Using Collective Impact to Build a Local Foods System

By Kari O’Neill and Chris Zdorovtsov, South Dakota State University Extension Community Development

Collaboration is the name of the game when you really want to get things moving on a large scale with an important initiative.  Building a local foods system is such an initiative.  There are many entities with interest, resources, and education that can and should be mobilized to assist growers and consumers in developing a food system they can navigate through easily.  

Getting the right players to the table, and then gaining consensus on moving forward together does not happen overnight.  It takes getting to know each other’s intentions, building trust, defining objectives, setting direction, and taking action before the group can really make a difference in a large initiative. Developing a clear shared goal is essential for the success of the initiative. It takes a willingness to define the roles of each player, and then respect for each other when roles overlap.  

South Dakota’s Local Foods Collaborative closely mirrors a concept called collective impact.  Collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants (Kramer and Kania, 2011).  Extension provided the centralized infrastructure and dedicated staff, and a recent Rural Business Opportunities Grant from USDA provided a structured process with goals, measurement and communication shared by participants.  Although each entity involved in the collaborative practices its own expertise and may work with different clients, the goal of obtaining excellence in South Dakota’s local foods system is shared.  Players have recognized that in order to move this initiative forward we need to share tools that lead to completed goals and measure our collective progress together.

South Dakota is a small population state (814,180 people according the 2010 Census), so it makes sense for resource providers to work together, even across a very large geographical area.  It is expensive and embarrassing when services and projects are duplicated.  To prevent this, in 2011 SDSU Extension called together a group of approximately thirty service providers in the state that indicated an interest in building local foods systems in South Dakota.  The group has continued to meet quarterly, usually via video conferencing set up at various sites around the state.  A “Rural Business Opportunity Grant” (RBOG) from USDA Rural Development allowed this group to organize, set directionand take action.  Collective impact is important in order to create a strong, enduring local foods system.

Players in the South Dakota Local Foods Collaborative include resource providers such as:  SDSU Extension, USDA Rural Development, SD Dept. of Agriculture and Dept. of Health, Reservation initiatives, Dakota Rural Action, National Relief Charities, SD Value Added Agriculture Development Center, SD Buy Fresh/Buy Local, and SD Specialty Crop Producers.  Producers, Farmers Market managers, and other interested individuals are also encouraged to get involved.  The collaboration has allowed better and deeper communication, team planning, implementation of an annual SD Local Foods Conference, and joint implementation of the RBOG grant.  Recently, a diagram of the roles each played in the collaborative was developed, and the first research project showing the economic impacts of local foods in southeastern South Dakota was commissioned and completed.  That study (Monnens, Chang, and O’Neill, 2013) will serve as a baseline to measure local foods impacts across the state, and as a metric to measure the collaborative’s effectiveness in ramping up regional local food systems.

The common agenda of this group is to strengthen and grow the local foods system in South Dakota.  By joining forces resource providers have gained the ability to assist local producers when and where they request it.  The inner-communication lines that have developed between resource providers have given them links to each other and to new resources in the field.  The group has formed new bonds, has better understanding of each entity’s role, and has gained trust that is valuable when seeking advice or knowledge.  For example, some members have technical skills in horticulture or food safety.  Others have skills to facilitate groups, knowledge of state regulations, or interests in assessment of projects.  When these talents and skills meet, impacts can be greater and more wide-spread.

One of the main objectives proposed in our RBOG application was the development of an online portal where educational resources for producers growing food in South Dakota could be stored.  The local food information center provides 1-stop for information related to the multiple tiers of the local food system. Resources range from educational and community garden support to information for producers on handling and processing food products, marketing and sales venues, regulations and certifications, research reports, grant opportunities, upcoming events and current topics. Information that is often scattered across many organizational websites is joined together here for easy access.  South Dakota specific information important to producers is not easily found on other sites.

The clearinghouse meets requests of producers who are trying to start-up or enhance their businesses, and might be struggling to find information. For example a South Dakota farmers market manager had inquired, “Is there one place where farmers market vendors can see all the rules that apply to vendors—what they can sell, what they can’t sell, the testing of canned goods, rules for eggs, cheese, beef, rules about scales weights and measures, rules about free samples, etc?” This site meets that need. 

As the site continues to build, content to support the wide range of local food activity will be added. The site allows partners from across the state to supply content that is reviewed by site administrators.  Logos of partners and links to their home pages are located on the front page.  Additionally, the partners can link relevant information back to their own sites or to other locations for more in-depth needs.  Collaborating to build the collection of local food information has provided producers with a helpful tool that supports food production and entrepreneurship.   

The other objective written into the grant was to provide assistance to fledgling regional local foods groups desiring to build, expand, or restructure their own collaborations.   This effort, though mainly across geographic lines, uses the Leopold Center’s Value Chain Partnership model of organizing. (Pirog & Bregendahl, 2012)  Resource providers are available to meet with these regional groups, and use their expertise as it fits with group needs.  For example, Extension has been meeting with one regional online food co-op in eastern South Dakota as it struggles with the issue of sharing a transportation system.  The South Dakota Value-Added Ag Development Center is helping a group in southeastern South Dakota restructure their co-op in order to operate a store front business.  Due to suggestions for further education from these groups, a video conference series on developing regional food hubs was held, and the concept of food hubs is being explored in a few regions of the state.  Future endeavors will likely lead to forming a statewide Food Policy Council, and demonstrating local foods impacts to decision makers.  Due to the wide range of entities in the collaborative, it is possible to find members able to advocate, educate and promote the benefits of local foods and small farmers at the same table. 

As local groups become aware of resource providers in the state, they are able to call on members of the collaborative with expertise that best fits their situation. Collaborative members are able to work together to assist them in building their confidence levels to move ahead with projects that may seem daunting at first.  Using strategies like community coaching (Emery,Hubbell, and Miles-Polka, 2011), the SD Local Foods Collaborative is equipped to assist regional collaboratives in building local foods systems step-by-step in their areas.  The connections we’ve made together and the resources we’ve become aware of give us the collective knowledge to guide groups.

The RBOG grant has ended, but resource providers are still meeting quarterly, sharing tools and goals.  A formal metric system is developing as we increase readership on the website, keep track of user comments, gain insight from evaluations at events, and map our progress geographically.  We are ready to assist regional collaboratives, and the local foods website will continue to provide current educational information.  The work that has begun is important to continue, and as the statewide collaborative has bonded together, the work has become more shared.  It is truly a collective effort that is building a local food system in South Dakota – one that will be able to measure real impact.


Chang, Kuo-Liang “Matt,” Monnens, David, & O’Neill, Kari.  2013.  Economic Impact Study of South Dakota’s Local Food System: A Survey Study in Southeastern South Dakota, South Dakota State  University Department of Consumer Sciences.  Found at in the Resource Library section.

Emery, Mary, Hubbell, Ken, & Miles Polka, Becky. 2011.  A field Guide to Community Coaching, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kellogg Action Lab at Fieldstone Alliance and the Northwest Area Foundation.  Retrieved from

Kramer, Mark & Kania, John.  2011. Collective Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Vol. 63, Winter.  Retrieved from


Pirog, Rich & Bregendahl, Corry.  2012.  Creating Change in the Food System, Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems. Retreived from:


 US Census Bureau Demographic Profile, South Dakota (2010). Retrieved from 


USDA Rural Development (2014).  Rural Business Opportunity Grants.  Retrieved from

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