Building a Food System Network in Appalachian Virginia

This post was contributed by Susan Clark

A previous AFP blog posting by Garland Mason entitled the “Value of a Network”  described how a strong collaborating network in Vermont reinforced and strengthened the benefit of a network for food system practitioners like her. It further validated that well-built networks, with diversity, innovation, and flexibility, offer a realistic way to tackle complex or “wicked” issues such as those inherent in the food system.

Networks can work on many levels though all share one common denominator, a desire to work together more effectively on issues that matter, such as the local food system. They can differ on organization structure and how they chose to communicate.  This blog post summarizes two different yet similar ideologies.

According to Holley (2012), author of the Network Weavers Handbook, effective networks involve four features: relationship, intentional, action, and support that are interconnecting, and complement one another. These aspects are defined below:

  1. Relationship – Connects people, builds trust, brings new people into network
  2. Intentional – Focuses on opportunity, problem or issue; engage people to develop strategies and/or actions in this area
  3. Action – Encourages people to take initiative; clusters people interested in same project; fosters collaboration
  4. Support – Sets up communication systems; helps people use social media; restructures resources to support networks and collaborations; sets up evaluation and reflection.

Others define networks as either cooperative, coordinating or collaborative as described below (Vandeventer & Mandell, 2007).

 Cooperative Networks:

  • Share or exchange information and/or expertise regarding best practices
  • Involve low risk in the interaction
  • Result in little systemic change
  • More about delivery of services
  • Participants remain independent

Coordinative Networks:

  • Engage participants in more interdependent activities
  • Interact with participants to find ways to integrate their work
  • Involve low to moderate risk
  • Result in a better chance of affecting systematic change

Collaborative Networks:

  • Involve focus on process including the interactions between participants that develops new ways of thinking and communicating, builds new relationships, and nurtures existing ones
  • Require trust among participants; a shared understanding, language and sustainable commitment to make changes for the whole
  • Include methods for conflict resolution
  • Equal say in decision making
  • Involve a focus strategic alignment of participants finding new ways to accomplish tasks
  • Recognize need for interdependency
  • Involve high risk
  • Result in greatest chance for systematic change

Using these network descriptors above, collaborative networks are more appropriate when participants are trying to solve complex social issues such as the multifaceted ones connected to a community’s food security.

Kania and Kramer (2011) contend that five conditions must exist within a network of organizations in order to effect meaningful change. Those conditions include:

  • Common agenda across organizations;
  • Shared measurement systems;
  • Mutually reinforcing activities that create synergy rather than redundancy;
  • Continuous communication across and within organizations; and
  • Backbone support organizations that can plan, manage, and support the initiative so it runs smoothly.

Exciting opportunities await Appalachian Virginia as there is momentum to build upon the existing synergies to establish a healthy, effective regional food system council or network. Our collective capacities and desire to work together while supporting existing networks can innovate solutions while growing a dynamic, equitable, sustainable regional economy. Such a network is an opportunity that supports the Appalachian Virginia Food System Council’s mission/vision: “collaborate regionally to enhance access and availability of locally produced and distributed foods”. Through our diverse and shared knowledge and interconnectedness we can new ways to affect change in the food system that will in turn achieve collective impact and enhance our Appalachian communities’ food security.


Examples of Networks 

Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet)

National Good Food Network

National Farm to School Network

Vermont Fresh Network

Vermont Farm to Plate Network

Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative

Food Systems Network NYC

California Food System Alliance Network

Susan Clark is and associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and adjunct faculty in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech.  She is the Director of the Appalachian Foodshed Project and also leads the Civic Agriculture and Food Systems minor.


Holley, J. (2012). Network weaver handbook: A guide to transformational networks. Network Weaver Publishing.

Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review1(9), 36-41.

Vandeventer, P., & Mandell, M. P. M. (2007). Networks that Work: A Practitioner’s Guide to Managing Networked Action. Community Partners.