The Healthy Food Community of Practice is a space for connection, learning, resource sharing, and action with a goal: help people experiencing food insecurity — particularly those facing systemic barriers — access and consume healthy foods. The community, funded by the Walmart Foundation and facilitated by Community Wealth Partners, is made up of nearly 50 organizations across the country focused on healthy food access and consumption. Community members come from various parts of the food system and represent diverse experience and perspectives, ranging from program delivery to benefits enrollment to policy analysis to nutrition education to community activism.
The community kicked off in 2020, just before the start of the COVID pandemic, In the midst of stay-at-home orders, increased need in communities, and shifts in how food was safely distributed, the community of practice provided a space of connection and support for members.
Over the past two years, community members have built relationships, taken some collective action, and begun to align around a shared vision of an equitable and just food system that is rooted in community. While we still have a long way to go to achieve that vision, we are seeing some encouraging signs of progress. Reflecting on our experiences, we see four factors that helped create the conditions for collective action across this large, diverse group.
- Flexibility in the Community’s Design
- Time and Space for Building Relationships
- Distributed Power and Decentralized Decision-Making
- Opportunities for Learning and Trying New Ways of Working
Below we share more about how the community incorporated each of these factors and some recommendations to consider.
Allow for Flexibility and Emergence in the Community’s Design
From the beginning, the community of practice has prioritized being responsive to participating organizations’ needs, and flexibility has been critical for making that happen. In fact, the Walmart Foundation decided to fund a community of practice based on feedback from grantees expressing their desire to connect with peers, share best practices and learn from each other. To ensure the community had flexibility in its design, the Foundation offered guidance and counsel as the funder, but left the shaping of the vision, purpose and design up to the community members.
The community began with a planning phase that engaged community members in co-creating the design and theory of change. In 2020, when the country was simultaneously responding to the COVID pandemic and going through a racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we had to quickly make some adjustments to respond to immediate needs. We canceled plans for bringing participants together in person and redesigned for a fully virtual engagement. We created space for participants to come together on emerging issues such as making benefits enrollment more accessible and prioritizing racial equity in the work. Later, when the White House announced its 2022 conference on hunger, nutrition, and health, we pulled together a convening to amplify the voices of those with lived experience of hunger to help ensure those voices helped inform the White House strategy. Now, at the two-year mark, we are revisiting our vision, purpose, and outcomes with the community to align around the change we are hoping to see and how this community can help create that change.
In addition to having the flexibility to pivot in response to emerging opportunities and needs, the Healthy Food Community also allows for flexibility for each participant’s engagement. The community is a large diverse group, and we have worked to create a space that allows individuals to contribute in different ways to help us be able to leverage the unique strengths and perspectives of each participant while also staying relevant to their needs. There are opportunities for active engagement in the community—such as serving a term on the advisory council, participating in innovation pods, and helping craft new knowledge and content. Participants who are more actively engaged report making new relationships via the community that are helpful to their work and forming partnerships to advance common goals. Some participants participate in the community primarily for learning and professional development. For these participants, the value in the community is learning what other organizations are doing to address common challenges and taking new insights back to their organizations.
Provide Ample Time and Space for Building Relationships
A common mistake we have seen in other collaborative efforts is an expectation to move quickly to action and results. Collective action that has meaningful impact cannot happen without a strong foundation of trusting relationships. The Healthy Food Community has prioritized giving space for relationships to develop.
A key ingredient for building trusting relationships—especially in a virtual space—has been helping participants be able to bring their full, authentic selves into the space. Recognizing the stress of working on food access and nutrition during the pandemic, we focused on the wellness of participants in addition to focusing on the work at hand. We introduced somatic practices into Zoom meetings, such as breathing and mindfulness exercises. We facilitated learning sessions on topics connected to well-being such as rest and healing. We also set clear expectations for how participants show up in the space by co-crafting partnership principles. The partnership principles address things such as how community members navigate conflict and address harm when it happens. The progress we have made to build trusting relationships has laid the groundwork for collective action the group has taken.
Providing Opportunities for Learning and Trying New Ways of Working
Engaging a broad group of diverse perspectives is important for achieving transformational change, and yet, that diversity can sometimes make it difficult for participants to find common ground and ways to move forward together. One way the Healthy Food Community addressed this was by forming “innovation pods”—small groups focused on discrete topics to engage participants on issues most relevant to them. Innovation pods have formed and disbanded as needs from the community have emerged. We have eight active innovation pods now on topics including supporting tribal communities, intergenerational food access, nutrition education, and improving benefits access. The collective action these pods have taken have helped the community achieve some “quick wins” and build momentum for further action. Accomplishments of the innovation pods include developing a proposed community nutrition education framework, crafting guidance for organizations that want to partner with tribal communities, and gathering data to better understand the impact of the pandemic on nutrition assistance programs.
Another way the community has offered opportunity to try new ways of working has been through participatory grantmaking, where community members have come together to make collective funding decisions for grants that support the community’s vision in ways that center community and promote collaboration across organizations. One example of a grant made through the process is a partnership between the National Council on Aging and the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico. After participating in participatory grantmaking through the healthy food community, some members are considering how their own organizations might use a similar process.
Distribute Power and Decentralize Decision Making
Some collaborative efforts default to a “hub and spoke” structure where a backbone or intermediary ends up as the primary holder of decisions, communications, and relationships. While this structure often makes sense for the sake of simplicity and efficiency, the limitation is that this limits the ability to tap the power and potential of all participants.
We have worked to distribute power and decentralize decision making in the healthy food community through a variety of ways. For example, the community is led by an advisory council of members that serve on a rotating basis. The advisory council often serves as thought partners and a sounding board after we have gotten input from the full community on things like annual priorities or group values and norms. Advisory council members serve for six months and receive a stipend in recognition of the extra time they are contributing. Another example is the innovation pods, described above, that allow small groups to make progress on areas of common interest. We also have delegated decision-making to the full community at times, through activities such as participatory grantmaking, and aligning on the community’s purpose and vision going forward.
While we’ve made some good progress in distributing power and decision-making, we’ve encountered challenges as well. A large group of diverse stakeholders are not going to agree on everything all the time (or maybe ever!). We have learned it is important to set clear processes for how decisions will be made, as well as what will happen if the group does not reach consensus. For example, in our participatory grantmaking process, each organization in the community is allowed to vote on how the funds will be spent. If the vote results in or near a tie between two grant applications, the advisory council holds final decision-making power.
Recommendations to Consider
Based on the experience of the Healthy Food Community so far, we offer some recommendations to funders and intermediaries that want to create the conditions for collective action across a broad, diverse group of stakeholders.
- Stay flexible and responsive to members’ needs. Members of the community or collaborative know best what will work in their context, and their needs may shift as the context changes. While it is certainly helpful for a funder or intermediary to hold a vision for what the collaborative could achieve to help bring people together in the beginning, it is important to hold that vision somewhat lightly and be open to evolving it based on what you hear from members.
- Allow time and space for building trusting relationships. Stephen Covey said “change happens at the speed of trust”, and building trust across broad, diverse groups takes intention and time. Consider how your effort is designed to build relationships and trust. Pay special attention to the experiences of the members that hold the least power and privilege in the group. Be patient, and avoid unreasonable expectations around how quickly the group should get to collective action and outcomes.
- Right-size and customize the experience for members. A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to work for a broad, diverse group, and could miss opportunities to tap individual members’ abilities to contribute. Consider how you might offer customized experiences so that each participant is able to contribute what they can and are getting the value they seek in return. Look for opportunities for “quick wins” to help build momentum for larger-scale success. Create opportunities for learning and trying new ways of working.
- Shift power to the community. Strive for your collaborative effort to look like a “network” rather than a “hub and spoke”. Decentralize power and decision-making and consider structures that allow individuals to step in and out of leadership roles.