Urban food system projects in Extension

urban food

By Julie M. Fox, Ph.D., The Ohio State University Extension


Extension educators set the stage for stable relationships, inter-organizational linkages, and feedback loops upon which localized food systems could be built (Dunning, et al., 2012; Gulati & Gargiulo, 1999; Ramasawmy & Fort, 2011; Sundkvist et al., 2005).  Extension’s involvement in food system development appears throughout history, illustrating various ways state and county personnel have contributed to collaborative networks that integrate sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management. Building on this long-standing history, Extension professionals working on community food systems began collaborating through the new eXtension Community of Practice focused on Community, Local and Regional Food Systems.

Urban food systems

Considerable food system work in urban areas is being conducted by Extension.  For example, the North Central Cooperative Extension Association hosted a Metropolitan Food Systems Symposium in 2011.  To address the unique opportunities and challenges in densely populated, multi-cultural urban settings, Extension professionals not only collaborate with community organizations, they also connect with other institutions of higher education.  Community-university partnerships have taken many forms and have been recognized as a valuable contribution to both the academic community and our cities. (Kotval, 2003).  Urban interests are evident in groups such as the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities, the Engagement Scholarship Consortium, and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), which partners with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities to harness the power of urban research universities and their partners to improve the quality of life in urban and metro regions.

Nationally, urban Extension professionals have communicated impacts of urban Extension programming through national conferences, journals, eXtension, and other outlets.  With food being a recurrent topic, the aggregation of projects and impacts into categories can guide identification of best practices, bring emerging issues to light, connect professionals with common interests, and provide a framework for future projects as they relate to: 

 Food production (growing for family and community; growing for profit)

 Food and business (entrepreneurship; workforce development)

 Food and family (accessing, preserving, preparing, and serving healthy, safe food)

 Food and community (planning and supporting community food development)

These four areas of focus are intended to help frame the sometimes overwhelming topic of food systems (Colbert, Fox, Haught, Hogan, Rabe, & Welch, 2013).  There are natural linkages between many of the topics in these four areas.  For example, those involved with community gardens can benefit from projects outlined in both the food production and food and community areas.  The topics of food safety and food policy could be addressed in each of the four perspectives.


Current areas of food focus

The topic of food has become a common theme at national Extension conferences.  An initial review of the 2011 and 2013 National Urban Extension Conference sessions indicated that 13 states were involved in 22 sessions specifically related to the following food topics:

 Food production – 14%

 Food and business – 9%

 Food and family – 40%

 Food and community – 36%

Additional sessions were included in poster presentations, but in many cases the content reflected the same project presented in a breakout session.  While additional investigation may reveal other sessions, the limited information provided in the proceedings resulted in this preliminary summary.  


What else would be informative?

To identify the food system factors that others have discovered as essential for success and sustainability in urban areas, Extension personnel could: 

 Analyze additional conference proceedings from the National Urban Extension conferences held prior to 2011.

 Contact presenters to more completely code projects into the specific food topics and discover additional factors, such as:

 engagement with specific populations (youth, immigrants, or multi-generational audiences),

 engagement with specific partners (not-for-profit, government agency, philanthropic, education)

 urban-rural interdependencies, and 

 targeted impacts and lessons learned.

 Conduct a review of presentations from conferences hosted by the member organizations of the Joint Council of Extension Professionals (JCEP), identifying those specifically addressing urban food topics.

 Explore articles submitted to the Journal of Extension, identifying those specifically addressing urban food topics.

 Select a sample of professionals who have reported food system findings and conduct targeted interviews to better understand influential factors.

 Continue inquiry at the 2015 National Urban Extension Conference.

 Expand inquiry beyond Extension’s direct scope to gain perspective on how other university and community professionals lead urban community food system developments. 



For Extension, the 2014 centennial year offers a time for meaningful reflection on our urban initiatives, including how we address the many issues surrounding food and food systems.  The investigation outlined in this introductory article provides insight as we move into Extension’s second century and sharpen our focus on how we can be a catalyst for:

• Sustainable food production practices and capacity (food production).

• Business start-ups, employment and investment (food & business).

• Healthy behaviors and health indicators (food & family).

• Social, environmental and economic conditions (food & community).

More than half of the world’s people now live in cites, and in the U.S., the figure is 80% (U.S. National Academies, 2010).  Extension’s ability to address the needs of urban constituencies is critical (Borich, 2001 & Ford Foundation, 1966). By engaging people in a process of co-discovery, rooted in evidence-based education and local knowledge, shared food system success can be achieved and Extension can continue to demonstrate the value of being locally relevant, responsive statewide, and recognized nationally.


Borich, T.O. (2001). The Department of Housing and Urban Development and Cooperative Extension: A case for urban collaboration. Journal of Extension [On-line], 39(6) Article 6FEA2. Available at: http://www.joe.org/joe/2001december/a2.php

Colbert, S., Fox, J., Haught, S., Hogan, M., Rabe, M., Welch, C. (2013). Learning about food in urban communities, OSU Extension. Available at: http://localfoods.osu.edu/sites/d6-localfoods.web/files/Urban%20Food%20G…

Dunning, R., Creamer, N., Massey Lelekacs, J., O’Sullivan, J., Thraves, T., & Wymore, T. (2012). Educator and institutional entrepreneur: Cooperative Extension and the building of localized food systems. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development [On-line], 3(1), 99–112. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2012.031.010

Ford Foundation. (1966). Urban Extension: A report on experimental programs assisted by the Ford Foundation. Ford Foundation. New York, NY.

Gulati, R., & Gargiulo, M. (1999). Where do interorganizational networks come from? American Journal of Sociology, 104, 1439–93.

Kotval, Z. (2003). University Extension and Urban Planning Programs: An Efficient PartnershipJournal of Extension [On-line], 41(1) Article 1FEA3. Available at: 


Ramasawmy, B., & Fort, F. (2011). Can innovation be institutionally-driven? The case of institutional entrepreneurs in the restructuration of the Mauritian vegetable supply chain. 6th Proceedings of the European Conference on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Retrieved from http://www.academic-conferences.org/pdfs/ecie_2011_best_phd.pdf

Sundkvist, A., Milestad, R., & Jansson, A. M. (2005). On the importance of tightening feedback loops for sustainable development of food systems. Food Policy, 30, 224–239.

U.S. National Academies (2010). Pathway to Urban Sustainability: Research and Development on Urban Systems, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2010. Available at:  http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=12969&page=R9.

Additional Resources:

Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Coalition of Urban Serving 

The Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities

Community Food System Bibliography

Engagement Scholarship Consortium

Report of the North Central Cooperative Extension AssociationMetropolitan Food Systems Symposium (2011) 

Urban Extension: A National Agenda, A report of the national urban Extension task force (1996) 

2011 National Urban Extension Conference

2013 National Urban Extension Conference 


2015 National Urban Extension Conference

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