A Useful Framework for Planning Comprehensive Social Media Initiatives for Food Systems Projects


Sarah Misyak, Virginia Tech, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise
Meredith Ledlie Johnson, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Family Nutrition Program
Austin Brooks, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Family Nutrition Program,
Mary McFerren, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Family Nutrition Program,
Elena Serrano
, Virginia Tech, Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise



There is a growing interest in Extension to use social media to increase awareness and support changes within local food systems. In this article, we present an example of the use of the Social Ecological Model (SEM) as a framework to guide social media initiatives in the context of food security work. Aligning with the SEM, social media can improve awareness and knowledge about healthy eating at the individual level, promote changes to food environments, inform government officials, and impact social and cultural norms and values. Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program (FNP, The Expanded Foods and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed)) has launched the Food Access and Availability Project to strengthen local food systems in Virginia. An FNP initiative that utilizes social media to promote food security is the creation of an online tool-kit to assist farmers market managers with launching, marketing, managing, and evaluating electronic benefit transfer (EBT)  for the acceptance of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at farmers market. Prompts are provided to help Extension researchers and practitioners use the SEM to plan future projects.


Social media is a low-cost or free tool for Extension educators and practitioners to reach low-income populations for food systems and food security initiatives. As of 2014, 72% of total internet users with a high school diploma or less and 79% of individuals with a household income of less than $30,000 use social networking sites. If computer availability is a concern for some populations, more than 30% of cell phone owners in a household with an income of less than $30,000 per year and those with no high school diploma (38 and 33% respectively) access social networking sites on their phone (Pew Research Center, 2014). According to Hill (2014), Extension normally embraces beneficial technological advances (Diem, Hino, Martin & Meisenbach, 2011) and social media is one of those new technologies on which Extension should capitalize.

The SEM has been a useful framework for many Extension and public health initiatives (Fiese & Jones, 2012; Fitzgerald & Spaccarotella, 2009; Kellou, Sandalinas, Copin & Simon, 2014; Korlagunta, Hermann, Parker & Payton, 2014; Robinson, 2008; Townsend & Foster, 2013). In this article we present the use of the SEM as a framework to embed social media into food systems and food security efforts. Our case study provides an example of explicitly integrating social media in the creation of an online tool-kit to assist Virginia farmers market managers with launching, marketing, managing and evaluating their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) programs for the acceptance of SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) benefits at their farmers markets. In this article, we provide a review of the use of the SEM by Extension, the use of social media in Extension work, a description of the way social media was used by FNP for a food systems initiative, and provide recommendations for how other Extension researchers and practitioners can use the SEM to plan their own projects using social media.

Virginia Cooperative Extension: The Family Nutrition Program

FNP’s Food Access and Availability Project is designed to ensure SNAP eligible individuals and families have equal access to affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food. Through the Food Access and Availability Project, FNP works to eliminate food deserts through education, policy and research initiatives. One specific initiative is focused on connecting SNAP-eligible consumers to farmers markets. Towards this end, the Food Access and Availability Project supports farmers markets across the Commonwealth in launching, managing, marketing, and evaluating their EBT programs, which allow them to accept SNAP benefits. FNP supports farmers market managers in their community organization efforts by collaborating with market managers, non-profit organizations, researchers, and government officials across the Commonwealth of Virginia to help low-income individuals and families make healthier food choices while enabling small producers to access new customers through the implementation and growth of EBT programs. Social media is an integral part of the Food Access and Availability Project.

Objectives for the social media portion of the Farmers Market Manager Tool-kit were developed using the SEM as planning tool. The main objectives for social media content for each level of the SEM are:

  1. Individual: Provide health promotion messages for market managers to post on their social media sites to influence potential and current market shoppers.
  2. Environmental: Use social media to serve as a marketing tool for market managers to support market viability to provide environmental access to healthy foods for low-income populations.
  3. Sectors of Influence: Provide market managers with social media content and evaluation data to reach local and state policy makers.
  4. Social and Cultural Norms and Values: Track the dissemination of health promotion messages through farmers markets to social media accounts of individuals from the target population to provide data on the potential impact of the toolkit on social and cultural norms.

When designing projects, the SEM can be used as a tool for incorporating social media (Figure 1). Extension researchers and practitioners should examine each level of the SEM to determine how social media can complement and support comprehensive plans.

The following prompts can serve as a guide:

Individual Factors:

  1. Does your social media content deliver education-based messages directly to your target population as part of a direct education series?
  2. Does your social media content include emotion-based messaging (narratives, pictures, testimonials, etc.) that can motivate or empower individuals in your target population to change their behavior?

Environmental Settings:

  1. Does your social media content deliver information to service providers, gatekeepers or others working directly with your target population?
  2. Are you delivering your social media content in language that appeals to individuals and organizations whose work impacts the built environment?
  3. Are you delivering your social media content on a platform used by individuals and organizations whose work impacts the built environment?

Sectors of Influence:

  1. Does your social media campaign include an evaluation tool (e.g. Google Analytics) you can use to track messages and measure outcomes?
  2. Do your social media messages use language that will appeal to and motivate sectors of influence (e.g. policy makers)?
  3. Does your social media plan include an explicit strategy for reaching sectors of influence either directly through education based messages or with evaluation data?

Social and Cultural Norms and Values:

  1. Does your social media content contribute to a wider social marketing campaign that uses marketing concepts to promote the development of food systems and/or food secure communities?
  2. Does your target population see and interact with your social media content on a consistent basis so your content is contributing to your target population’s perceptions of norms and values?


It is important to remember that the use of social media will not replace in-person contact in most cases. Instead, it should be viewed as one tool in Extension’s toolbox. An additional consideration when social media is used according to the SEM is the need for guidelines about social media content. Content guidelines will need to vary depending on the target (e.g. low-income populations, Extension Agents, or policy makers) and the social media platform (e.g. Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, etc.). Content guidelines should build on the social media work already completed by Extension practitioners and researchers, examples of which include explanations on some of the different tools (wikis, blogs, podcasts, Facebook, and YouTube) (Kinsey, 2010), how to use social media for outreach efforts and measure impact (Gharis, Bardon, Evan, Hubbard & Taylor, 2014), methods to save time and increase the reach of social media efforts (Skrabut, 2014), the use of social media by Extension educators (O’Neill, Zumwalt & Bechman, 2011; Newbury, Humphryes & Fuess, 2014; Toelle & Harris, 2014) and program participants (Diem et al., 2011; Cooper, Cox, Corbin, 2012; Fox, Leeds & Barrett, 2014), best practices for the use of social media in social marketing campaigns (Tobey & Manore, 2014) and considerations with andragogy and the use of digital technology- so educators can merge adult education theory with new platforms/delivery methods (Woods & Langcuster, 2014).

The SEM is a useful framework for planning comprehensive initiatives that use social media in innovative ways, such as involving the public in research (Kocher, 2013), building social capital for a target population (Mains, Jenkins-Howard & Stephenson, 2013) and evaluating nutrition education and social marketing programs (Gregson et al., 2001) to affect systems-level change.

Lindridge, MacAskill, Gnich, Eadie & Holme (2013) explicitly used an ecological model to inform their communication strategy for a social marketing campaign. As Extension researchers and practitioners continue to explore social media as a particular communication strategy, special consideration should be given to using the SEM as a framework to ensure their initiatives are multi-faceted, overcoming barriers to improving food security on the intrapersonal, interpersonal, community and macro levels.


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