Community Food System Assessment Work Begins

By Michal DeChellis

AERO’s Montana Food Economy Initiative (MFEI), supported with funding from WSARE, officially launched a three-year program of Community Food System Assessment work in May of 2022. Through 2025, we will conduct Community Food System Assessments (CFSAs) in Helena, Fort Belknap, and Billings. Supported by MFEI’s Program Manager, Michal DeChellis, and a regional Abundant Montana Local Food Coordinator, each community will engage in nine months of community food system assessment work and nine months of support in project design and implementation.

What is the value of a Community Food System Assessment (CFSA)?

A community food system assessment brings together community stakeholders who concern themselves with food or nutrition security, and helps them develop a common understanding of a “food system”, and what constitutes a functioning community food “web” for sustaining security and access to healthy food. Through our CFSA process, we facilitate these stakeholders in identifying their local and regional assets, resources and gaps, and support them developing collaborative and creative ways to leverage these assets to fill the gaps. 

Why is AERO doing Community Food Assessments?

AERO’s intention with our CFSA process is to support community stakeholders building and enhancing lasting partnerships and networks among different sectors of a community as they relate to food, so that the community creates a functional food system—really a web of connections—that works for them. The focus on lasting partnerships and networks supports developing a pathway for community continuity after the assessment and project design is complete. We recognize that every community is different. The CFSA process serves to inject momentum into work that is already happening, just beginning, or that just needs a push to keep the food system “plates” spinning. By the completion of our three assessments, we hope to have refined the process framework sufficiently to have a replicable CFSA process that is scalable, flexible, and place-based, and can accommodate the wide range of communities in our state. We have a vision of completing 15 more assessments across the state in the next decade. Talk about creating a web!

Community Food System Assessment work is not new to AERO. Legacy AERO members will remember the cutting edge work AERO sponsored in communities across the state between 2000-2005 through AERO’s Montana Food System Initiative—and all the community programs and resource organizations that sprang into existence from that effort, literally a generation ago. In fact, Nancy Matheson, AERO’s Sustainable Agriculture Program Manager at the time, is credited with coining the phrase “community food web”. Ken Meter’s book Building Community Food Webs, an excellent review of food system work on this continent, has a wonderful chapter on Montana and the early AERO leaders in food system work. We see our current “21st century” CFSA work as building on the vision and leadership of the prior generation. For many communities, the pandemic years have brought new awareness of how fragile their food access and food security is. They want to make change now, and we want to help.

Our current assessments in Helena, Fort Belknap and Billings are facilitated by Michal DeChellis, a trained assessor, working together with an Abundant MT Local Food Coordinator who provides boots-on-the-ground support within the community throughout the assessment and thereafter. Prior to starting our Helena assessment, we convened an Advisory Board of Montana experts from across the food system to help refine our framework and content for best results in our Montana landscape. Best of all, we get to leverage the 25 years of resources, networks, assets and knowledge our AERO predecessors helped create so communities can make maximum progress without stalling for lack of information or connections.

Stay tuned for Part 2, featured in AERO’s April E-News, where we’ll focus on what’s been happening in the Helena CFSA, now in its fifth session. Here’s a preview!

“I’m excited to be a part of this first wave of Community Food System Assessments across Montana by participating in the Helena CFSA. Not only has the process been great and effective at eliciting detailed and nuanced perspectives on each element of Helena’s region’s food system, but the participants themselves each bring a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge to the conversation. I’ve been learning many new things every time we meet.” –Mark Juedeman, Sleeping Giant Citizens Council Member and former AERO Board Member


Alternative Energy Resources Organization

Mailing address: PO Box 1558, Helena MT 59624-1558

Physical address: 32 S Ewing St #314, Helena MT 59601