Empowering Community Influencers

Last week, the Food Oasis team hit the road to learn more about community influencers in food deserts. From our research so far, we think that these individuals are the key to positive change; by giving them tools to amplify their influence, we can help build demand for healthy food options in places where it doesn’t exist today. Still, the term “community influencers” encompasses many different types of people, and we need to know how to most effectively focus our efforts.

What different ways are there to be a community influencer? What types of influencers should we target to address our goal of grassroots empowerment? What are their goals and challenges?

We set out to get some answers from two people who know a lot about community influence in food desert neighborhoods: Stephanie in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, and Chris in Washington, DC. We met Stephanie and Chris early on in the course of the project, and both pointed us toward holistic thinking and community empowerment as key takeaways. Now we wanted them to help us better understand our target audience. We brought with us an early draft of the evangelist’s toolkit, with paper prototypes of web tools, print materials, and physical artifacts, to help us elicit rich, concrete feedback.

Stephanie Advocates healthy eating in Homewood, the food desert neighborhood where she lives. Connects with the community in her capacities as a leader of food initiatives at a faith-based nonprofit, a researcher and teacher, and a great cook. Chris Founded a nonprofit that runs farmers markets in underserved neighborhoods to provide fresh produce, generate employment, and connect residents to community health resources.

Circling back with Stephanie and Chris helped us draw a better picture of the spectrum of community influencers. Below we share two examples of potential toolkit users. They fall at either end of the spectrum of sophistication. Identifying the strengths and challenges of each group and how different their needs are helped us narrow our target audience. In order to live up to our principle of empowering residents of food deserts, we believe that the most effective approach is to target individuals (like our fictional YMCA volunteer “Sue”) who are deeply embedded in the everyday lives of their neighborhoods.

Big, non-profit organizations are one form of influencers, and at the other end are the volunteers, like Sue, who might not have the same resources or savvy, but has grassroots cred within her community.