Assessing Project Impact on Our Regional Food System: 15 Questions

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By Constance Washburn and Kathryn Lyddan:

As participants in Slow Money Northern California, weʼve been working to develop a methodology to analyze the impact of potential Slow Money projects on a local food system. Our goal was to create a simple list of questions that an investor could ask to identify the projects that have the greatest leverage to create a sustainable food system.

We began our inquiry by borrowing the Roots of Change definition of a “sustainable food system” contained in The New Mainstream . Our list of questions focus primarily on a projectʼs impact to the local food system, and does not address financial risk, rate of return or a broad list of social and environmental questions. Other Slow Money groups have been reviewing projects based on financial due diligence, and we recognize that there are existing indicators to measure economic, environmental and equity impacts. We recommend referencing the existing indicators rather than duplicating efforts.

We believe that each place is unique, and that each Slow Money region is best qualified to identify the projects that could build a stronger local food system in their region. Consequently, different regions may tailor the questions or give additional weight to certain criteria based on the specific needs of their foodshed. For instance, a region that faces severe food access issues may give “bonus points” to projects that improve access for underserved populations.


We began by researching the needs of our own Bay Area foodshed by studying existing work; assembling, reviewing and synthesizing existing studies, reports and recommendations (See Attachment B). Based on our research and experience, we created a list of questions for investors to ask when assessing the potential impact of a project. In designing our list of questions, we gave particular consideration to the specific needs identified in existing Bay Area foodshed studies. For instance, studies of the Bay Area consistently identify value-added and local meat processing facilities as an essential food system need. Itʼs also clear that education and food access are important issues in the metropolitan Bay Area.

We created our food system assessment criteria for the Northern California June Entrepreneur Showcase. We circulated our draft criteria to local members in February. During the spring, we took our list of questions and rated each of the 56 applicants for the Showcase on a scale of 0-3 for each questions (1 representing a modest impact and 3 representing the most powerful impact). Because Slow Money Northern California deemed a local food system analysis an essential component of identifying Slow Money investments, our review was conducted before the projects were considered for financial merit. We did not review project with international scope since our criteria was created to assess impact to local and regional food systems.

A similar process was used to rate the California proposals for the October 2011 Slow Money National Gathering, After the projects were rating according to their potential impact on the food system, the Slow Money team reviewed detailed business plans for each project. During the final decision-making process, we continued to consider the importance of each project to our local food system.

Questions to assess potential impact to a local food system.

As participants in Slow Money, we offer this simple list of questions to assess the contribution that an enterprise might make towards building a sustainable, local food system. While we believe that our food system is an overlapping, integrated system, weʼve divided some of our questions into five different components of the food system to provide some structure to the list. We gave projects a rating of 0-3 on each of the following

Overall question: does this enterprise support sustainable local food production?

A. Land.
1. Permanently protect agricultural land?
2. Bring new agricultural lands into production?
3. Finance farm infrastructure?
4. Develop or increase sustainable agricultural practices, stewardship, sales and/or eco-system services?
5. Provide opportunities for new farmers?
6. Develop new policies, financing or public awareness for farmland conservation?

B. Distribution/processing.
7. Develop or expand the supply, purchasing and distribution of local food?
8. Create or expand opportunities to process local food/create value-added products?
9. Create or expand environmentally sustainable distribution system (transportation, packaging, processing, waste reduction/recycling)?

C. Increase access to local food.
10. Increase food access for food insecure communities?
11. Create urban farms and gardens?

D. Marketing /Education
12. Create demand and increase markets for locally produced food?
13. Educate the public about sustainable agriculture? Youth? At-risk communities?
14. Build understanding between rural and urban populations?

E. Innovative models.
15. Does the enterprise develop or expand innovative business models for a
sustainable food system?

We welcome any comments to our goal, our approach and our initial list of questions.