Building Strong Communities through Food: Our Experience Working Alongside Our Food Systems Partners


In celebration of TNC’s 10th anniversary on May 20th, 2020, we are creating a series of posts that reflect our practice and mission. 

At TNC we have a long history of working with community-based organizations that are committed to strengthening their local food systems. This work is incredibly important to us and we feel grateful for the opportunity to play a role in supporting this work. We have met passionate people, dived deeper into our understanding of the food system, and collaboratively designed evaluations that have produced valuable learnings that our partners have acted on to strengthen their approach to meeting the needs of their communities. 

As we’ve worked alongside our clients, there are a few things that have really stood out to us about their work. We’d like to share what we have learned here. 

Food builds a sense of community.

While working on a recent evaluation of the Circles program in Guelph and Wellington County, a participant shared something during an interview that has stuck with me:

“If you’re a funder, it’s like ‘oh, we’re going to pay and have people come and sit and have dinner together?’ But really yes, that’s the special thing. You bring all these people together and these amazing friendships form, and support in the community builds”

The Circles program is focused on poverty reduction, and each meeting always started with a dinner prepared by the community, where participants gathered, shared stories, built trust, and developed friendships. While food security was not a direct focus of the program, it clearly illustrates how important food is in bringing people together. Since working with Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), we have learned even more about the sense of community that can be built through the power of food. 

In 2018, CFCC began piloting the Market Greens program. The pilot program focused on offering fruit and vegetable incentives that were redeemable at two markets in Ontario. We learned that families were eating more fruits and vegetables because of the program, but also that by visiting the markets their sense of belonging to their community also increased. They described the atmosphere at the markets as warm and welcoming, with respectful and helpful staff. There were fun activities offered, and opportunities to socialize with other members of the community, and connect with friends, new and old. As CFCC says “good food is just the beginning”. 

Food systems work requires a disruption of the status quo.

Over the past few years, at a personal level, we have been inspired by our clients to make changes in our own lives. We’ve started growing our own fruits and vegetables, incorporating more healthy food into our diets, supporting local farmers, and making donations to organizations dedicated to making positive change within the food system. However, the projects we have supported have also caused us to pause and reflect on our own privilege that has allowed us to engage in these actions. Many members of our communities do not have access to healthy food because of the cost, limited time, and the availability of healthy food at the neighbourhood level. Racialized and low-income groups are disproportionately affected by these factors.

Given these types of challenges, United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT) is seeking to alter the status quo of the food system in Mississauga by changing its form and function. In partnership with the General Mills Foundation and Greater Twin Cities United Way, UWGT is piloting the Community Food Systems Grant Program intended to strengthen Mississauga’s food system. This two-year grant stream goes beyond the traditional hunger relief model by providing financial investments to six innovative, community-based initiatives, providing capacity building supports, and bringing together food system stakeholders. Through this work UWGT will catalyze strategic development to promote greater access to food that meets the needs of the community. 

Through our partnership, we are evaluating this innovative grant stream to understand the impact that it is having in the community, focused at understanding the benefits that this new way of working is having at multiple levels. We will look at changes at the micro-level, or those related to increasing access to food that meets the nutritional, cultural and economic needs of residents living with low income; the mezzo level or those focused on enabling grantees to work in a collaborative way with residents, organizations and other key stakeholders in the food system; and at the macro-level by examining changes related to food policy, research and/or public education.  Together we will generate learnings that we hope can be applied to strengthening Mississauga’s food system, and we are excited to be a part of this change process. 

Evaluation can play a key role in building organizational capacity to strengthen the food system. 

One (among the many!) things we appreciate about our partners is that they incorporate a strong focus on learning into their work. They engage in reflective practice and have made changes and improvements to their programming based on evaluation findings that we have collaboratively generated. 

Locally, we have worked with the SEED, Everdale Farm, the County of Wellington-Ontario Works, Lutherwood Employment Services, and 2nd Chance Employment Counselling to evaluate the Good Food Work Experience. This program provides experiential learning and employment opportunities within the food system to youth in Guelph and Wellington County who have faced barriers to employment or education. Youth have had the opportunity to work at community food markets, in the kitchen, at a warehouse where good food is distributed to the community, and at Everdale Farm and Guelph Youth Farm. Youth have also sat down with us and provided extensive feedback about their experiences which we have incorporated into our evaluation.  One youth shared the following reflection about their experience working in the local food system:

“Being at the garden and then the farm and then doing all the hard work, and then coming home after the garden-you know, we got sent home with a bag of lettuce we harvested and it was just-it was like, I did that. That’s from my work. It was just such an amazing feeling. And knowing that that was going to go to people who needed it and feed them and put food on their table. It was such a good feeling”.

Youth also had ideas about how to change or improve the program, and so have members of the partnership. Reflecting on evaluation findings and recommendations, the partnership has made substantial changes to the program to strengthen their approach to providing positive experiences to youth, while also strengthening the food system. 

Our commitment to learning and capacity building in the food system.

At TNC, we are committed to supporting our food system partners by building their capacity to do good work, but we are also committed to learning more ourselves. With every project we partner on, we learn something new. We are able to carry each bit of new knowledge forward, apply it to our own work, and share what we are learning throughout our network. Our ability to do this is because of our inspiring partners, and we look forward to learning more over the coming years!

Tips for Meeting in a Virtual World


Over the past two weeks, we’ve shifted to working virtually at TNC. This means that we have made significant use of videoconferencing platforms to meet with our team, as well as our clients. We know that many organizations are making a similar shift to support operations in this new environment.

But we also know that hosting virtual meetings can come with a collection of challenges. We’ve heard that the new catch phrase of 2020 is “you’re on mute” and conference call “bingo cards” are being circulated that (while pretty funny) highlight some of the issues you might have to contend with.

We’ve created a list of tips generated from our own experiences that can support you in successfully hosting your next virtual meeting.

Tip 1: Share an agenda to increase engagement and make meetings more efficient. Agendas are an important part of preparation for any meeting. Sending a list of key items that will be discussed in advance of the meeting prepares participants to think ahead about the topics to be covered, and formulate ideas or responses. Sharing the agenda can also help make virtual meetings more efficient. Items can be ordered in decreasing order of importance for the majority of participants so that people who need to jump off part way through the meeting can do so after weighing in on topics relevant to them. Include the agenda in a calendar invite along with details about how to login to the meeting (e.g., the meeting link or call-in number) so that it is easily accessible to attendees.

Tip 2: Share information about how to participate during the meeting. Trying to participate in a virtual meeting can sometimes be a frustrating or uncomfortable experience for attendees if the rules of participation aren’t clear. If you plan on having a free flow of conversation, let attendees know that they are welcome to verbally add to the conversation whenever they want. If you’d like them to signal you when they want to say something, let them know how to do this (see Tip 11).  Most platforms have a chat function, which is a useful way to queue up input without interrupting (it is also good to have a meeting partner to manage this function and let participants know who they can contact if they are having technological issues – see Tip 3).

Tip 3: Partner Up. Just like in-person meetings, virtual meetings can benefit from having two group leaders. While in-person meetings typically lend themselves to a facilitator and note-taker set-up, during virtual meetings, a second person may play an even larger role. In addition to note-taking, a second person can monitor the chat function, facilitate the order of questions/comments, keep track of visual and auditory signals from attendees, and help to troubleshoot technological issues.

Tip 4: Test your technology ahead of time. There will undoubtedly be issues with technology at some point when you are running a virtual meeting. We know that your time is limited and valuable, and the last thing you want to be doing is spending time trying to troubleshoot technological issues when your meeting is already in progress. There are ways to mitigate this risk. Ask attendees to make sure that their software is functioning prior to the meeting (see Tip 7) and let them know who to contact if they are experiencing technological issues (see Tip 3).  Consider scheduling a technological practice run with members who may have concerns about it working properly.

Tip 5: Meet in smaller groups where possible. In-person meetings can often accommodate larger groups (i.e., 10-20+ people) and still make room for meaningful engagement. When meeting virtually, it’s worth considering whether meeting as a large group will still allow for each member to have the opportunity to contribute. If it’s not necessary for every group member to be on the same call, and you have the time, try to arrange smaller group calls where everyone has the opportunity to engage.

Tip 6: Choose your meeting space intentionally. When choosing a spot to meet in your house, consider proximity to your wifi router for a strong connection and a background setting that is simple with only one or two solid colours behind you to avoid distraction. Try to choose a location that does not have any sunlight glare behind you, and where there is sufficient lighting on your face. Having access to two monitors will enable you to have notes or a PowerPoint on one screen and the video conference on the other.

Tip 7: Walk attendees through how to use the software. Virtual platforms might be just as new to your meeting attendees as they are to you. When setting up your meeting, it’s important to provide a step-by-step guide on how to install any necessary software attendees might need. We find it works best to share this information through email (or directly in the calendar invite), and provide a reminder again before the meeting so that everyone is ready to go. Once you’re in the meeting, spend a little bit of time teaching attendees how to use the various features that your platform might provide. For example, let them know how to use the chat box, screen sharing feature, mute/unmute, and any other components that you plan on using to support your meeting.

Tip 8: Use video whenever possible. While acknowledging that not everyone has access to a webcam (always make sure that calling in by phone is an option), being able to see everyone’s face helps to run an engaging and productive virtual meeting. For example, video makes it possible for a meeting facilitator to see the body language cues of a participant who agrees or disagrees or who wants to chime in on the discussion. If you want everyone to use a camera (when possible), ensure that you test your own ahead of time, and ask attendees to do the same (see Tip 4).  If people are participating with audio only, it may help to give context to the pauses: “For people without video, the group is just pausing to think about this issue.” Also, accepting the interruption of small children or pets with a smile and kind remark can also make meeting attendees relax a little in what might be an otherwise stressful new work environment.

Tip 9: Use a “tile” configuration on your video platform. Participating in a virtual meeting will never be the same as an in-person meeting but there are ways to set up your screen to make it feel a little more personal. While different platforms may have different features, screen configurations that give the entire screen to the active speaker can cause non-speakers to get lost in the shuffle of thumbnails. Some platforms give you the option to use a “tile” configuration of your attendees so that you can see all of their individual faces. While this might make you feel like you’re in the opening sequence of the Brady Bunch, we’ve found that it helps to facilitate conversation. If you would like your meeting attendees to use a specific screen layout, be sure that you explain to them how to use the feature as well (see Tip 7).

Tip 10: Use “awkward” pauses. During any meeting, silences do not necessarily mean that the group doesn’t have anything to share, and this may ring truer for virtual meetings. We know it can be tempting to fill the silence during a virtual meeting by moving on to the next topic, but meeting virtually requires creating more space for people to jump into the conversation. This might feel awkward to you as a facilitator, but often when you slow down and intentionally create this space, someone will share something.

Tip 11: Make use of signals and exaggerate positive responses. In addition to intentionally pausing to allow room for attendees to speak, there are other ways to promote discussion and check-ins to make sure that the format of the meeting is still supporting your attendees.  We have found that visual signals often work better online than auditory ones.  For example, people can show they agree with “thumbs up,” or give applause after a presentation with “jazz hands.”  Some virtual platforms have “reactions” that attendees can click that signal a particular response (e.g., thumbs up) or that they would like to say something (e.g., “raising their hand”). Let attendees know that these options exist (see Tip 7). You may also want to mail or ask attendees to print physical cards that can also signal you. For example, attendees might be given a green card to let you know everything is going well, a yellow card to ask you to slow down, or a red card to ask you to pause.  It can also be difficult to read body language in online environments and these cards work especially well for larger groups. Consider exaggerating positive responses through thumbs up, head nods, or big smiles.

Tip 12: Make use of technological features. Virtual platforms have cool features that can help you make the most of your meetings. Most allow for screen sharing which can still allow you to make presentations using slide decks. Some also allow for the creation of “breakout rooms” which can split your meeting into smaller groups for a specified amount of time to allow for smaller group discussions. Take time to explore these options and how they might support the goals of your meeting.

Tip 13: Keep accessibility standards in mind when screen sharing. Screen sharing can be a useful tool when you don’t have use of the whiteboards or projector screens from the office (see Tip 12). If you plan on sharing your screen, make sure that attendees will have access to a computer screen themselves by letting them know ahead of time that this is a requirement. When sharing your screen, also take time to explain exactly what you are sharing by giving a description. This will support attendees with unreliable internet connections, as well as those who may have visual impairments. We also recommend sending any documents you may be screen sharing to attendees so that they also have direct access.

Tip 14: Consider accessibility more generally. Send a message to your meeting attendees ahead of time to ask if there are any accessibility considerations or restrictions so you can plan accordingly. Some accessibility considerations that can be applied to virtual meetings include: using legible font (e.g., Arial, Verdana) for documents that will be screen shared; providing any meeting materials in advance and giving attendees sufficient time to read them; having a plan for signalling options so that everyone has a way to signal that they want to speak (see Tip 11); accommodating telecommunication tools that enable equal participation for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have a speech impairment.

Tip 15: Record your meetings. Depending on the nature of the meeting, you may want to record it.  Most virtual platforms have a built-in feature that allows you to do so. If a note taker isn’t available or you are discussing complex issues, having a recording can be a nice back-up. It can also be provided to group members who are not able to attend at the specified time. If you choose this option, just make sure that everyone in the group agrees to being recorded.

Our Reflections

Although virtual meetings might pose some new challenges, they’re important. They can support your continued operations, but they can also promote a sense of connection. In the current social context where most people are living and working in isolation, it is especially important to make time for team building, bonding and socializing as you would in a physical office space. In a recent virtual TNC meeting, all staff were asked to show something that was special to them from the room they were in. This simple exercise helped make us feel a little closer, and offered some time for casual conversation with colleagues before diving into business.

We’re still learning about ways to make these types of meetings accessible to everyone, and if you have any additional tips, we welcome them!



Falling in Love with the Rules

Program & Systems Design, Research & Evaluation, Uncategorized

51dYGzGi6rL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_-2NOTE: A version of this post was originally published at Tamarack’s Communities Collaborating Institute Online.

Here at Taylor Newberry, when we do evaluation work, we try our best to create surveys and tools that are thoughtful, accessible, and useful.   We try to avoid creating mindless paperwork.  I have just finished reading The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, by David Graeber, and it makes me think perhaps we have to be even more vigilant to guard against the creep of bureaucracy.   Read More