Community Harvest Project – Executive Summary

Student Researchers Project Sponsor Goals & Objectives Executive Summary Final Report & Video

Lack of access to healthy, affordable food is a major concern in the United States today. In 2014, more than 48.1 million Americans did not have consistently available food in their home (Food Research and Action Center, 2014). In 2012, within Worcester County, 12 percent of the population, or 99,796 residents, relied on food assistance from the Worcester County Food Bank and its network of food pantries (Worcester County Food Bank, 2016).

Non-profit and community organizations are working to alleviate food insecurity through programs, education initiatives, and collaborative efforts to bridge the gap in availability and affordability of local produce. The Community Harvest Project (CHP), located in North Grafton, Massachusetts, is a non-profit farm that relies on the help of volunteers to grow fresh fruits and vegetables to distribute to those in need within the Worcester community.

The goal of this project was to collaborate with Community Harvest Project to comparatively analyze similar organizations both nationally and locally in order to optimize CHP’s operations and outreach. Alicia Cianciola, the Program Manager at CHP, served as our main sponsor liaison for this project, although the entire CHP staff offered us guidance and resources throughout our research.

Methodology

After discussions with Ms. Cianciola, we decided to focus our efforts on improving the efficiency of the CHP in five areas: (1) nutrition education, (2) tracking produce distribution, (3) managing partner relationships, (4) volunteers, and (5) community outreach. Before speaking with other organizations, we conducted semi-structured interviews with CHP staff, specifically: farm managers, program managers, the education and outreach coordinator, and the executive director to determine CHP’s current strategies in each area. In addition, we conducted participatory observation by attending CHP nutrition education programs as well as a CHP fundraising event held at CHP.

Using this data, we analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of Community Harvest Project. In doing so, we were able to compare CHP’s operations to those of other agencies. We conducted 15 interviews with food justice organizations and compiled all of the data into charts for easier analysis. The charts aided in cross-referencing the strengths and weaknesses of CHP’s programs to the opportunities and threats posed by the programs of other model agencies in a SWOT analysis. The SWOT analysis enabled us to develop evidenced findings and to provide CHP with feasible, useful recommendations (Appendix B).

Findings

This section presents results of the 15 semi-structured interviews. Our findings are not only useful for CHP, but also many other organizations dedicated to providing access to fresh produce to low-income residents. Every single human being deserves to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and they deserve to receive it with honorable and respectable means. We present findings from nutrition education, tracking distribution, maintaining relationships, and community outreach below.

Nutrition Education

Long-term, hands on learning with elementary school children results in more effective nutrition education programs. Offering experiential learning opportunities is beneficial to the overall mission of improving access and affordability of fresh produce to as many people as possible. When students, both children and adults alike, are inspired through enriching and supportive nutrition education programs, they take that inspiration beyond the program and bring it to their own neighborhoods and communities, creating another web in the network of fighting hunger (J. O’Brien, personal communication, October 31, 2016).

Tracking Distribution

Tracking of distributed produce is limited after it is distributed to partner organizations. When produce is handed off to partners, where it travels to next is a major concern for organizations, so their goal of reaching their target population is accomplished. Of the five organizations we interviewed that distribute produce to partner organizations for further distribution, three track how much produce is distributed to each partner. Even so, all five are unable to track how that produce is used by their partners.

Maintaining Relationships

Open and effective communication between partner organizations is mutually beneficial to maintain partner relationships. Organizations that maintain strong lines of communication are more likely to achieve their missions. Of the 11 organizations we interviewed who reported on their partner relationships, ten highlighted communication as the most valuable element in maintaining positive relationships. As we discovered through semi-structured interviews, clear, frequent communication paves the way for a long-term relationship grounded in respect, trust, and value.

Outreach

Populations, apart from low-income residents, can also benefit from CHP. Given that the question of “Who needs CHP and for what?” was presented to us halfway through our project process, we were able to begin research with the time we had left in the seven week term. Community Harvest Project already aids a larger number of people in the Worcester County area with the work that they complete on their farms. With that being said, there are inevitably groups, which could benefit from further efforts put forth by CHP.

Recommendations

Upon completing our project, our team has compiled recommendations to help CHP determine how they compare among similar organizations, as well as how they may optimize their farm operations and outreach.

Partner Relations

Recommendation 1: Collaborate with similar organizations in the area to both expand outreach as well as combine resources to work towards a common goal rather than compete

Our group recommends that increased collaboration between organizations lead to a listserv. A listserv would allow for any organizations that run into a surplus of produce they harvest to reach out to all other organizations in the area through an email mailing list. Members would receive an email stating the same type of information, such as the quantities in surplus and what extra types of produce are available. When organizations see surplus produce that is available, they could arrange pickups to distribute the food to their particular target populations.

We found that organizations have the same goals but each have different strategies, and could use this listserv to collaborate and cooperate in accomplishing their mutual goals.

Distribution

Recommendation 2: Utilize a free smartphone app to help record quantities and locations delivered by partners

            One of the more basic, yet effective, modes of group discussion is Groupme. Groupme is a simple application for smart phones where the user can create chats with another individual, or group. Our group recommends that CHP uses Groupme to create a separate group message for each partner, where they would be required to report the quantities and locations of produce distributed. In doing so, CHP would hold partners accountable for how much produce is delivered to target populations. People are more likely to have access to text messages than a computer during the day, therefore partners could send updates to CHP right when it happens, rather than risking losing or forgetting numbers if they only report online monthly.

Although guaranteeing all produce reaches its specific destination is a difficult task, an increased level of commitment by partners would increase the likelihood that CHP’s produce reaches only populations they look to assist.

Volunteers

Recommendation 5: Reward system

A positive, enjoyable volunteer experience is something Community Harvest Project takes pride in. Throughout our interviews, we found that organizations close to CHP in proximity claimed they looked to CHP as a model. In order to make the volunteer experience even more enjoyable, Community Harvest Project could send out thank you emails to participants. The emails would be personalized showing pictures from that day’s tasks, and even quantitative information about the success of the event. Volunteers who feel appreciated, and enjoy their experience, are more likely to return, which enhances the organization’s reputation in the community.

Additionally, intrinsic motivation techniques create a sense of belonging for volunteers, such as receiving a free t-shirt from CHP. Wearing a t-shirt not only provides free publicity for CHP as a brand, but makes volunteers feel like that have a sense of belonging within CHP and can be proud of their accomplishments within the organization.

Conclusion

The goal of our project is geared towards helping Community Harvest Project improve their operational strategies in providing fresh fruits and vegetables to as many people experiencing food-insecurity in the Greater Worcester County Area as they can. In order to be better, we needed to compare them to similar organizations. In conducting 15 interviews and 3 participatory research experiences, we witnessed the dedication each person in these organizations puts in to make a change in combatting the “new hunger” facing the United States (see Chapter 2). It is our hope that our team’s findings and recommendations offer useful guidance in improving not only singularly, but as a community within the hunger relief networks throughout the country.