Engaging Multiple Audiences: Challenges and Strategies in Complex Food Systems Projects


  • Kathryn Z. Ruhf Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
  • Kristen Devlin Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development
  • Kate Clancy Food Systems Consultant
  • Linda Berlin University of Vermont
  • Anne Palmer Johns Hopkins University




Learning Community, Stakeholder Engagement, Communities of Practice, Community Readiness Model, Systems Modeling, Extension


Note: This is a JAFSCD commentary; it was not peer-reviewed.

Complex projects must manage many challenges, including how to communicate about them. In this commentary, we present and assess the extension and outreach objectives, activities, challenges and outcomes of a complex, inter-disciplinary food systems research project called Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast through Regional Food Systems (EFSNE) project. As an integrated project—defined by USDA as including research, education, and extension—EFSNE focused on the regional food system of 12 Northeast states. EFSNE’s Outreach Team met the project’s outreach objectives by proactively sharing project find­ings with multiple audiences including participating low-income communities in a variety of ways. We outline the unique framework and rationale from which multiple outreach activities were conducted during the six years of the project. We also describe challenges we faced along the way, including the tension between research and community engagement, and the translation of complex research to multiple audiences. While complex systems projects often take several years to produce results, we believe that a contextually appropriate, coordinated and meaningful ways throughout the project provides significant benefits to multiple stakeholder audiences as well as to the project itself. We believe this compilation of our outreach strategies may inform similar work in other large, integrated complex regional research projects.


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Author Biographies

Kathryn Z. Ruhf, Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group; 31 Jackson Street; Belchertown, MA 01007

Kristen Devlin, Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development

Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development, Penn State University, 7 Armsby Building, University Park, PA 16802

Kate Clancy, Food Systems Consultant

Food systems consultant, University Park, MD 20782

Linda Berlin, University of Vermont

Center for Sustainable Agriculture, University of Vermont; 23 Mansfield Avenue; Burlington, VT 05401-3323

Anne Palmer, Johns Hopkins University

Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 615 N. Wolfe Street W7010; Baltimore, MD 21205
EFSNE Project Logo



How to Cite

Ruhf, K. Z., Devlin, K., Clancy, K., Berlin, L., & Palmer, A. (2017). Engaging Multiple Audiences: Challenges and Strategies in Complex Food Systems Projects. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 7(4), 179–185. https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2017.074.016

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