Building an Airplane While Flying It: One Community's Experience with Community Food Transformation


  • Catherine Sands Partnership in Practice and University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Carol Stewart Partnership in Practice; and Mt. Holyoke College
  • Sarah Bankert Collaborative for Educational Services
  • Alexandra Hillman University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Laura Fries Partnership in Practice



Food Policy Council, Coalition, Farm to School, School Food, Community Engagement, Food Justice, Youth Engagement, Community Based Participatory Evaluation


Across the country, local and regional food policy councils are collaborating to make healthy, afford­able food more available to everyone. What ingre­dients are needed for a true collaboration that changes social and racial equity dynamics? How can these collaborations influence systems, policy, and awareness in school food environments, specifically? This reflective case study describes some of the accomplishments and challenges faced by the multistakeholder Holyoke Food and Fitness Policy Council (HFFPC) for nearly a decade. Using a mixed-method participatory evaluation approach to lift up diverse partners’ insights, we conducted key informant interviews with people who were engaged with the project during its eight operating years; focus groups and participatory asset mapping with stakeholders; and reviewed meeting notes from the eight years of the HFFPC. We identify several crucial ingredients that sustain equitable community-based collaboration: changing the dominant narrative, community and youth leader­ship and advocacy, and aligned multistakeholder partnerships. We also discuss critical structural and values-based challenges to multistakeholder organizing, including issues of trust, transparency, resources, leadership development, and differences in perceptions of racial equity in an under­resourced, predominantly Latino community. As such, this case study investigates community engagement and effectiveness. It provides insights for those food policy councils and local coalitions endeavoring to build from within the community while accomplishing policy goals, and will help to further the practice of equity, community food policy and systems change, and governance.


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Author Biographies

Catherine Sands, Partnership in Practice and University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Co-Director of Partnership in Practice; and Lecturer at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

Carol Stewart, Partnership in Practice; and Mt. Holyoke College

Co-Director of Partnership in Practice; and Ombudsperson, Mt. Holyoke College

Sarah Bankert, Collaborative for Educational Services

Program Manager, Collaborative for Educational Services.

Alexandra Hillman, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Masters Candidate in Public Health and Public Policy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Laura Fries, Partnership in Practice

Consultant, Partnership in Practice.



How to Cite

Sands, C., Stewart, C., Bankert, S., Hillman, A., & Fries, L. (2016). Building an Airplane While Flying It: One Community’s Experience with Community Food Transformation. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 7(1), 89–111.



Open Call Paper