et al., 2000, p. 6). The topics that can be discussed in this segment include the diversity of agricultural production in the region; building linkages among people of different ethnicities, economic backgrounds and ages through food-based activities; and what role media can play in helping to foster such linkages (Nunnery et al., 2000).
  • A Town Meeting allows forum participants, via a facilitated discussion, to generate ideas about local actions that can strengthen the local food system. The goal of this element is to answer the question "What could be done by the media as well as by stakeholders in the local food system to bring the many stories of food to the attention of the citizens of this community?" (Nunnery et al., 2000).
  • A Celebration of Local Foods features locally grown and processed foods and allows participants to continue the dialogue begun during the forum (Nunnery et al., 2000).

For the Food as Lifestyle, Livelihood, and Connection segments, food system professionals, activists, and the media are invited from within the community to serve as panelists. Following the panel discussions, audience members join the panelists in a Town Meeting to explore ideas that address food system problems in their communities and to consider how food serves to connect people within the community.

At the Celebration of Local Foods at the end of the forum, participants have the opportunity to continue their discussions informally and to sample the region's food bounty. Maintaining the order and integrity of the six elements is important to "create a basis for changing the way people in local communities talk about food, farm and community" (Nunnery et al., 2000).

Edible Connections forums can serve as the foundation on which community food projects are built, providing the opportunity to define pressing food system problems, to involve the groups and individuals that can address these problems, and to devise a strategy to work together toward solutions.

Edible Connections forums can also help foster community leadership. According to the National Extension Task Force on Community Leadership, "Community leadership is that which involves influence, power, and input into public decision-making over one or more spheres of activity" (Langone, 1992).

Building the leadership capacity of members of a community can energize people to generate action plans and direct change. "Leadership capacity extends beyond the skills necessary to maintain a social service and/or activities organization. The leadership skills include those necessary for public decision-making, policy development, program implementation, and organizational maintenance" (Langone, 1992). Edible Connections is a useful means to identify potential leaders in a community, providing them the opportunity to develop their leadership skills by managing follow-on activities after the forums.

Edible Connections and Community Food Security

Edible Connections is a timely tool, given a current initiative of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The Community Food Security Initiative, announced in February 1999, seeks to reduce hunger in the U.S. by half by the year 2015. Food security is "when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs for a healthy and productive life," (USDA, 1999c). In 1998, close to 10 million people in the U.S., more than one third of them children, lived in households where at least some members experienced hunger during the year (USDA, 1999c).

The Community Food Security Initiative is based on collaborations among the USDA and other federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, states, and municipalities (Trivers & Paschal, 1999). The work of the Initiative is built around seven action areas. One of the action areas, "increase education and awareness," relates to each of Extension's national base programs:

  • Nutrition, Diet, and Health
  • Community Resources and Economic Development
  • Natural Resources and Environmental Management
  • 4-H and Youth Development
  • Agriculture
  • Leadership and Volunteer Development
  • Family Development and Resource Management

The Initiative is grounded in the idea that solutions to hunger and food insecurity must be generated at the local level. One way that Extension educators are already contributing to finding local solutions is through the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program, one component of the Initiative. Since 1996, $8.4 million have been awarded to support 69 projects "designed to increase food security in communities by bringing the whole food system together to assess strengths, establish linkages, and create systems that improve the self-reliance of community members over their food needs," (USDA, 1999b).

Of 20 community food projects funded in 1999, six involved Cooperative Extension. These projects are in New Mexico, New York, California, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Kansas. The projects range from efforts linking local farmers with a public service agency to develop nutrition programs for the elderly, to increasing the consumption of locally produced foods through community gardening, mobile farmstands, and youth-led marketing (USDA, 1999a). Edible Connections forums can help Extension educators address food insecurity issues in a community by making it possible to identify potential collaborators and activities.

Examples from Past Forums

In almost all of the forums that have been held since the creation of the model, Extension has played a major role but did not necessarily take the lead in organizing the forum. A hunger action coalition, a regional food policy council, and a faith-based community food system organization each led forums of their own in cooperation with local Extension offices.

After the initial forum (in October, 1998), which was planned and conducted by Edible Connections creators to demonstrate the model, the forums maintained the model's elements while being tailored to address the issues relevant to their communities. At one forum, leaders facilitated discussions about how people can work to ensure food security in their neighborhoods. Another community focused its forum on the choices and challenges of preserving our nation's most productive farmland.

In another example of the application of the Edible Connections model, an Extension educator took a different approach, creating hands-on after-school programs for first through fifth graders at two schools and two gardens. Through games, arts and crafts activities, cooking, planting exercises, and demonstrations at a county-wide health fair, children learned about the diversity of foods that are grown in their region.

As the forum topics and structures have varied, so too have the resulting activities. In the case of the forum where participants learned about how to ensure food security in their neighborhoods, they indicated that the event encouraged them to commit to buying more locally grown produce, become involved with gardening projects, and educate children about where their food is grown (Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, 1999). In the forum where farmland preservation took center stage, forum participants agreed to organize a yearly event to continue educating people about the region's food system (Javor, 1999). And the Extension educator who organized youth projects continues to educate children about their local food system through gardening programs. These forums occurred in both urban and rural areas, thus showing that Edible Connections can be used in a variety of community settings.

To more accurately assess the results of forums and what changes, if any, occurred in participants' attitudes and practices in relation to the food system, a telephone survey was conducted 8 months after the first forum. This forum was organized by the creators of the model to demonstrate its purpose.

Just over 20% of the participants (N=15) who could be reached by telephone during a 2-week period in July 1999 were interviewed. They identified a broad range of concerns about the food system and actions they have taken to increase their knowledge or change their food-buying habits (see Table 1). Over one half (60%) talked to others regarding their concerns about the food system (DiGiovanni et al., 1999). At least one third (40%) listened to radio programs on food topics as well as contributed to food-related charities (33%). More than half of those interviewed indicated they had taken more than one action (DiGiovanni et al., 1999). These results illustrate that the Edible Connections model can be used in a variety of settings to generate real behavior changes and action plans.

Table 1
Actions Taken by Participants* Following the First Edible Connections Forum

Activity No. of people Percent
Talked to others about food system concerns 9 60
Look for and prefer local produce 9 60
Listened to radio shows 6 40
Contributed to food-related charities 5 33
Visited web sites 3 20
Watched TV program on forum-related topic 1 7


To aid communities in organizing their own Edible Connections forums, a guidebook and video have been developed (Nunnery et al., 2000). The guidebook discusses the elements of the model and outlines the steps involved in planning and conducting a forum. These steps include creating a program planning and implementation team, choosing a site for the forum, marketing and public relations, recruiting speakers and panelists, and conducting and evaluating the forum. The video provides visual examples of how panel and town meeting discussions can be facilitated and how each of the elements flows and builds on those that came before it.


Experience in Pennsylvania has shown that the Edible Connections model can be used to encourage people to support local agriculture, educate others about the local food system, commit to meeting further to address the issues brought to light at the forum, as well as to work with children to help them learn about how food is grown and from where their food comes. The forum model is meant to be molded to the specific conditions in a particular community. Through creative and community-appropriate approaches, Edible Connections can be used to create a unified strategy to address food access, economic development, and other food system-related issues in a community.


Abel, J. L. (2000). Assessing the involvement of Pennsylvania professional planners in food system activities. M.S. Thesis, Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

DiGiovanni, L., Thomson, J. S., & Stringer, S. B. (1999). How do we talk about food. University Park, PA: Governor's School for the Agricultural Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University.

Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. (1999, August 19). Community food security forum results. Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger newsletter, 4-5.

Harmon, A., Harmon, R., & Maretzki, A. N. (1999). The food system: Building youth awareness through involvement. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

Javor, C. (1999). Follow-up report for Edible Connections media workshop. Pittsburgh, PA: Author.

Langone, C. A. (1992). Building Community Leadership. Journal of Extension [On-line]. 20(4). Available: http://www.joe.org/joe/1992winter/a7.html

Nunnery, S., Thomson, J. S., & Maretzki, A. N. (2000). Edible Connections: Changing the way we talk about food, farm, and community: A planning guide and video for conducting a food communications forum. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

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Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. (1998). Cooperative extension annual action plans FY 1999. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

Smith, J., & Maretzki, A. N. (2000). Citizen dialogue: A guidebook. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

Trivers, L., & Paschal, J. (1999). Glickman Announces Summit, Action Plan for Community Food Security Initiative. Release No. 0325.99 [On-line]. Available: http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/1999/08/0325

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (1999a). Community food projects awarded in 1999 [On-line]. Available: http://www.reeusda.gov/crgam/cfp/awarded99.htm

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (1999b). Community food projects competitive grants program [On-line]. Available: http://www.reeusda.gov/crgam/cfp/community.htm

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (1999c). USDA's community food security initiative action plan. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (1999d). CSREES National Initiatives [On-line]. Available: http://www.reeusda.gov/1700/programs/init.htm

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (1999e). CSREES Workforce Preparation Overview [On-line]. Available: http://www.reeusda.gov/wfp/overview.htm


Edible Connections was developed with support from the Keystone 21 Food System Professions Education Project, an initiative of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. To be funded by Keystone 21, projects need to address the initiatives of improving interdisciplinary learning and information sharing, establishing collaborative partnerships, developing learner-centered education programs, and developing leadership skills. Funding from Keystone 21 also provided minigrants that were awarded to three groups to conduct their own local forums.